FARM TO KNIFE
Nearly everyone has heard the story of Little Miss Muffett and her curds and whey, but do you know what curds and whey are? They're a very important part of the cheese making process, which is surprisingly simple in the early stages. Much of it can be done in small batches from home to make the simple fresh cheeses, and fancy ones like we have here at the cheese counter.
We begin, of course, with milk! Around the world, a great many types of animals are used for this, but of course most familiar are the main three: cow, goat, and sheep. As artisanal cheese has developed, other milk sources have begun to grow in popularity as well including water buffalo, camel, and even horse.
The first step in milk's transformation into cheese is to 'set the milk', in which it is warmed and acidified. This can happen naturally if left to its own devices (I'm sure we've all pulled out a forgotten milk carton out of the fridge and discovered this unfortunate event), but in cheesemaking we add what's called a starter culture to speed the process along. During this process, temperature and time is critical! The proteins and fats break down, and a secondary culture is often added to finalize the process of the milk separating into two familiar things: curds and whey. Each culture has unique and important effects, which create the different types of cheese in the world today.
After the separation into curds and whey, the next steps depend heavily on the type of cheese being made! The longer the process continues, the more moisture the curds will expel into the whey, resulting in smaller, more dense curds. Once the desired curd texture is reached, the cheesemaker will then cut the curds into smaller, consistent sizes and continue cooking them under the careful eye of their maker.
Next, the whey is drained away from the curds and from here they are transferred into a container that will allow the curds to knit themselves together into their future shape, whether it's a hoop mold for traditional aged cheeses, small rounds for bloomy rind cheeses, or simple cloth bags for softer, fresh cheeses.
One of the final steps before aging occurs, is the pressing. While some types of cheese get very little if any pressing, other types of cheese, particularly those who are going to go through a longer aging process, and pressed with heavy weights to release as much of the moisture out of the curds as possible. The cheeses are then salted, and continue on their merry 'whey' (cheese pun!) to whatever aging process is destined for them.