Cheesemaking Simplified

Cheese Making Simplified

Cheese making is at least 7500 years old according to our current archeological records. Ancient pottery shards from cheese strainers containing cheese cultures were recently found in ancient sites in Poland and China.


Cheese Bogucki Pot sieve 400; fragments of ancient cheese strainer found in Poland, c. 5500BC

Ripening the Milk

Cheese production begins with milk from four animals: cow, sheep, goat, and water buffalo. The milk is poured into a vat for pasteurization or thermalization and heated before adding a starter culture. For raw milk cheeses, a starter culture is added directly to the vat without heating the milk. The milk is then given a few minutes to an hour to begin acid production before adding rennet to begin the coagulating process.

Cutting the Curd

After curds begin to form, they are cut with stretched steel blades that resemble a large comb. Cutting the curd must be done at just the right time so as not to loosen any fine curds necessary in curing the cheese.

Curding at Sprout Creek Farm, NY

Removing the Whey

Most cheeses require straining to remove whey. Some cheeses, such as Gruyere, are cooked in their whey before straining. The combination of heat and increasing acidity aids in syneresis, or the expulsion of moisture from the proteins in the curd. Cheddar curds are stirred and folded in a process known as cheddaring, which minimally heats the curds and allows them to knit together while simultaneously expelling whey.

Heating the curds in traditional copper kettles

Heating the curds in traditional copper kettles

Washing the Curd

After straining, some cheeses are washed with a water bath that removes any lingering whey and lactose. Adding water to the curd produces a very moist cheese like Muenster or Brick. Gouda is washed in hot water, which helps to dry the curd and create its characteristic texture.

This Medieval woodcut shows many uses for milk and cream. The center fromager is washing and straining the curd to make cheese; peasant churns cream into butter; large wheels of cheese age on shelves in the background.

This Medieval woodcut shows many uses for milk and cream. The center fromager is washing and straining the curd to make cheese; peasant churns cream into butter; large wheels of cheese age on shelves in the background.

Handling the Curd

Many cheeses that are brined or surface salted are collected into molds or pressed directly under the whey. Blue cheese, for example, is pressed into a hoop, salted, and left for a week before perforating its edges to allow air inside. Gouda and Swiss are pressed under whey, which encourages a smooth texture and prevents escape of air in the aging process. Cheeses such as Cheddar and Pasta Filata (mozzarella) are kept warm in a vat to ferment before salting. Pasta Filata cheeses are then worked and stretched in the warm water before curing.

Pouring the heated mixture of curds and whey into the colander and cheesecloth to form cheese

Pouring the heated mixture of curds and whey into the colander and cheesecloth to form cheese

Pressing the Curd

Curds are collected and then pressed into molds such as baskets, crocks, wooden hoops or metal cylinders. Soft cheeses require almost no pressure while some varieties require up to 25 pounds of pressure per square inch to form. Generally, the warmer the curd, the less pressure required, which may be another reason for cooking the curd of those 75 lb. wheels of Alpine cheese!

19th century cheesemaking tools

19th century cheesemaking tools

Salting the Curd

Adding salt is important for many reasons. It encourages improvement of curds, slows acid development, helps prevent spoilage, and controls ripening and flavor. Salting cheese follows three techniques: adding salt to the curd before pressing such as Cheddar, surface salting after pressing, and brine salting. Brine salting or washing the surface of the cheese (also known as smear-ripening) can occur once or continue periodically throughout the aging process.

Curing the Cheese

Cheeses range from un-aged, “fresh” cheeses to young cheeses that can be aged from two weeks up to two months to aged cheeses that can be aged from three months to many years. Nascent cheeses are placed in modern humidity-controlled “caves” that imitate the original cave environments of traditional cheeses. Cheeses such as Brie and Camembert are meant to be enjoyed under two months of age, as the aging process will spoil the surface cultures of the cheese. Other cheeses, like a fine wine, become more enjoyable with age as their texture and flavor intensify through the aging process.

The Cheese Traveler team selecting cheeses with a cheese maker at The Cellars at Jasper Hill

The Cheese Traveler team selecting cheeses with Vince Razionale at The Cellars at Jasper Hill

What’s Happening in a Bite of Cheese

“What? You’ve got how many cheeses? I had no idea. I don’t know where to start. I feel so…overwhelmed!”

The clarion cry of the novice cheese lover.

We all know this well. Even cheesemongers with their vast knowledge of cheese were once newbies adrift on the cultured dairy sea, discovering the delights of the open water and navigating the treacherous waves of newness.

