The craft of cheesemaking, and why you should care
Put cheese on anything and I can get my toddler to eat it, or at least attempt to. Cheese is comfort. Growing up in India in the 90s, cheese meant Amul, paneer (which deserves its own post) or the rare splurge on fresh mozzarella to make pizza. When I encountered the plethora of cheese and cheese-like products in the American supermarket, it was overwhelming! But more on cheese-like products later. I’m here to talk about real cheese - the way it was made centuries ago and since by artisanal cheesemakers all over the world. Read on for an interview with The Cheese Guy, who tells us what goes into making a good cheese, and why you should care.
Brent Delman has been making cheese for almost two decades. What’s unique about his cheeses is that they are kosher and vegetarian. For those that don’t know - and I found out more recently than I care to admit - most hard cheeses - pecorino, parmesan, and gouda as well as soft French cheeses such as brie are made with animal rennet - which comes from the intestines of baby cows. (No judgement here, simply facts - I still enjoy many of these cheeses on a cheese plate.) But The Cheese Guy has created what is probably the largest selection of vegetarian cheeses in the world including pecorino, parmesan and about 50 others. It’s really hard to find a good vegetarian version of these cheeses, so I thought this was worth sharing.
Note to Readers: This is not a sponsored post - I am simply sharing a brand that I love and is a staple in my fridge, while also creating an opportunity to learn about cheese. The interview with Brent was conducted over the phone on April 11 2022 and the below is a paraphrased version of Brent's answers to my questions. Since this was conducted over a casual conversation, I have taken the editorial liberty to present the information in a format that hopefully leaves you, the reader, saying cheeeeeese!
Surrounded by dairy products in the Midwest, outside of Cleveland, Ohio where he grew up, Brent always knew good cheese. It was close to Amish country, where he still produces some of his cheeses. Local salumerias stocked imported Italian cheeses. Of Jewish and Eastern European descent, his family used a lot of soft cheeses and sour cream in their food. Fun Fact - His final MBA paper was on the veggie burger, which he had encountered in his travels to Israel, and called it ‘the trend of the future’. This was in 1988, well before the age of Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger!
Always entrepreneurial, he started his own wholesale specialty food business and had a natural inclination to build towards vegetarian products that were on the cutting edge. Another fun fact - it was one of the first companies to import quinoa and sundried tomatoes to the US. He eventually studied artisanal cheesemaking in Vermont and started a cheesemaking business in 2004.
The objective is to drain liquid (whey) from the milk and isolate the curds (protein and fat). The coagulation process that separates the curds and the whey can be initiated either exclusively by bacterial cultures, in the case of fresh cheeses such as mozzarella and ricotta; or by bacterial cultures followed by rennet, in the case of hard cheeses such as pecorino and parmesan.
Traditionally, the rennet used has been animal-based - and most well known European varieties of cheese still use animal rennet, which comes from the intestine of a calf. However, through the 60s and 70s in America, as veal (the meat of baby cows - which also led to natural production of rennet) went out of fashion, it also decreased the availability of rennet. People started looking for alternatives to produce cheese. As genetic engineering technologies developed, it became possible to produce an enzyme called chymosin, which is the main component of rennet, via artificial methods. It later became economically viable to produce microbial rennet or vegetarian rennet.
Luckily for us vegetarians, a lot of aspects that make a cheese certified kosher also make it vegetarian! Brent uses microbial rennet that is derived from a fungus.
Affinage - the art of aging cheese
You groom certain cheeses to be raised - the longer they age, they better they get.
Fresh, soft cheeses such as mozzarella have a lot of liquid. These are not meant to be aged - the more liquid in a cheese, the more likely it is to spoil quicker - as you may have often found in your fridge, to your dismay.
However for hard cheeses such as parmesan, cheddar and gouda, when you continue to extract the whey and liquid from the milk, the flavors of the cheese become more concentrated and intense.
Cheese is a living thing. As the cheese ripens, ideally in a cool humid environment like a cave or cellar, microbial activity continues and intensifies, breaking down the sugars (like lactose) and proteins. New bacteria and yeasts - naturally occurring - take over from the old. The molecules form new structures and bonds, setting off the formation of new flavors and chemical compounds. In some well-aged cheeses, amino acid crystals develop as it ages and create that crunch you may recognize.
In his basement at his home in Yonkers, NY, Brent has created a “Cheese Cave”. It also functions as his lab where he experiments with aging cheese and figures out through trial and error, how long it takes for them to develop certain flavors and textures.
The type of milk used is crucial to the taste, texture and development of the cheese. Cow, goat and sheep milk cheeses taste very different and also have varying levels of production, cows being far more prolific producers of milk compared to goats and sheep. The health of the animal is a significant factor and begins with what they eat, eg., grazing in a pasture versus being grain-fed in a feedlot. The term ‘grass-fed’ can often be misleading - what you should look for is 100% grass-fed or pasture-raised - animals that have room to move around and come in and out of the barn as they please - are naturally healthier.
