It’s pretty basic knowledge that cheese is made from milk (well…along with cultures, salt, & a coagulant called rennet too!) But did you ever wonder how so many different flavors, textures and varieties of cheese are made from the same source? There are several factors but one of the most important is the aging process!
The aging period (also called ripening, or, from the French, affinage) lasts from a few days to several years depending on the cheese. In a nutshell as it ages, bacteria and enzymes transform the cheese’s texture and intensify flavor leading to the delicious results you know and love.
The amount of time a cheese is ripened and the method used is what gives a cheese its unique flavor, aroma, and texture. Every variety of cheese is aged or “ripened”, to a different degree. Fresh cheeses like ricotta undergo little ripening, while others experience more significant ripening that can be due to:
- The good bacteria that’s added to the milk during the cheesemaking process as in imported Cheddar and Swiss.
- A mixture of yeasts and good bacteria that are applied to the outside of the cheese (think imported Gruyere and Limburger)
- Molds that are placed inside the cheese as in imported Blue and Gorgonzola. To learn more about this unique cheesemaking technique check out our piece “All About Blue”
- White molds that are on the outside of the cheese creating a bloomy rind as in imported Camembert and Brie)
- Washed rinds that are immersed in a salt water brine (or sometimes wine, brandy, or beer). These liquids help generate the growth of a specific orange-colored bacteria on the rind which then flavors the interior of the cheese.
- Additional, specific enzymes in cheeses like imported Provolone or Pecorino Romano that create unique flavors
Many cheeses are aged in cellars where the temperature and humidity are carefully controlled to create a specific delicious result! These two factors play a very important role in determining the ultimate taste of the cheese. Aging of imported cheeses is typically done in temperatures ranging from 10 to 15º C with humidity levels that are above 80%. Some varieties are even stored in actual caves during the aging process or even in old beer kegs as in the imported German cheese Brandaske!
Mini Science Lesson!
During aging there are actually TWO processes going on that work together to create unique results.
Culture: As the cheese ages, especially in the first two months of aging, the culture that was originally added to the milk multiplies. As time passes the cultures grow and eat more and more of the lactose in the milk – changing it to lactic acid. Lactic acid is what gives certain types of cheeses their sharpness or tanginess. That is why older imported Cheddars are sharper, because the culture has had more time to eat the lactose and change it to lactic acid.
Eventually, all of the lactose in the milk will be eaten and changed into lactic acid. That’s why cheese that is eight months or older is safe for lactose intolerant people to eat!
Protein Breakdown: As cheese ages the long protein chains that were pulled together by rennet start to break down in a process called proteolysis. Each protein chain is made of links of amino acids and as the cheese ages the chains break into smaller and smaller sections of links. While the lactic acid provides the basic sharpness or tanginess; amino acids are responsible for the different flavors and textures in the cheese.
The smoky, nutty, meaty, deep flavors you get in long aged imported Cheddars, Parmesans, or Goudas are impossible without proteolysis. Sometimes you’ll even enjoy delicious crunchy crystals called “tyrosine crystals” in long aged cheeses – a true delicacy!
For soft cheeses like imported Camembert or Brie, proteolysis causes the luscious gooey texture you know and love. However, if proteolysis goes on too long in a soft cheese the cheese will become very soft, completely liquid under the rind, and the high level of moisture will result in a strong ammonia flavor and odor (a sign that the cheese has been over-ripened!)
Whether you prefer soft, luscious, bloomy cheeses or firm, nutty, well-aged cheeses – now you know the basics of the aging process! If you enjoyed this deep dive into our beloved world of imported cheeses, definitely check out our piece on Cheesemaking 101 to learn more!