Beyond the Basics

Meeting the growing demand for robust cheeses relies on good milk, strong starters and quality flavors.  
by Jeanne Turner
Through weight-loss fads, health warnings and the general dietary upheaval of the past few years, Americans continue to enjoy cheese. Yet while cheddar and mozzarella still top domestic cheese production, other numbers show a slow change that reflect an evolving culture and maturing palate.
We’re eating more of it, too. Per capita consumption has risen steadily for the past 20 years, topping 30.6 pounds in 2003. However, projections from the USDA 2004 Agricultural Outlook predict this number will increase by about 2 pounds per capita by 2013. Where does a processor turn to boost sales figures?
Perhaps the answer lies in creating special flavor varieties and specialty cheeses. The Wisconsin Agricultural Statistic Service records that in 2003 close to 13 percent of cheese produced in this dairy state was a specialty cheese. Consumer interest and demand also has spurred increased organic processing. No more than a blip on the radar screen a decade ago, today Wisconsin plays host to more than 250 organic dairy farms.
Ethnic cheese varieties, particularly Hispanic styles, proliferate. In this arena, California is the leader, producing 82.3 million pounds of Hispanic-style cheese in 2003, in more than 25 types and forms, according to the California Milk Advisory Board. Exciting varieties such as asadero, anejo enchilado, queso fresco and cotija are moving rapidly into the culinary mainstream.
New Trend Research
Addressing the North Central Cheese Industries Association recently, Brookings, S.D., Barb Luehmann, foodservice marketing director of the St. Paul, Minn.-based Midwest Dairy Association, focused on “Hot Cheese Trends for 2004 and Beyond.”
Luehmann says an online foodservice survey asked consumers to select their favorite cheese ingredient choice for nine different menu items. They were able to select from among 14 different types of cheese, and rank their first, second and third choices.
“We’re seeing that born-in-the-USA cow’s milk cheeses can compete with European varieties,” Luehmann says.
Another point that came out during the research and has been borne out by sales figures æ artisanal or small batch cheese seem to offer consumers a link to the farm. And distinctly flavored ingredients blended into the cheese will continue in popularity.
But where does it all begin? With the milk.
Milk Quality
Any good cheese manufacturer acknowledges that milk quality is the biggest factor affecting overall product quality. Artisanal cheesemakers boast on their Web sites about their cows. A debate rages on the virtues of pasture fed versus grain fed animals. Some cheesemakers even tout the different taste nuances based on seasonality.
Jeff Jirik, president and chief executive officer of Faribault Dairy Co., Faribault, Minn., is producing blue cheese “the old way, or traditional way,” he says. “Obviously milk is the biggest factor, but most of our milk is Holstein and all of it is grade A. We don’t want to compete with the bacteria already present in there, so we’re producing a heat-treated raw-milk cheese.”
Instead of heat treatment, a processor might choose to battle off flavors using specific cultures. Mali Reddy, Ph.D., president of Denver-based IMAC, says cheese processors need to focus more on the raw material — the milk.
“Where my gut feeling is, the important factors are proper starter culture, proper usage, and raw milk quality,” says Reddy. “Good-quality raw milk gives good cheese.”
Reddy contends that, back in the 1930s and 1940s, there was more lactic flora in the milk. “But with the advent of refrigeration, these natural flora are not growing any more,” he says. “Other bad bacteria, such as psychotrophs, grow in cold temperatures and produce off-flavors in cheese.”
IMAC produces a culture mix called Silo-Guard™ that, Reddy says, reduces psychotrophic count, “cutting it significantly to the tune of one to two logs. It also protects the fat and the protein.”
“Taste-wise it reduces bitterness and decreases the abnormal fermentation flavor,” he says. “You want people to relish your product.”
A Good Start
Once milk quality is assured, what’s next? Starter cultures come in multiple varieties and forms. And an important part of the work of cheese manufacturers, regardless of type or flavor intensity, is avoiding spoilage, particularly through bacteriophage attack.
Most cheese-flavor development stems from the use of either a single strain or a combination of lactic acid bacteria. They operate by converting milk sugar in the curd (the lactose) into lactic acid. The more rapid development, the better the cheese, some say, while other starter cultures work more slowly and the cheese ripens at a slower pace.
When starters fail, or phage attacks, then milk fermentation is insufficient, and this impacts the taste, texture, consistency and aroma of the finished product.
So each time a culture company introduces new strains for a particular type of cheese manufacture, it gives the processor a larger arsenal of starter cultures to select from for rotation.
Degussa BioActives USA LLC provides cultures to dairy processors; more than 50 varieties make up the mesophilic program and Degussa currently makes 30 different SC cultures. “We keep finding and creating new strains to stay ahead of the game,” says Andy Dederich, Degussa’s marketing and sales manager.
