Some topics seem to come up so often I thought they might be worth discussing in this column. A few of my most frequently asked questions follow. Perhaps I might answer one of yours.

The Origins of Cheese

Originally, one of the most important reasons for making cheese was to store milk. A cow needs to be milked seven days a week without fail, but often a farmer could not get his milk to market every day. There could be many reasons for this: not enough time in a day, bad weather, spotty customer needs, travel restrictions and so forth. By making cheese, a farmer could prolong the shelf life of his milk and sell it when the timing was more amenable. In addition, turning milk into cheese reduced the need of maintaining cool storage since cheese keeps in warmer conditions much better than milk.

Another great benefit in making cheese from milk was the ten-to-one reduction in storage capacity. It takes ten units of milk to make one unit of cheese. A mere one tenth the space was needed to store cheese. By the way, this is also why milk with a butterfat content of 4.5% yields a cheese with approximately 45% butterfat,  after the whey is removed.

Actual Butterfat in Cheese

Most people assume that a creamy – almost runny – single crème Brie with 45-50% butterfat will contain more fat than a hard, dry Cheddar or Parmigiano Reggiano that is also labeled with 45-50% fat. This is not so. Butterfat content is determined by the percentage of solids in cheese with all the liquids removed, or in dry matter (IDM). Most French cheeses will be labeled by percentage amount of Matière Grasse (amount of fat).

Since Brie contains much higher moisture content than hard cheeses, it actually contains lower butterfat content, even though it appears creamier and richer. As a general rule, if you divide the butterfat content of a labeled cheese by two, you will get the butterfat content of a cheese in its actual present condition. Hence, a Brie labeled 60% butterfat IDM, or 60% Matière Grasse, will be about 30% butterfat in its current state.

The difference between Brie and Camembert

The fact is, there is no difference. Both cheeses are made from the exact same recipe; they are, however, made in two different regions. If both cheeses were aged for the same amount of time and kept in identical conditions, you would not be able to taste the difference. Of course, milk quality can vary, and that would make a difference. If you are going to bake a Brie or Camembert in pastry, be concerned only about the cheese’s condition, not the name. Remember, a cheese too runny is a sign of over-ripeness, and it will only become even runnier when heated.

The Difference between Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano

Parmigiano Reggiano is a partially skimmed raw milk, or thermolyzed, cheese made from cow’s milk. Cheese producers make this cheese from a blend of morning whole milk and the previous night’s milk that has been naturally skimmed by removing the cream that has risen to the top. This creates a cheese with a butterfat content ranging between 28 to 32 percent.

The D.O.C. classification of this cheese means it meets strict Italian laws that have been in existence since 1955. In addition to preserving Italy’s cheese quality and traditions, the classification protects the names, origins, production methods and characteristics of each cheese. This D.O.C. rating also protects Italian wines in the same matter.

Grana Padano is another cheese sold very often for the same purpose. There are, however, many differences between the two cheeses. In the production of Grana Padana, there is much less control over cow breeds or where the milk comes from. Milk used in the making of this cheese can be gathered over several days. Also, cows are often fed silage and there is also little control over the feed used. Silage is never fed to cows in the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Additionally, Grana Padano is usually a younger cheese (aged for 8 to 20 months). It has a much milder taste and contains less fat. You will often find these wheels in the same size and appearance of a Parmigiano-Reggiano wheel, but they will be missing the stencil on the outside of the cheese labeling them as such.

Grana Padano sells for two thirds the price of a Parmigiano Reggiano and is often used to save on cost. It is generally used for cooking and grating, but not as an eating cheese. You will not generally find it shaved on Caesar salads. It is, however, fairly consistent in production, which gives it a quality point. Over the years I have enjoyed some good-tasting Granas, but this cheese definitely falls into the “Try before you buy” category. If given the chance, try both cheeses at time of purchase. Then you can decide what tastes best for you.

Color in Cheese

All cheese is naturally white in color. If you see a yellow-orange or reddish hue in a cheese, you can safely assume that a coloring agent was added. The most common coloring agent is annatto, which is a natural color derived from the seeds of the Achiote tree, native to tropical and sub-tropical areas of the world.

Did you Know?


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