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Acidity – In cheese, a tart flavor caused by lactic acid. The byproduct of lactose fermentation, lactic acid also helps preserve cheese. All cheeses are tart, each in their own way, except for some fresh, unripened Hispanic-style cheeses.

Affinage – The art and science of cheese ripening. It involves providing the right environment, conditions and handling to develop the full flavor of a cheese. An affineur is an individual–typically a middleman, not a cheesemaker – skilled in ripening cheese after it is produced.

Aging – Another term for cheese ripening. Also used to mean "maturation" or "curing." (See Ripening)

Aged Cheese – Describes a cheese that generally has been aged (or ripened) six months or more. Aging typically causes cheeses to develop a sharper, stronger flavor, which is why the terms "aged" and "sharp" are often used interchangeably. (However, some cheeses become milder and sweeter over time.)

Artisan Cheese – Refers to cheeses that are handmade in small quantities with respect for the tradition of the cheese. Artisan cheeses can be, but are not necessarily, made from milk obtained from animals located on the farm where the cheese is made. (See Farmstead Cheese.)

Bacteria – The smallest microscopic organism. Bacteria occur widely in nature and multiply rapidly. Certain species are active agents in fermentation. Lactic acid bacteria are important for cheesemaking as they transform the milk sugar, lactose, into lactic acid and help generate flavor during cheese ripening.

Brine – A saturated solution consisting of salt and water used to wash and salt some cheese varieties during cheesemaking. Brine is used to begin forming a rind on cheese and to help inhibit the growth of undesirable bacteria. Brining refers to the process of immersing the cheese in brine, allowing it to slowly absorb salt over time.

Casein – The most important protein in milk for cheesemaking. Coagulated casein can hold moisture like a sponge, then shrink and expel moisture when exposed to acid and heat. It is modified during the fermentation and ripening of cheese to create the structure and flavor of the cheese.

California Cheese Categories – California cheeses are commonly organized into five categories: Fresh, Soft & Soft-Ripened, Semi-Hard & Hard, Very Hard, and Spiced & Flavored.

Cheddaring – A cheesemaking technique, used for Cheddar and some other types, where the drained curds are allowed to mat and knit and then are stacked on top of each other. Cheddaring helps to raise the acidity level in the curd and converts the curd into a firmer structure before milling and pressing.

Cheese Sizes & Shapes – There are a number of terms that describe the various sizes and shapes in which cheeses are produced and sold to foodservice and retail. Some common terms are:

  • Block: A standard cheese size weighing 20 or 40 pounds
  • Daisy: Cylinder-shaped wheel of cheese weighing approximately 20 pounds
  • Loaves: Blocks of cheese cut into five-pound sizes
  • Longhorn: Cylinder-shaped cheese weighing approximately 13 pounds

Clabber – Clabber essentially means the same thing as curdle, except that clabbered milk is allowed to curdle naturally by souring without adding any rennet or starter culture. It often refers to an old-fashioned version of thickened cream.

Coagulation – A process of thickening milk into a custard-like gel by introducing acid or rennet to milk. Coagulant enzymes can be from plant, animal or laboratory sources.

Commodity Cheese – Describes popular varieties of cheese typically produced in large quantities with a flavor profile that appeals to the majority of consumers. These cheeses are sold in supermarkets, either as branded products or under private labels, or distributed for foodservice use. In California, Cheddar, Jack and Mozzarella (low-moisture, part-skim form) are popular commodity cheeses.

Complexity – Refers to the complexity of a cheese that shapes its flavor. The cheesemaker controls a cheese's complexity by carefully managing the enzymes in the curd. These enzymes come from the presence of a wide variety of beneficial bacteria introduced through the milk or the starter culture. Further complexity can be created by using good quality raw milk if the cheese is to be aged over 60 days.

Cream – Single, Double and Triple Cream refers to the fat-enriched portion of milk. In the U.S. and France, single-cream cheese is one that contains 48 to 50 percent butterfat in the dry matter (i.e., after all the water is removed). Double and triple creams are made by enriching milk with cream; double cream is 60 percent butterfat in dry matter and triple cream is 75 percent. (Note: the percentage of butterfat in dry matter can be a confusing guide for understanding how much butterfat you may be eating. The softer the cheese, the higher its moisture content will be. For example, Camembert and Brie contain up to 50 percent water, while hard cheeses like Cheddar contain much less water. So an ounce of Brie may contain less fat than an ounce of Cheddar).

Cultured – Describes a food product, like cheese, to which bacterial cultures have been added to develop flavor.

Curd – The solids formed in curdled (or coagulated) milk from which cheese is made.

Curing – Another term for "ripening." (See Ripening.)

David Jacks – A Monterey businessman, landowner and dairyman who in 1882 became the first to commercialize the popular California farmstead cheese that today bears his name, "Monterey Jack." (See Queso del Pais.)

Enzymes – Complex compounds released by bacteria during the cheesemaking process that help to break down proteins (proteolytic) or fats (lipolytic). Some enzymes in cheese originate from milk; others such as rennet are added to milk during cheesemaking. Enzymes contribute greatly to flavor complexity.