In addition to understanding phage relationships, culture manufacturers need to keep in mind rate of acid production on temperature and salt sensitivity. Rate of production speed in bulk systems is increasingly important. “Some of the best flavor producing cultures might not be used as often, because everyone says I need a better flavor cheese,” Dederich says. “But I also need to turn my vats over this quickly.”
Thermophilic bulk starter systems best applications include production of mozzarella, provolone, parmesan, romano and other related cheese varieties.
Degussa’s Pro-Tech cultures can be used as a primary starter program or a back up for a bulk starter program. The cultures are blends of mesophilic and thermophilic producing bacteria for use in manufacturing of American-style cheeses such as cheddar and colby.
In addition, Dederich says his company has a program for accelerated cheese-ripening systems or adjunct cultures, as they sometimes are called. “Instead of taking six months’ time to reach a medium cheddar, we can do it in three,” he says.
To protect the cheese flavor during accelerated ripening, processors can turn to an attenuated culture from Danisco USA called FlavoGard™. This product, based on amino peptidases, prevents bitters peptides from forming by “chopping up the protein,” says Jerry Urben, senior technical service representative in Danisco’s cultured dairy division. “This gives a more balanced, more intense flavor,” he says.
Typically used for cheddar or a long-hold type of cheese, Urben says the product is being used by some processors in Grade A products to extend shelf life. The product, which comes freeze-dried or frozen, is used in a ratio of one can per 40,000-pound vat.
Research conducted at North Carolina State University by associate professor MaryAnne Drake, Ph.D., produced, through a combination of flavor chemistry and sensory analysis, a cheese lexicon of descriptive words to define the flavor characteristics of cheddar cheese.
Those research benefits are being translated into practical terms with a new system from Danisco. Choozit™ Flav allows a processor to “customize” cheddar by highlighting a characteristic flavor note, such as savory. Urben says the cultures, which came from Europe, were screened with other cultures, then subjected to thorough analysis with trained sensory panel to pinpoint which cultures highlight a particular flavor attribute. Processors can select from among four product types enhance some of the more desirable cheddar flavor notes.
The Flavor Key
Even a specialty cheese can find itself reborn with added flavors.
At Eichtens, Center City, Minn., Eileen Eichtens says her mother started adding flavors to their specialty cheese, handmade Dutch gouda, in 1977, “long before it was even thought of in the cheese industry.” The company also manufactures Danish-style tilsit, a pungent cheese similar to gouda.
Eichtens said her mother’s Scandinavian background inspired her first to add a bit of caraway seed. “They put cumin in the gouda in Scandinavia, but my mother didn’t think the American public was ready for that.”
The company has been at the forefront of many a flavor trend. Their version of an herbed gouda included parsley, onion and other seasonings. “That was the first anyone had ever heard of a cheese like that,” Eichtens says. And has anyone noticed the recent popularity of tomato-basil flavoring? This company introduced that type of cheese in 1980.
Eichtens explains that gouda, a low acidic cheese, adapts well to seasonings and flavors. Her company has introduced other types such as peppercorn garlic and bison summer sausage, while another line offers gouda cheese spread in 11 different flavors.
In a patriotic move of solidarity with its home state, the company introduced a wild rice cheese in 1999 (Minnesota leads the nation in wild rice products). “Back then it was a Minnesota thing, but now the chefs in Chicago have discovered it, to create different heritage-style dishes,” Eichtens says.
Success has built slowly and the owners like to keep it that way, to retain the essence of the quality and artisanal style that is their trademark. It is distributed in certain retail markets in the Midwest under the label Eichten’s Hidden Acres.
A Touch of Blue
Minnesota’s Faribault Dairy was the first blue cheese factory in the United States. Jirik, who reopened the facility in 2001 after its previous owners closed it in 1993, is making a traditional American blue cheese in a sandstone cave. “We were looking for a clean and creamy background with a well-aged flavor,” he says.
Jirik clearly enjoys the cheesemaking process. “You’re working with a dynamic, you have mold and you’re actively breaking down fats and proteins using starter bacteria,” he says. “The fun part is as the cheese ages and goes through curing, you develop third order flavors from interaction between the mold and the lactic acid bacteria. It develops a more complex flavor.”
Faribault’s youngest label is 75 days old, a cheese called St. Peter’s Select; the cave where it’s made, Jirik explains, is composed of what is called St. Peter’s sandstone. But far more important than the name is the influence the surroundings have on blue cheese flavor development. “The environment is huge,” says Jirik. “Our caves are 53 degrees and 95 percent humidity — ideal for creating a mold ripened cheese.”
The sandstone base of the cave, compared to a limestone cave, also has an influence on final cheese flavor, says Jirik, lending it a smooth flavor without ammonia flavor compounds. This helps distinguish Faribault’s blue as a table cheese.
