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Smile and Say Formaggio!Smile and Say Formaggio!

September 25, 2009

4 Min Read
Smile and Say Formaggio!

By David Feder, R.D., Contributing Editor

Plain cheese just wont cut it anymore. Consumer palates of the 21st century are far more sophisticated and demanding, with a knowledge of cheese beyond Cheddar and American. This is especially true of Italian cheeses. A generation ago, fresh mozzarella was unheard of outside a few tiny East Coast ethnic enclaves, and if you asked the average diner to translate the word Parmesan into English, they would likely have said green cardboard can.

We can blame restaurant chefs of the 1980s and 90s who embraced regional Italian cuisine and brought it home to excite our taste buds with real, fresh mozzarella and true Parmigiano-Reggiano. It was about that time, too, that authentic Italian cheese flavors made the jump to supermarket shelves in products replicating what chefs were slinging in restaurants.

Gorgonzola and Asiago are among the cheeses growing fastest in popularity, according to Mintel, Chicago. Other Italian types are also gaining traction.

We found a lot of interest in the past year or two in combinations of Parmigiano and Grana Padano, says John Brody, dairy food scientist and technology principle, Sargento Foods, Inc., Plymouth, WI. We also noticed combinations of Parmigiano and Romano are sought after. People are seeking to add more exotic cheeses to their blends and so are adding more small quantities of artisanal cheeses to their blends. Im also seeing more sheeps milk cheeses and seeing a lot of Taleggio, too. He points to strong consumer awareness and marketability as drivers for food product developers interest in these cheeses.

The increased interest in artisanal Italian cheeses demanded a paradigm shift in cheese technology. Being mostly protein and oil, cheese suffers significantly from processing. Protein changes its structure, and the texture can become mealy or rubbery. Oil separates out, becoming greasy, and absorbs other flavors. Worse, volatile oils become highly susceptible to rancidity when they leave their matrix of milk protein and are exposed to air.

Because of these myriad influences, the delicate subtleties of, say, a fresh mozzarella or sheeps milk Romano disappear under the multiple stresses of both mass production and the subsequent cook-freeze/chill-cook of manufactured products. With all that can go wrong with the use or re-creation of authentic Italian cheese flavors, there are several paths manufacturers of items such as frozen calzones, artisanal pizzas or cheese sauces can take: They can use real cheese, go with custom-developed dairy flavors, or use a combination of both.

The real deal

The most daunting aspect of using a fresh cheese can be simply one of availability. Artisanal cheesemakers, by definition, work in handcrafting small batches. However, while cheese may be tricky to use in processed applications, it keeps well between manufacturing and sale. After all, as the great 18th century gourmand and father of gastronomy, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, said, Cheese is milks leap toward immortality. Even fresh cheeses can be handcrafted in batches large enough to serve all but the largest food processors.

While we provide the fresh versions of many Italian cheesesAsiago, fontina and ricottaour biggest sellers in that arena are our low-moisture/part-skim and whole-milk mozzarellas and provolone, says Brody. Both are typically used in pizza and similar products, but the low-moisture/part-skim is used in most processing applications.

Brody explains that, while a whole-milk mozzarella will impart a stronger dairy flavor than low-moisture/part-skim when its heatedespecially under direct heatthe higher-fat, whole-milk cheese will leave a pooling of oil. Also, he notes, low-moisture/part-skim has better stretch and chew.

Paula Lambert, founder, The Mozzarella Co., Dallas, and former American Cheese Society president, encourages manufacturers wishing to go Italian to consider using the real deal. When mozzarella is made by direct acidification rather than in the traditional way with cultures and rennet, the lactose is not converted into lactic acid, and so the cheese doesnt melt properlyit just gets soft; and it browns excessively, she says.

Lambert suggests smoked mozzarella, scamorza and provolone as alternatives to processed low-moisture/part-skim (firm) mozzarella, as they add extra flavor and hold up equally well to processing. All are members of the spun curdstretchedand string-cheese family, she says.

If choosing fresh, Lambert cautions, the texture should be springy and resilient, and the flavor mild and milky. The moisture content of fresh mozzarella should be 52% or higher. A fresh mozzarella should melt easily and spread out and bubble.

Mix and match

Italian cheeses and flavors can be re-created in a dairy ingredient base that allows for authentic dairy labels. Several companies provide concentrated cheese flavors and system solutions for developers.

Some processors have found a careful blend of both natural cheese and cheese flavors strikes the best balance of taste, ease of manufacture and final cost. This can be especially true of those classic Italian cheeses, low-moisture/part-skim mozzarella and provolone. Theres a lot to be said for this approach, and more processors are seeking help from vendors who specialize in such custom blends.

David Feder is director of Chicago-based S/F/B Communications Group, an international cooperative of food, nutrition science and health communications experts and consultants. Contact S/F/B at [email protected].


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