Cheese curds are a beloved snack, appetizer, and ingredient in dishes like poutine.
But what exactly are they made of?
Cheese curds are created from fresh pasteurized milk, cheese culture, and rennet. The milk is curdled and cut into cubes, resulting in a mixture of whey and curd. The curd is then cooked and pressed to release the whey, creating the final product.
While most cheese varieties start with small pieces, cheddar cheese curds are larger and stick together to form slabs. These slabs are turned and stacked repeatedly to remove excess whey and air, resulting in smooth, homogenous mats that are then milled into larger curds.
Cheese curds have a mild cheddar-like flavor and a slightly rubbery texture that causes them to squeak when bitten into.
In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the ingredients that make up this beloved snack.
What Is In Cheese Curds?
As mentioned earlier, cheese curds are made from fresh pasteurized milk, cheese culture, and rennet. The cheese culture is added to the milk to help it ferment and develop flavor. Rennet, an enzyme that helps the milk proteins stick together, is added to form the solid curds and liquid whey.
The curds are then separated from the whey and lightly pressed to remove more moisture. Salt is added to enhance the flavor, and the curds are cut or chopped back into the typical “curd” shape.
Most commonly made from cheddar cheese, cheese curds can also be made from other cheeses like Muenster and Colby.
The Milk: The Foundation Of Cheese Curds
The milk used in cheese curd production is the foundation of this tasty treat. The process starts with fresh pasteurized milk sourced from local farms. Cheese culture is added to the milk, which helps to ferment and develop flavor. This culture contains beneficial bacteria that break down lactose and produce lactic acid, giving the cheese its characteristic tangy taste.
Rennet, an enzyme that naturally occurs in the stomachs of young mammals, is then added to the milk. This enzyme helps to coagulate the milk proteins, causing them to stick together and form solid curds. The liquid whey is separated from the curds, and the curds are then lightly pressed to remove more moisture.
The quality of the milk used in cheese curd production is essential in determining the final product’s taste and texture. The land and climate where the cows are raised play a significant role in the quality of milk produced. The milk must also be at the right temperature and pH level at the right time during production for optimal results.
Cheese Culture: Adding Flavor And Texture
Cheese cultures are a crucial component in the cheesemaking process, as they are responsible for adding unique flavors and textures to the final product. These cultures are a combination of specific bacteria strains that are added to the milk during the fermentation process. They help good bacteria in the milk flourish, which leads to a more rich and developed flavor.
All cultures have the same basic function: to raise the acidity of milk by absorbing lactose, a natural sugar found in milk, and transforming it into lactic acid. This process is especially beneficial for cheesemaking for three reasons. Firstly, the acid helps the milk split into particles called curds, which is an essential ingredient to produce cheese. Secondly, lactic acid causes milk to become more acidic by consuming the sugar inside the milk. Lastly, after this process, the cheese begins to formulate its unique flavor, texture, and smell.
Different combinations of cultures can add nuances to the flavor and encourage the development of physical attributes such as crunchy whey crystals and the cheese’s overall structure. For example, a specific bacteria strain can be added to Swiss cheese that causes the formation of “eyes.” The type of culture used will affect the final taste and texture of the cheese.
There are hundreds of different types of cheese cultures used for making cheese, and they can usually be divided into two main groups depending on their temperature preferences: mesophilic and thermophilic. Mesophilic cultures work at lower temperatures (around 70-77°F) and are used for milder cheeses like cheddar and Colby. Thermophilic cultures work at higher temperatures (around 100-110°F) and are used for sharper cheeses like Parmesan and Romano.
Rennet: The Coagulating Agent
Rennet is a crucial ingredient in cheese making, as it is responsible for coagulating the milk and forming the solid curds. Rennet is a complex mixture containing chymosin and pepsin enzymes that work together to transform the liquid milk into a gel-like substance during cheese making. The textural properties of the final cheese product are determined by the specificity of the coagulant used.
Animal rennet, which is derived from the stomachs of young cows, sheep, or goats, has traditionally been used in cheese making. However, due to ethical and dietary concerns, many cheesemakers have started using vegetable rennet made from microbial enzymes produced by fermenting fungi such as Rhizomucor miehei.
The coagulation process begins with the negatively charged kappa casein protein located on the surface of the casein micelle in milk. Rennet contains chymosin enzymes that cut this protein, causing the negative end of the chain to dissolve into the liquid whey. This neutralizes the protein micelle, allowing the proteins to join together and form a curd or junket. The freshly cut kappa casein chain then links up with phosphate and calcium minerals present in milk to form a bridge that joins the casein micelles together, creating a protein web that traps in fats and minerals.
Different types of cheese require different coagulating agents and processes. Hard cheeses like Colby and Swiss require a faster coagulating phase and a firmer resulting curd, so cheesemakers add rennet to speed up the process. The more acidic the milk, the faster this coagulation occurs and the firmer the curd.
Curdling And Cutting: The Beginning Of Cheese Curds
The process of making cheese curds starts with curdling the milk. Fresh pasteurized milk is combined with cheese culture and rennet, which is used to clot the milk. The cheese culture helps to ferment the milk and develop flavor, while rennet is an enzyme that helps the milk proteins stick together, forming solid curds and liquid whey.
Once the milk has curdled, the mixture is cut into cubes. Cutting the curd is an essential step in the cheesemaking process, as it provides more surface area for continued drainage of the whey. The size of the curd can vary depending on the desired texture of the final cheese product. Some recipes advise cutting the curds in larger pieces to achieve a moister cheese, while some advise cutting them smaller to produce a drier cheese. Most recipes will specify the curd size needed for the particular style of cheese being made.
After cutting, the mixture is cooked and pressed to release more whey from the curd. This process creates the final product of a cheese curd, which is a mixture of whey and curd.
Cooking And Pressing: Removing The Whey
After the curds are formed, they need to be cooked and pressed to remove the whey. This process is crucial in cheese making, as it helps to develop the texture and flavor of the final product.
Different types of cheese require different cooking and pressing methods. For example, Gruyere cheese is cooked in its whey before straining. The combination of heat and increasing acidity aids in syneresis, or the expulsion of moisture from the proteins in the curd. On the other hand, cheddar curds are stirred and folded in a process known as cheddaring, which minimally heats the curds and allows them to knit together while simultaneously expelling whey.
Once the curds have been cooked and pressed, they are then salted to enhance their flavor. The curds are then cut or chopped into the typical “curd” shape, ready to be enjoyed as a snack or used in recipes.
It’s worth noting that lactose content can be adjusted during this process. Moisture removal (syneresis), fermentation, or leaching with water (washing) can all be used to remove lactose from the curds. Washing to remove lactose makes it possible to make a high moisture cheese and still achieve a final pH of about 5.0 – 5.2.
Cheddar Cheese Curds: The Unique Process
Cheddar cheese curds have a unique process that sets them apart from other types of cheese curds. The process starts with pasteurized milk, which is then mixed with cheese culture and rennet. Once the milk has curdled, it is cut into cubes to create a mixture of whey and curd.
The cheddaring process is what gives cheddar cheese curds their signature squeak. The curds are stacked and pressed together repeatedly to remove excess whey and air. This results in smooth, homogenous mats that are then milled into larger curds.
After the milling process, the cheese curds are washed with warm water and then salted to enhance their flavor. They are then ready to be packaged for sale.
It’s important to note that cheese curds don’t need to be refrigerated for the first 24 hours. Many people enjoy them straight out of the bag or vat when they’re still warm, which is when they’re at their squeakiest.