We love novice cheese lovers. Let me say that again. We LOVE the novice cheese lover. For the innocent palate, everything is a taste sensation. Everything is bursting, new, uncharted, and unformed without words to cloud the experience. Each experience is a discovery.


The novice cheese lover knows instinctively what he or she likes and dislikes. This is especially true on the physiological level. Researcher Valerie Curtis, Director of the Hygiene Center at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health, suggests that our tastes derive from ancient forms of adaptation that draw us toward heath and away from disease. Physiologically, cheese is a really complicated substance for humans because it pulls on competing interests in our brains and bodies. Cheese is made up of microbes, many of which produce for humans a revulsion instinct. Any revulsion toward these cheesy microbes gets contradicted in taste and smell by humans’ hunger drive, which compels us toward sugary foods. Cheese, in its youngest stages, contains lactose, a form of sugar, which turns into lactic acid as it ages. The longer the cheese ages, the less lactose the cheese has; however, as some cheese ages, it develops, regardless of lactose, a sweet, pleasant flavor, sometimes akin to candy. Cheeses of this type especially are Gouda, Comte, and Gruyere whose cultures and cheese making methods bring out the flavor of burnt caramel. Novice cheese lovers experience this dance of competing instincts in one small bite of cheese. Cheesemongers find this delight both incredibly refreshing and fascinating at the same time.

If biology weren’t enough, cheese affects humans on a psychological level as well. As our tastes develop and we try more and different kinds of cheese, humans can intellectually question the disgust instinct to understand the difference between what is really spoiled and what reminds them of spoilage. Psychologist and researcher David Pizzaro reveals that disgust is a hidden emotion that drives most human behavior. What we see, smell, taste and touch can have a dramatic impact on how we feel and perceive others. Disgust can lead to judgment, and as Pizzaro has discovered, oftentimes a stringently conservative attitude. A novice cheese lover might attribute the “disgusting” flavor of a cheese that he or she does not like to the overall experience of being in a cheese shop. That’s okay! It’s merely part of the process of parsing out what you like and those cheeses that are going to give you that lingering feeling of pleasure – after all, cheese contains copious amounts of the chemical opiate phenylethylamine (PEA), which stimulates the production and release of endorphins and serotonin in the brain. Suffice it to say, cheese is an incredibly complex and addictive substance for humans! In time, the novice might discover that her judgment that “all blue cheese is disgusting” is really her association of blue cheese with a bad experience from long ago.


In addition to the physiological and psychological dimensions operating in a bite of cheese, humans also grapple with language to describe their taste experience. Food critic and New York Times reporter Kim Severson says that the first thing a novice has to learn in her food quest is to say “yes” or to say “no.” And that sometimes means saying “no” to the monger who appears pretty darn smart, and with all that knowledge and passion maybe a little unapproachable and possibly arrogant. A cheesemonger’s knowledge of cheese is nothing to be feared: this powerful knowledge of cheese can be harnessed by the novice to steer him in a better direction. Humans instinctively understand food based on a set of “benchmark tastes” collected throughout a lifetime. This means that all humans not only have the capacity to know what they like on a deep level, but also have the ability to incorporate new foods into their palate through a strong repertoire of taste memory. In the following passage from her memoir Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, Severson explains the process of what goes on in her mind as she tastes a new cheese. She writes:

Do I like it or not? It’s an all-guts, no-brain call. And if I do, why? This is where the intellectual and emotional work comes in. Why is one cheese better than another? Is it because it is a perfect example of how that particular cheese is supposed to be made? Or does it appeal on some other level? Does the creaminess and funk change how you feel? Does it remind you of mushrooms? Does it bring up memories of the first perfectly grilled cheddar cheese sandwich you ever had? And can you separate the appeal of memory from the actual quality of the food?


A novice cheese lover indeed can navigate the uncharted territory of the cheese shop. Cheese blogger Madame Fromage of DiBruno Brothers in Philadelphia has a fantastic set of guidelines for successfully visiting a cheese shop and getting the most out of the experience called “How to Talk to a Cheesemonger.” IMG_3442_2

We at The Cheese Traveler offer this bit of advice to any novice: trust your instincts! Don’t worry about being too polite. A cheesemongers’ feelings won’t be hurt by a simple, “No, that’s not for me.” Ask questions and let your cheesemonger know your tastes. Cheesemongers are here for you. They enjoy helping you in your taste discoveries and in providing you with the best possible experience in the process.




Curtis Ph.D, Valerie A.No Self Control: How motives make us do what we want, not what is good for us.” Psychology Today. Nov. 13, 2013

George, Alison. “The Yuck Factor: The surprising power of disgust.” New Scientist. Issue 2873 (20 July 2012).

Severson, Kim. Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.