From Cheese to SauceFrom Cheese to Sauce
March 1, 2005
From Cheese to Sauce
By Allison Rittman, C.R.C.
After three years of marooned isolation in the Robert Louis Stevenson classic "Treasure Island," Ben Gunn reveals that "many's the long night I've dreamed of cheese -- toasted, mostly."
For centuries people have waxed quixotic on cheese, toasted or otherwise. It takes many forms, including a wide variety of sauces to accent appetizers, side dishes, entrées and even desserts. But it all starts with the cheese itself, whether natural or processed.
Cheese making is an ancient tradition, thought to date back as early as 2300 B.C. It is theorized that the process that creates cheese was discovered after a traveling Arabian merchant used a bag made out of a sheep's stomach to carry milk for his journey. The stomach-bag inherently contained rennet, an enzyme that causes milk to curdle, and the first cheese was made, even if by mistake. This discovery led to the development of natural cheese and opened the door to many new products.
By making cheese out of milk, a new product was developed that had a longer shelf life than milk that was also easier to transport. Cheese making was done on a very small scale, using local milk resources, including cheese made from yaks, sheep, goats, water buffalo and cows.
In the mid 19th century, dairy cooperatives began to form in New York as a way to become more efficient, creating the first cheese-manufacturing facilities in the Untied States. As people migrated west, many found the fertile soils of Wisconsin to be conducive to raising livestock, and subsequently, cheese making.
Around 50 years later, commercial versions of microbial cultures and rennet became available, allowing the growth of mass cheese production. Natural cheese was the most-common form until James L. Kraft first introduced processed cheese to the public. His patent for processed cheese -- "Process of Sterilizing Cheese and an Improved Product Produced by Such Process" -- in 1916 created a product that was more consistent and had a longer shelf life than natural cheese. Kraft took his formula to the U.S. Army, selling 6 million pounds of the processed-cheese product. World War I soldiers became familiar with the product and developed a taste for processed cheese. Then, when the Depression arrived, processed cheese was an inexpensive alternative to the hard-to-find and costly natural cheeses. For manufacturers, it offered a way to easily add cheese flavor to products using a friendlier ingredient that could withstand harsher manufacturing conditions and processes.
In the mid 1930s, milk pasteurization changed the cheese industry once again, providing a safe milk source for large-scale cheese production. Around that time, recipes with cheese sauces became much easier to make: prepackaged macaroni-and-cheese containing a powdered-cheese packet was on the retail store shelves, along with canned macaroni-and-cheese. As manufacturing and flavor methods and techniques improved, more retail products were made available to the public, most focusing on convenience and saving time. Condensed Cheddar soup that could become a component of a cheesy sauce, jarred nacho cheese, spreads and dips, dry-mix and shelf-stable jarred Alfredo sauces, refrigerated pesto with Parmesan cheese, box mixes for rice and noodle side dishes with cheesy sauces, Cheddar sprinkle-on seasonings, frozen entrées with cheese sauces, cheese-filled hand-held pastry pockets, and many other products offered convenience and affordability to the average consumer who increasingly devoted less time to meal preparation.
Inside the round
Natural cheeses are all produced through a series of steps involving curd formation and ripening. The federal Standards of Identity describe the main varieties of cheese and regulate the ingredients, manufacturing procedures and final composition (moisture and fat). Cheeses that do not fall into a category defined by a generic name are classified by their degree of hardness.
Many types of natural cheese pair well with sauce applications. Harder, aged cheeses can add a flavor punch with just a small amount. Asiago cheese, an Italian cheese, has a nutty, lipase-generated flavor that can shine in a cream sauce. Parmesan cheese, another Italian variety, is a complex aged cheese, typically with fruity, nutty and savory notes. It is delicate enough to pair with a light sauce, such as a lemon beurre blanc, but also flavorful enough to add to a pesto to enhance the flavor. Even mild, high-moisture, high-fat mozzarella can add a wonderful mouthfeel and silky texture to a sauce. Bolder-flavored cheeses, such as Romano or smoked Cheddar, can cut through a rich tomato sauce, giving it a unique twist.
Bolder-flavor cheeses are becoming more popular and more mainstream. Product designers and chefs can introduce these new, assertive flavors with little risk by pairing them with familiar dishes. For example, they can transform macaroni-and-cheese into something special by adding a three-cheese blend of Parmesan, Asiago and Romano instead of the usual mild Cheddar or American-style processed types. Alfredo sauce with a creamy, mild blue cheese creates a whole new fettuccine Alfredo with an upscale flair.
Hispanic cheeses are also becoming very popular. Their typically mild flavor and great meltability are perfect to incorporate into mainstream cheese sauces for pasta, casseroles, side dishes, snacks, dips or center-of-the-plate proteins.
Processed cheese is made from a blend of aged and green (unripened) cheeses ground into small pieces; heated with emulsifiers to add stability, plus salt and preservatives; and then pasteurized and packaged while still hot. By law, pasteurized, processed cheese must contain no more than 1% added moisture and at least as much fat as the natural cheese from which it is made. The most-common type is American, which is traditionally made from blending Cheddar and other cheeses, including Swiss.
