Surfaceripened by Bacteria

Among the cheeses that are the most aromatic and flavorful, Limburger, Muenster, Brick, and other surface-ripened cheeses are right at the top of the list.A well-ripened Limburger can fill the room with the strong sulfury volatile compounds that are produced by Brevibacterium linens. This organism (and others that are generally present; see below) is neither added to the milk nor curds, but rather is applied to the cheese after its manufacture.As profound as is the aroma and flavor of this cheese, its orangered appearance is nearly as dramatic. In fact, the natural pigment produced by B. linens that accounts for the color of these cheeses has recently found use as a coloring agent in other food products.

The reader is probably wondering why the Muenster or Brick cheese common to U.S. consumers lacks the punch described above, despite having the expected appearance. This is because the early manufacturers of these cheeses, who typically had emigrated from Germany and other European countries where these cheese were popular, realized that U.S. consumers preferred more mild-flavored cheeses. Thus, the manufacturing process had to be modified to accommodate the particular preferences of the new American customers. Thus was born the mild-flavored Muenster and Brick cheeses that are so widely consumed today. Only Limburger has retained the traditional flavor and appearance properties of the original. Still, the preference for the mild continues even today—Limburger production in the United States in 2001 was less than 50% of that in 1980, and Brick and Muenster continues to outsell Limburger by more than 100-fold.

Limburger and related cheeses are initially made according to rather standard procedures.

Whole milk is inoculated with a mesophilic lactic culture (L. lactis subsp. lactis) and chymosin is added.The coagulated milk is cut and stirred, but the curds are cooked to more moderate temperatures, usually between 30°C and 34°C. The curds are collected into open-ended, brick-shaped forms, which are turned every three to five hours to promote whey drainage. After about twelve hours, the cheese is brined or dry salted at the surface and held in warm (20°C) and humid (90% relative humidity) rooms.

Traditional manufacturers may rely on the endogenous flora that is present on the shelves in the ripening room to initiate surface ripening. In addition to B. linens, micrococci, yeast, and other organisms are likely present and will participate in the ripening process by raising the pH and producing flavor and color compounds. The presence of Corynebacterium, Arthrobacter, and other coryneform bacteria in these cheeses is common, although their role in flavor and pigment production is not yet established. Alternatively, a pure B. linens culture can be applied. Under these warm, humid, and aerobic conditions, ripening does not take long, and there is considerable surface growth, color formation, and flavor development within just a couple of weeks.The cheese is packaged and moved into a 10°C cooler for another month or two.These cheeses can easily become over-ripened, so they must be kept at low temperature. The packaging materials usually include parchment, wax paper, and foil to minimize oxygen availability (and to contain volatile aroma).

The strong aroma and flavor of Limburger and related cheeses is due to production of several volatile compounds.In defense of these cheeses, it is fair to say that the bark is worse than the bite, in that the flavor is nowhere near as strong as the aroma might portend. In fact, the use of surface smears in cheese making has fast become popular in the United States, especially among small, farmstead or artisan-type cheese makers. Thus, domestic versions of Tilsiter, Raclette, Beaufort, Gruyere, and other similarly-produced cheeses are now more widely available. In July, 2005, a Wisconsin-

made Beaufort style cheese received the best in show award at the American Cheese Society competition, besting nearly 750 other cheeses.

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