The Raw vs Pasteurized Debate. A point of contention between American and European-made cheeses is the usage of raw milk. Most of the well-known European cheeses are raw. In the US, the law says a cheese must be aged a minimum of 60 days over 35 degrees Fahrenheit if it contains raw milk - the idea being that he process of aging introduces good bacteria, that kill the pathogens - (E.coli, salmonella, listeria and such). That’s why young cheeses, such as camembert, are always pasteurized in the US.
The argument against pasteurization is that it indiscriminately kills bacteria - the good ones and the bad. Beneficial cultures are later reintroduced, but the natural complex ecosystem of probiotics that existed has been destroyed. The flavor of the cheese is also affected - raw milk cheeses retain the real flavor of the milk and its natural earthiness - you can taste the difference. Raw milk cheeses, therefore, leverage the natural process of fermentation and aging to let the good bugs kill the bad ones and create a natural probiotic environment that’s good for your gut.
If you’re interested in this topic - you will find this story about the Cheese Nun (as she is often called), fascinating.
Worried about lactose?
Fermentation and aging continue to break down lactose - so, many people that have trouble with milk can actually digest fermented dairy products like yogurt and cheese. Brent collaborates with a small Amish farm to produce a yogurt-cheese that is not aged but still lactose-free. Sheep and goat milk cheeses are generally more easily digested amongst those that are lactose-intolerant - lactose is still present, but is a different molecular structure. Well-aged parmesan or cheddar or gouda tend to become naturally lactose-free after 6 months, meaning that people that are lactose-intolerant can often eat well-aged cheeses, even those made from cows, without digestive issues.
So, how good is a vegetarian cheese?
While there are still purists that feel that there’s a difference in the taste and are not really open to the change in the recipes, part of Brent’s goal has been to disprove that. The Cheese Guy with his partner in Italy is possibly the only company that is allowed to make a Pecorino Romano - which is a protected name in Italy - out of non-animal rennet! Pecorino Romano can only come from a couple of regions in Italy - there are specific standards for milk, the grazing of sheep, the use of animal rennet, etc. Brent proposed to one of the consortiums that oversee these rules, that he would bring his vegetarian cheese out to them to get it approved. It passed their test with flying colors, allowing him to use the name! This is also true of his Manchego and I can testify to both of their quality and deliciousness.
Industrialized Cheese - what you need to know
Warnings about saturated fat in the 70s resulted in Americans consuming more low-fat dairy products. The surplus of milk fat was subsequently channeled into cheese production. Did you know that a lot of processed cheese is not legally allowed to be called cheese? Those neatly packaged singles, for instance, are labelled a ‘pasteurized cheese product’. Major R&D facilities have perfected their texture and meltability, ensuring predictability in taste. A closer look at the label reveals additives, emulsifiers and milk proteins.
But hey - this post is not here to beat up on processed cheese. I grew up eating Amul cheese and am guilty of inhaling the occasional half-slice of American my daughter leaves behind. None other than J. Kenji Lopez-Alt wrote an impassioned defense of American cheese in this article.
Why should I care about real cheese?
When we know the story behind that artfully arranged cheese on the platter, it shortens the food chain and preserves the ecological relationship between us, the craftsman, the microbes, the animal that made the milk, the grass it grazed on, the soil and sun that helped start it all. Educating ourselves about what goes into the production of a small-batch artisan product - whether its cheese, chocolate or bread, helps us appreciate it more - the craft that has evolved over many generations, the recipes and formulas that have been preserved and perfected, using natural, traditional methods. A legit Vermont aged-cheddar takes years to age and craft - think of that farmer in a field in Vermont at 3am in the winter when we are sleeping in our beds! I also appreciate that quality cheeses have more flavor - less is more when using in dishes.
How do I get started with cheese?
Brent’s advice is straightforward - “Start with what you like, and if you like it, remember it. Try new things when possible.“ It’s really a matter of taste.
While mozzarella is the largest produced cheese in the world for its use on pizza, cheddar is probably the #1 consumed cheese worldwide (as a table cheese), with parmesan close behind. Cheddar is a great example of a cheese that started out as regional product (originally an English cheese) but is now made incredibly well in many areas, including Wisconsin, New York, New Zealand and Canada. This article from the Food Renegade blog is a useful guide on how to select cheese in the supermarket.
The Cheese Guy partners with several family-owned dairy farms across the US, and also produces a few varieties internationally - “in Italy and Spain, made in the finest tradition in small dairies that dot the countryside”. You can purchase The Cheese Guy’s cheeses from the Block and Wedge website, Whole Foods and other supermarkets, and a number of kosher markets, specialty stores and farmers markets nationwide.
Bonus content: Learn how to make fresh mozzarella at home!
credit: The Cheese Guy