Quinn on Nutrition: The art of cheesemaking

June 27, 2016

As I drove home from a visit to Wisconsin, I munched on squeaky cheese curds from the Clock Shadow Creamery in downtown Milwaukee. Second only to California as the top milk producing state, Wisconsin is particularly famous for its cheesemaking; hence the cheeseheads at football games. 

"Cheesemaking is the art of turning liquid milk into solid form." I learned from Mackenna, who guided my tour at this facility. Cheese is a fermented food; a key ingredient is rennet — a complex of enzymes that causes milk to curdle and separate into solids (curds) and liquid (whey). Think Little Miss Muffet…

Along with other factors, such as the unique flavor characteristics of milk from cows, goats or sheep, it’s the aging process that largely distinguishes one cheese from another, she explained. 

Cheddar cheese for example, originated in Cheddar, England where cheese was carefully aged in nearby caves. According to the British Cheese Board, cheesemakers in this town drained the liquid whey from their cheese by stacking slabs of curd on top of each other—a process which came to be known as "cheddaring."

Curds are the purest form of Cheddar cheese, I was informed. Curds "squeak" when they are fresh…the fresher, the squeakier.  

While the curds go on to become cheese, the protein in the liquid whey can be used as a protein supplement. Whey protein contains leucine, an amino acid that helps the build up of protein into muscles. I also learned an amazing fact: Whey can be converted to fuel that generates electricity. 

Why is Cheddar cheese yellow? It has nothing to do with nutrition, I learned. At the end of the cheesemaking process, a flavorless dye extracted from the seeds of a South American plant known as annatto, achiote or lipstick plant — is added. Hence, yellow cheddar is the same as white cheddar … except for the color.

Sharp or mild? Depends on how long the cheese was aged. Sharp cheeses have generally been aged longer than milder cheeses.

This cheesemaker has won numerous awards for "quark" which Mackenna referred to as a German-style ricotta or a healthier version of cream cheese. And she’s right. Ounce for ounce, quark is higher in protein and lower in fat and sodium (salt) than cream cheese. "I like to mix it with strawberries and use it as a topping for pancakes," she suggested. 

What about the dreaded saturated fat that tends to dominate whole milk products like cheese? Some research suggests that — perhaps because of its total nutritional makeup — saturated fat in cheese is not as detrimental to blood cholesterol levels as is butter. 

And, I thought as I munched on cheese curds, if I stick to the 1-ounce serving (about 7 small curds) listed on the label, I can please my palate and my health at the same time.



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