“There are only about five days a year that I don’t have cheese, probably because I’m on an overnight plane going somewhere to eat cheese,” says expert Laura Werlin. Here she delves deep into the topic of cheese, explaining the best ways to study it, use it and eat it.
None have championed the artisan cheese movement more than Laura Werlin, author of five books on cheese (as well as its tasty applications, like grilled cheese). The native Californian left a career in television news in the early 1990s to report on food, primarily cheese and, within that, a tight focus on the US. A decade in, she has built up a Rolodex nonpareil of the country’s most innovative cheesemakers, and shows an unflagging curiosity and infectious enthusiasm for all they do, sampling around 1,000 kinds per year. Here she explains how she distinguishes good cheese from bad and why you almost never want to pair a nice cheese with a big red wine. With a new book coming out about mac and cheese, she also imparts sage wisdom on the importance of both melty and gooey textures.
How is cheese made?
Obviously, every cheese is made a little differently. But basically, cheese starts with milk. First a starter culture is added to milk to sour it, to convert lactose to lactic acid. There are two ways to do this. One way is to leave milk out overnight so it sours on its own. That’s called a lactic fermentation, and that’s usually done for fresh cheeses, like fresh goat cheese, and sometimes certain soft-ripened cheeses, like a Brie or Camembert. But most cheesemakers add a sort of bacterial cocktail of cultures to the milk.
Then once the milk has soured, rennet is added—an enzyme that is a coagulant, which gives the milk a yogurtlike texture. The coagulated milk gets cut into curds—the smaller the curd, the longer the cheese is likely to be aged. That’s when the whey starts to seep out, the liquid left behind by the formation of the curds. From then on it becomes a process of getting the right balance of curds and whey.
A softer cheese is going to have softer curds and more moisture. The curds for a harder cheese might be pressed to extract more whey.
Eventually the curds are drained and put in molds. Then almost all cheeses are salted. They might be hand-salted, they might be salted after they’ve been molded or they might be brined. Unless they are fresh cheeses, they are left to ripen for anywhere from 10 days to a few years. Some are given waxed or cloth rinds; some form their own rinds naturally.