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Cheese Comes of AgeCheese Comes of Age

December 1, 1999

8 Min Read
Cheese Comes of Age

Food Product Design

Cheese Comes of Age
December 1999 -- Culinary Connection

By: Christiaan Avonda

  Cheese is one of the most varied and flavorful ingredients in the world. The characteristics of cheese are so diverse and varied from one to the next that different textures, aromas, and flavors are unique to each variety.  The textural attributes of cheese range from those that are soft, smooth and easily spread to those that are so hard they flake off from the block. Aromas range from virtually undetectable to so aromatic they make you turn your nose. Flavors can also be extremely varied, ranging from mild to sharp, with buttery, creamy, pungent, rich, piquant and even bland profiles. From the rich, smooth taste of brie to the full-bodied, tangy taste of a Dutch bleu, cheese is an ingredient that can be as subtle or as strong as is desirable for a dish.  The popularity of cheese is exploding. Cheese consumption in the United States has increased by an astonishing 57% in the past 20 years alone. A rudimentary look at the proliferation of cheese products plays out this fact.Cheese basics   Cheese-making is said to have begun around 4,000 years ago, quite by accident, when a Middle Eastern traveler carried milk in a warm saddlebag made of an animal stomach. It so happened that the animal stomach contained a substance called rennet, which separated the milk curd from the whey. The traveler probably didn't know what he had in his hands, but he knew it was edible.  Over the centuries, Romans, monks and many others worked at perfecting the craft of cheese-making. Around 1851, cheese-making changed from a local industry to a full-scale enterprise with the construction of the first U.S. cheese factory in the state of New York. Just 80 years ago, natural cheese production was about 418 million lbs. per year. Today, it's more than 7 billion lbs. per year.   As cheese technology improved and tastes expanded through the years, the worldwide numbers of cheese varieties grew to hundreds. While industrialization of the process reduced the number of different cheeses, countries like France still have hundreds of varieties of specialty cheeses, each with their own distinctive characteristics. The reason for such variety and different characteristics is due to the cheese-making process and the ingredients involved.   Although the same basic pattern is used when manufacturing hard and soft cheeses, the distinctions come from different varieties of milk, different cheese-making techniques and the length of maturation.  Hard cheeses are developed through a process that usually begins with pasteurized milk, to which a harmless bacteria known as a "starter culture" is added. The culture sours the milk, thereby producing an appropriate amount of acidity to develop a desired cheese flavor. The milk is than coagulated with rennet, a substance containing clotting enzymes. The clotted milk goes through a cutting and heating process, separating the curd and whey. The curds then go through a cheddaring process that turns and piles the cheese blocks until a desired texture is achieved. The blocks are then milled, salted, and pressed into molds. The final step is the maturing process, during which the cheese is stored for varied periods of time in temperature-controlled rooms. A cheese's particular flavor and texture change over time as the enzymes do their work.  Soft cheeses come in many varieties within the categories of fresh and ripened. Fresh cheese is high in moisture, and is edible immediately after the manufacturing process. Ripened cheese, on the other hand, is produced by taking fresh cheese curds, pressing them into molds and letting them mature in climate-controlled rooms. This is where the very distinctive rind of soft, ripened cheese develops. As examples of fresh cheese, think cottage cheese and ricotta. Brie and bleu are good examples of ripened cheese.Development considerations   When developing a new product, flavor and texture are two very important criteria that need to be addressed. Cheese is so versatile that it can end up being the perfect ingredient when formulating for these measures.  First, cheese can be used as a flavor enhancer to give a full-bodied taste to a given product. Many products have great top and up-front notes, but lack a good body and finish. Cheese can help intensify the flavor and give the roundness that is needed to get that great flavor profile. Another example is a product with a low pH that causes acidic harshness to the palate - the fattiness from cheese can help mask the acidity so that the final result is much more balanced and pleasing.  Texture is just as important. The mouthfeel of a product can dictate whether or not consumers will like the product or whether the product imparts the characteristics they expect. Cheese texture characteristics range from the rich and creamy mouthfeel in a soup or sauce to the stretchy sensation of mozzarella on a pizza.Improving products with cheese   When selecting a particular type of cheese to use in a dish, a couple of important parameters to follow are: 1) what is the focus of the dish? and 2) what is the type of flavor experience desired (i.e., bold, robust or mild)?  