Another strong influence on blue cheese flavor development is regulating the refrigerated temperatures. “The flavor develops quickly in the beginning, then we slow it down,” Jirik says.
His blue is all-natural with no added lipase. “It has a clean white background because of way we treat the milk,”  Jirik says, sharing an expression coined by one of his customers. “Complex, complicated yet delightfully intimate flavor profile.”
Some Like it Hot
A creamy table blue might suit one eating experience, but other consumers are clamoring for more fire on the table, explaining the growing popularity of different types of peppers.
Many cheese processors turn to Garon Industries Inc., Mosinee, Wis., for their spicy ingredients. According to company president Gary Griesbach, Garon’s top product is the jalapeño. “It probably accounts for 90 percent of the market,” he says.
Griesback explains that while Garon supplies habañero, serrano and other pepper types, the American palate seems to skew most towards the jalapeño profile.
Other popular flavor varieties include sun-dried tomatoes and freeze-dried onions and peppers. “We stick to real food and natural flavors, selling the actual food as a food ingredient,” Griesbach says.
Garon’s most popular product is El Gusto™ infused pepper. This product does not need refrigeration, and each particulate in the contain is infused. Once put into a hard cheese, for example, each particulate in the block has preservation properties within itself. Griesbach notes the difference between this type of product and one that is freeze dried: Once a freeze-dried flavor or ingredient thaws, there is no longer any preservation and this can impact shelf life. A brine product has a 30-day shelf life at best. Infused ingredients provide a two-year shelf life, long enough for almost any cheese or cheese-food product.
The cream cheese category in particular, Griesbach says, seems to have taken off. An infused product again, works best in this situation because the ingredients don’t leach color or flavor. “You wind up with a real clean cream cheese,” he says. Other popular flavors in the cream cheese line include salsa and garden-pack flavors that might include cucumbers, carrots or tomatoes.
Monterey jack lends itself well to flavor inclusions. In this variety, Griesbach notes, the habañero pepper is starting to grow in popularity. Habañeros, he says, are more tricky to include than a jalapeño. “It is a more bitter tasting plant and it is difficult to find a nice habañero that doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste,” he says.
There is a lot of call for hotter products in the Southeast and Southwest. “Both areas have a palate that is searching for hotter flavors than in the Midwest,” Griesbach notes.
Overall, current flavor trends that Griesbach observes include anything Mexican; different peppers, such as chipotle, with smoked flavor an added bonus; chilis, habañeros and salsa; and spices and flavors including dill weed, chives, horseradish, mustard and olive.
Flavor Factory
Cheese processors might get a good pulse of the market’s flavor requests, not only from an ingredient supplier such as Garon, but also by watching the action at a flavor development firm. Cheese crackers, nachos, dips, snacks and prepared foods might supplement natural cheese with bolder flavors, or turn to these solutions for a coating or powder.
At Givaudan Flavors Corp., Oconomowoc, Wis., Scott Olstad, director of cheese and dairy flavors business development, has an interesting list of flavor requests. He says cheddar is still at the top, followed by parmesan — no surprises there. This indicates by business volume that traditional flavors still hold the lion’s share.
Yet, says Olstad, “over the past year we have had more and more requests for specialty-cheese flavors such as brie, gorgonzola and camembert, as well as Mexican-style cheeses.” Interestingly, Olstad has had an increasing number of requests for flavors that have a “goaty” characteristic. Also popular are three-, four- and five-cheese blends, plus aged and sharp cheddar.
Price dictates movement in the flavor world as well. “With the recent upswing in dairy commodity prices, we have also had an increased number of requests for butter and cream flavors,” Olstad says.
Their flavor development starts with a fermentation and ranges from traditional EMCs to flavor extracts. Many customers will combines EMCs and flavor notes to balance factors such as flavor profiles, use cost and label requirements of customers. The convenience of these ingredients lie in both customization possibilities and the ease of including them in a formulation; they are available in paste, liquid and dry form, to suit almost any processing parameter.
A flavor company can also assist when a customer requests flavor layering. This requires very clean flavors and great precision and balance to ensure the right flavors strike the senses at the right time. “For example, we have done a cheddar-and-bacon combination in a cheese application, cheddar and salsa in a sauce application, or a Monterey jack and pepper in a soup application,” says Olstad. Within the Givaudan savory portfolio, says Olstad, there is layered cheese flavor and yeast within a cheese cracker or cheese sauce application.
Zyla Vucetovic, business analyst for flavors at Danisco USA Inc., Ardsley, N.Y., says while parmesan is popular among savory snacks, a recent trend has traditional thinking skewed a bit. “I heard that Halloween candies are generally supposed to be sweet, but an analysis of what’s actually included in that category would include savory flavors as well,” she says, “because of the low-carb phenomenon.”  
Jeanne Turner is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.