Friday, July 26, 2013

Why Use Starter Cultures?

There are as many recipes for making cheese without cultures on the Web as there are with cultures.  Alternative starting agents include lemon juice (Panir & Lemon Cheese), vinegar (Queso Blanco), citric acid (30 Minute Mozzarella & Ricotta) and tartaric acid (Mascarpone).  All these recipes can be found in our book, Home Cheese Making.

There are also many recipes using cultures from buttermilk, sour cream, and yogurt.  The problem with these is twofold:
1) You don't know the concentration of bacteria in the brand you are using and it may vary from brand to brand, and

2) There are other bacteria in the product which may compete with the bacteria you are hoping to use.  The only real advantage is the convenience of not having to purchase cultures.

So, why do we use specific cultures to make most of the hard cheeses and many of the soft ones as well?

Soft Cheeses

For the soft cheeses, we prefer to use cultures because the milk does not have to be heated to as high a temperature as it would be otherwise.  If we go to a farm to buy raw milk, we do not want to heat it to 185F to make cheese because we know it is tastier and healthier the way it is.

With most of our soft cheese cultures, the milk does not need to be heated above room temperature.  This applies to our chevre, fromage blanc, fromagina, creme fraiche, sour cream and buttermilk cultures.  (Even mascarpone made with our creme fraiche culture gets heated to 86F, well within the "raw" boundary of 120F.)

Hard Cheeses

For the hard cheeses, there are more important reasons to use specific cultures;  1) taste, 2) texture, and 3) rind development.  The companies that make starter cultures have isolated specific strains of starter bacteria to improve flavor and they have eliminated the ones that produce bitterness.   So, when you buy a packet of culture, you already have an advantage over a cheese maker who is relying on store bought buttermilk to make their cheese.
Of course, even if you are using cultures, it's always a good idea to take notes.  (I know I have told you this story before, but it bears repeating.)  Years ago I made soft cheese from one of the many culture packets we had in the NECS freezer.  It could have been fromage blanc, fromagina, creme fraiche, chevre even - I wasn't paying attention because I was making a cheesecake for one of Ricki's workshops and I knew any one of them would work.
When it was done, it was absolutely the best cheesecake I have ever made.  Ricki and I ended up eating most of it before the workshop - it was that good.  Well, as you may have guessed by now, I have never been able to make that cheesecake since.   I have no clue how I did it!

This heartache is magnified tenfold when you are talking about a hard cheese.  It may seem like fun to just throw in some buttermilk for your starter and see how it tastes later, but what if it's spectacular?  After 6 months, can you remember what brand you used and will you be able to get it at the exact stage of freshness (bacteria count) ever again?

If you are going to care for a cheese for 6 months to a year or more, you want to be pretty sure it tastes the way you want it to.  Most importantly, you want to be able to make that really spectacular cheese again and again, knowing that the results will be just as fabulous every time.

Cultures last 2 years in the freezer, so it is not really that inconvenient to buy them and have them on hand.  If you make a lot of cheese and you are concerned about the price, buy the re-culturable mesophilic and thermophilic packets to make your own mother cultures.  Freeze a batch in ice cube trays and use the same number of cubes every time you make cheese.  (When you notice them beginning to lose effectiveness, start over with a new packet of culture.)

This method can be very cost effective if you make a LOT of cheese.  Potential problems can be 1) contamination from exposure to air over time, and 2) the inevitable decrease in the amount of activity of the bacteria over time.  So, you won't have the same degree of control over your results as you have with the direct set cultures.  But, if you don't really care about that and you just want to use your excess milk to make a few basic cheeses, making mother cultures may be the way for you to go.

Finally, one more point, and this is the most important one - we at New England Cheesemaking Supply Company want to be clear that whether you are making your cheese with cultures or using anything else in the world as a starter - Happy Cheese Making!!!

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