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Cheese begins with milk, as most people know. But vinegar is a key ingredient that really gets the process going. Vinegar is what encourages the milk to curdle and give cheese an acidic flavor. Before vinegar, bacteria was used to produce the acid. Using bacteria is a lengthier process and the cheese continues to increase in flavor as it ages. Some of the most expensive cheeses are still made with acid-producing bacteria instead of vinegar.
Many cheeses can be made with vinegar, including the simplest of all, cottage cheese. Cottage cheese does not require rennet, which is an enzyme that helps to harden the cheese curds. This enzyme is derived from calf stomachs, as they have natural enzymes for processing cow milk. But rennet, as well as acid-producing bacteria, is temperature sensitive and requires several steps in processing. Vinegar bypasses several of these steps, leading straight to the cooking step. Harder cheeses also require the time-consuming process of draining, pressing, and drying the cheese, in addition to aging for several months.
Regardless of whether bacteria, enzymes, or vinegar are used, it all has to start with the milk. Fresh cow’s milk is the best for cheese making. Excellent cheese can also be made from the milk of goats, sheep, mares, and camels.
If fresh milk is not available, anyone who wants to make their own milk can do so with the milk found on grocery store shelves. Commercial milk is harder to work with because it is pasteurized, killing both the flora and fauna that help in the production of the milk. It deters from the resulting flavor of the cheese. However, pasteurizing provides the benefit of safety because it kills bacteria and other unpleasant microorganisms that could potentially make people sick.
Commercial milk is also homogenized, making it harder to produce cheese from. To homogenize means to break up the fat lipids into such a tiny size that they will never separate like they naturally would in fresh milk. This can cause the cheese to turn out waxy and sticky. Using skim milk and replacing the fat with whipping cream can help to improve the resulting texture of the cheese.
Stay tuned for Part 2 for more information on the making of cheese.
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