What makes a cheese recipe original?

September 02, 2016

Here at Ancient Heritage, we’re still celebrating our recent win at the American Cheese Society Conference, where our cheese named Hannah won the first place prize in the category “American Original Recipes.” What makes a cheese recipe original? What even goes into a cheese recipe? Educating interested folk about the finer points of cheesemaking is one of our passions around here, so let’s examine  these questions.

The ingredients label on any given cheese will read something like:   “milk, enzymes, cultures, salt.” For a product with such a limited set of inputs, the resulting variety is truly astounding! Why?  Because each of those ingredients is highly reactive with the others.

Cheesemaking is process-oriented. When you taste a cheese, your experience is  less a simple combination of raw materials, and more a carefully orchestrated chain of chemical reactions between said raw materials. Timing, temperatures, acidity levels and technique define a cheese recipe.

Upon adding the first bit of starter culture to the vat of milk, the cheesemaker has a thermometer in one hand, a pH meter in the other, one eye on the clock and the other on that vat. The starter culture, suddenly exposed to this abundant food source (particularly, the milk’s lactose) will feed and multiply rapidly. One of the chemical byproducts of their feeding is acid - hence that pH meter. The cheesemaker can control how quickly the starter works by moderating the milk temperature. At the acid level prescribed by the recipe, the cheesemaker will add a coagulating enzyme.

Cheesemaker Paul Obringer monitoring acidification.

Up until this point, all activity has been invisible - but soon the entire vat will be transformed into, essentially, a giant piece of Jell-O.  The milk proteins have changed shape and interlocked delicately to one another. Technically, the milk in this gelled state constitutes one giant cheese curd. In this unbroken form it contains as much water as it ever will, which is important to note because the cheesemaker has the option to retain that moisture or expel it. Retain it, and the cheese will be a wet one - a brie, perhaps. Choose to expel it and the end product will be a dry cheese. Once those water molecules have broken away from the curd, however, there is no putting them back in.

Hannah is on the dry side: lots of water (whey) is expelled. The curd is broken down to bits about the size of Rice Crispies, and heated to toughen their exteriors. When they are exactly as they should be, it is imperative to mold them together right away because they are changing by the minute. This is when the cheesemaker hustles! Molds have been prepped, ready for this moment when they are hurriedly filled. The curds bind together fiercely upon being removed from their warm bath of recently-expelled water. Hannah’s recipe aims for a tight texture, so, once the curds are molded, the newly-formed cheeses are pressed to attain that goal. Salt is applied at this stage, then all there is left to do is wait six months for the rounds to mature.

In its mature form, Hannah bears the most similarities to Parmesan, Manchego and cheddar, but certain aspects of the recipe set it apart distinctly from these. As you can see, there are endless points of departure where a cheesemaker has the opportunity to create an original cheese. Whether or not that cheese will be any good, however, is a hefty gamble. The classics are such because they strike a memorable balance between their unique attributes. Parmesan and cheddar, for example, must have very sweet backbones to balance their  brilliant acidity and intense saltiness. Manchego highlights the lush nuttiness of its sheep’s milk with a mellow salt level and a lacy texture. The more dimension in flavor to a cheese, the easier it is for these elements to come out of harmony: for acidity to be lacking or overpowering, for sweetness to be appropriate or cloying, for earthy flavor elements to turn unpleasant.

Steve Jones of Cheese Bar, Chizu and Cheese Annex is a long-time customer and describes Hannah’s allure this way: “When people want to try local cheeses, Hannah is quite often one of our cheeses we'll go to first because it's got a kind of familiar aspect to it. It's got an acidity that's not terribly far away from, say, cheddar or parmesan, so it's something that people can kind of wrap their head around. It's a good first step into an artisan cheese from our region, so we go to it quite often. It's approachable but complex.”

Making Hannah definitely takes hard work and technical skill, but there is also something miraculous that happens when this balance occurs. Certainly, the judges at ACS can speak to this, having tasted hundreds of cheeses in the course of a weekend. We are honored to be recognized among the best artisan cheesemakers in the country, and thankful to our founders, Paul and Kathy Obringer, for conceiving of and refining the Hannah recipe years ago.

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