The focus of the dish relates to the type of market for which the product is being designed. Is the product regionally influenced, or will it be modeled after a certain ethnic profile? When developing a southwestern-type product, for instance, a Jack or sharp Cheddar would be the cheese of choice. With Italian fare, Parmesan or mozzarella might be the choice.  If developing for a specific demographic segment, what are the taste preferences of that group? For instance, kids most often go for mild cheeses that they're familiar with, such as Cheddars, mozzarella or American. Kids like these cheeses because they look good and taste good. For developers, that means these cheeses melt well, work well in sauces and don't disrupt what kids expect from a cheese flavor.   The flavor experience of the product relates to how bold or mild the flavor profile of the product should be. One thing to keep in mind here is the type of substrate involved. The idea is to have the cheese complement and balance the flavors of the substrate in much the same way wine complements a meal. If the substrate is beef highly spiced with black peppercorns and herbs, the cheese of choice might be a Stilton or a bleu. If the substrate is mildly spiced chicken, a brie or Swiss might be the cheese of choice. The popularity of the cordon bleu flavor profile is due to the complete harmony of the cheese with the protein.  Cheese is also great at amplifying side dishes such as vegetables and potatoes. Potatoes, for example, can be made with bleu cheese ground in to give a unique and upscale flavor to an otherwise ordinary dish. Or how about brie for a mild-flavored profile? As American tastes continue to evolve, it won't be unheard of to add more robust cheeses to formulations.  Chefs and developers in mid- to upscale chain restaurants have already begun to lean toward more robust-flavored cheeses, an indication that, at least in some segments, cheese use is changing. Customers are demanding flavor, and these restaurants are responding.  The desire for flavor doesn't drop off at home. Cooking may be on the decline, but the demand for flavorful foods is rising. In the past, new trends were conceived in upscale, white-tablecloth dining, and over a long period of time the tastes trickled down into other markets until they became generally accepted. That's still happening, but at a quicker pace. The time gap has narrowed from the restaurants to the supermarket shelves. Americans have the resources to spend on convenience, but they don't want to sacrifice taste. Cheese can help fulfill their desire for bold flavors.  Cheeses are not without problems. Here are just a few:• Some hard cheeses have a tendency to oil out when heated.
• When melted cheese cools, it dries and crusts.
• Too much cheese in a formulation can take away from the product the cheese is being used to enhance.
• A cheese with a desired flavor profile may have too low or too high of a melt point for certain needs.
• Cheese can have a limited shelf life.
  For maximum control of these and other issues, most cheese-containing foods made by processors have some level of processed cheese. Although more controlled, processed cheese may not deliver the uniqueness or variety of natural cheese.  Other forms of cheese may act as better ingredients for a new product formulation. Cheese powders (spray-dried cheeses), for instance, are shelf stable and can easily be blended with other flavors, eliminating the need for ingredients such as dairy and other flavors. Concentrated cheese pastes and liquid flavorings can help a developer achieve those bold upfront cheese notes in an easier, more economical way.The value of cheese   Cheese is, without a doubt, an excellent ingredient to incorporate when developing new products. The variety and textures that cheeses offer give a developer unlimited flavor profiles to help enhance and improve products. From a consumer perspective, the use of cheese in a finished product provides a connotation of quality and higher added value. Cheese has proven over time that it is one of the world's best and most appreciated ingredients.Christiaan Avonda is the corporate executive chef at Kerry Ingredients in Beloit, WI, where he oversees the Kerry Culinary Group, which also includes corporate chef Danny Bruns, development chef Tonii Tyler and student interns from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. Avonda has a degree in culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of America, as well as a BS in mathematics from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, LA. He is a member of the Research Chefs Association and the American Culinary Federation.Back to top© 1999 by Weeks Publishing CompanyWeeks Publishing Co.3400 Dundee Rd. Suite #100
Northbrook, IL 60062
Phone: 847-559-0385
Fax: 847-559-0389
E-mail: [email protected]
Website: www.foodproductdesign.com

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