Manufacturers and chefs can add flavors, inclusions or flavorful ingredients to processed cheese to create sauces. For example, fruit pairs well with creamy, mild, processed cheese. Pepperoni, chipotles and diced vegetables are just a few of the other ingredients that can turn standard processed cheese into a fun and unique value-added product. Southwestern nachos topped with a chipotle-Cheddar sauce creates a flavorful snack. Try a mild, processed Jack cheese sauce with garden vegetables on panini for a new sandwich twist.
Besides natural or the various processed types, dried and spray-dried cheese, as well as EMC (enzyme-modified cheese) and liquid flavors, can introduce cheese flavor into a sauce. For EMCs, the manufacturer adds specific proteases and lipases to natural cheese along with emulsifying salts to form a slurry. The slurry is incubated to allow the enzymes to break down the proteins and fats. Then the proteases and lipases are inactivated by heat. The emulsifying agents also help avoid separation that can occur when using natural cheese.
Processing the choices
Natural cheese also can be expensive, and cheese prices have a tendency to fluctuate a great deal. Natural cheese also requires cold storage, which might be a downside for some manufacturers, and has a shorter shelf life than processed cheese. In a sauce, natural cheeses can sometimes impart a grainy texture or mouthfeel.
Product designers typically use cheese flavors at low levels in sauces, and this can reduce costs. At low use levels, cheese flavors also add less calories and fat to the final product. They might impart bitterness or off-notes when used at higher levels, so they require careful testing in the final application to deliver the right amount of cheese flavor without imparting other notes that can give the product an undesirable flavor profile.
In some applications, such as dry-mix sauces, high-moisture, natural cheese is impractical. Dried flavors are low in moisture and are a good way to add cheese flavor without adding additional moisture to the final product.
So with all these other low-cost alternatives, why use natural cheese? Natural cheese has its advantages, too. In a sauce, natural cheeses offer a smooth, fatty mouthfeel, browning and/or blistering and stringiness. Also, the flavor of a natural cheese can be hard to mimic. Most natural-cheese flavor is developed by enzymatic breakdown, making it difficult to duplicate the nuances that result from these complex and little-understood reactions that develop the flavor compounds.
Scaling-up the sauce
It is important to cook sauces containing natural cheese at low or medium temperatures to help avoid this situation. More of the protein breaks down in hard, aged, natural cheeses, so they are less susceptible to separation in applications. This protein breakdown also makes these cheeses easier to solublize in a sauce.
Fat and water content also play a role in how easily the cheese can incorporate into the sauce. The higher the fat and water content of a cheese, the easier it is to blend into a sauce or liquid. Since natural cheese typically contains enzymes, it can be important for manufacturers to add the cheese to a sauce before it is heated. The heat will inactivate most of the enzymes in the cheese, so these enzymes cannot alter the flavor or consistency of the final product.
Acidity can also be very important in stabilizing a cheese sauce. A classic example is fondue. A fondue is a warm dipping sauce traditionally made from Swiss cheese and kirschwasser, a cherry-flavored brandy. The alcohol lowers the boiling point of the sauce and keeps the proteins from curdling.
One disadvantage of using natural cheese is the refrigerated storage required. With high cheese prices, manufacturers are also interested in a way to buy cheese at lower prices to store for future use.
Freezing cheese may be one option. Freezing certain cheeses is possible, but might cause some negative effects. Cheese must be frozen as quickly as possible to prevent it from becoming crumbly. It is also susceptible to moisture loss, so it should be well wrapped. Higher-moisture cheeses typically do not freeze well. The flavor of aged cheese is not affected as much by freezing due to the lower moisture content, but freezing and thawing can have a negative effect on the body and texture of an aged cheese. Slowly thaw frozen cheese in the refrigerator. Cheese that has been frozen will tend to be softer after thawing, harder to shred (crumbly) and prone to browning faster. This effect also applies to cheese sauces, so manufacturers will need to adjust processing parameters when working with previously frozen natural-cheese sauces to avoid any undesired browning. Such cheese sauces can also exhibit a somewhat "baked" flavor or bitter burnt notes with an overall darkening effect in the finished sauce.
Another alternative is to formulate with processed cheese. Using processed cheese in sauces makes it easy to obtain a smooth and silky texture. This doesn't mean all of the natural cheese has to be removed from the recipe or formula. Even a small amount of processed cheese added to a sauce with natural cheese can help keep the sauce from separating.
Obviously, manufacturers have many factors to consider when developing cheese sauces in a plant setting. The flavorful, rich sauces made in a restaurant kitchen are not easy to duplicate in a manufacturing setting with limitations of cost, storage, intended flavor and quality, as well as equipment limitations. By understanding the raw materials used in manufacturing cheese sauces, it is easier to make a choice to create a quality prouct that has the most important quality of all: great flavor.
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