Farmhouse Cheese or Farmstead Cheese – Cheese made on the same farm where the milk is produced.

Fat Content – The proportion of fat in a cheese, usually given as a percentage of the dry-matter content of the cheese (i.e., without moisture).

Fermentation – The biochemical process by which a microorganism breaks down a complex substance into simpler ones. With cheese, the fermenting agent is beneficial bacteria from the starter culture. The process is called lactic fermentation and refers to the controlled conversion of milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid. (See Acidity.)

Fresh Cheeses – A category of California cheeses that are not aged or ripened and retain much of the flavor of fresh milk. These are very soft cheeses and have a water content ranging from 40 to 80 percent. These cheeses should be stored and handled like fresh milk and kept in the refrigerator until use. California makes a wide range of fresh cheeses. Some are excellent for eating, such as Cottage Cheese or water-packed Mozzarella (also called "fresh Mozzarella"), while others are mainly used as ingredients in cooking, such as Mascarpone, Fromage Blanc, Quark and Ricotta. Some Hispanic-style cheeses are fresh cheeses, including Queso Fresco (which means "fresh cheese") and Panela.

Grating Cheese – Generally describes any cheese aged sufficiently to become firm enough to grate, such as Dry Jack and Parmesan. Several Hispanic-style cheeses, such as Cotija Añejo and Enchilado, are dry, crumble easily and are used as a grating cheese in many Mexican dishes.

Hard & Semi-Hard Cheeses – A category of California cheeses that includes the broadest range of varieties and styles, including many of the cheeses commonly called table cheese. These include cheeses that may seem fairly soft and creamy, such as Monterey Jack aged up to several weeks, to moderately firm cheeses, such as Gouda aged a month or more, to fairly hard cheeses such as sharp Cheddar that have been aged for many months. Cheeses in this category typically have a water content ranging from 35 to 45 percent.

Hispanic-style Cheeses – A broad family of cheeses produced in California that reflect the cheesemaking styles and traditions brought to California from Mexico, Central and South America, and Spain. California is the country's leading manufacturer of Hispanic-style cheeses, producing more than 25 varieties and styles. A characteristic of some types of Hispanic-style cheeses is that they soften but don't melt when used in cooking.

Lactic Acid – A colorless organic acid (C3H6O3) created by the fermentation of the milk sugar lactose by beneficial lactic acid bacteria in a starter culture used to turn milk into cheese. It gives cheese its acidity and helps preserve cheese.

Lactose Sensitivity – A sensitivity some people have to the lactose (milk sugar) in milk. However, most lactose-sensitive people can eat aged, hard cheeses because these cheeses lose all or most of the lactose during the cheesemaking process. Cheeses that are completely or nearly free of lactose include natural hard and semi-hard cheeses, such as Cheddar, Monterey Jack and Gouda, soft-ripened cheeses like Brie, and aged very hard cheeses including Parmesan and Dry Jack. People who are lactose-sensitive are advised to refrain from eating fresh cheeses such as Mozzarella (water-packed), Ricotta and Mascarpone due to their levels of lactose.

Lipase – A fat-splitting enzyme added to some varieties of cheese to produce a sharp or piquant flavor. Lipase may be of calf, kid or lamb origin. Lipase is used in cheeses such as Feta, Blue, Romano and Provolone.

Milk – A nutritious fluid that mammals produce to feed their young. Milk is rich in protein, fats, lactose, vitamins and minerals. The properties vary depending on the species and breed of animal. Cow's milk is the most common type used for cheesemaking in the U.S. At the retail level, there are several common types of cow's milk: Whole milk contains about 3.5 percent milk fat. Low-fat milk can be 2 percent milk fat or 1 percent. Nonfat milk (also called skimmed milk) by law must contain less than a half percent of milk fat.

Mold – A member of the fungi family that appears on some cheeses by design and on others as a result of improper handling or storage. In certain types of cheese, mold growth–either on the rind or inside of the cheese–is essential to proper flavor and texture development. Most molds that grow on the surface of cheese are harmless and can easily be removed by cutting at least 1/4-inch beneath the mold before consumption. It is best to prevent mold growth on cheese (in which mold is not desired) by properly packaging cheese. (See Rind.)

Natural Cheese – A term used to describe cheese that is made from milk to which salt, enzymes and flavorings can be added. It is the result of the fermentation of milk by adding starter culture, making it a food that changes in flavor and texture over time.

Pasta Filata (or Stretched Curd) – A cheesemaking technique in which the curd is stretched or kneaded in hot whey or water to produce a firm, elastic texture. Examples include Mozzarella, Provolone, String Cheese and Oaxaca.

Pasteurization – In cheesemaking, a process of heating raw milk to a specific temperature for a set period of time to destroy disease-causing and other undesirable organisms. High Temperature Short Time (HTST) pasteurization involves heating the milk to 161°F (72°C) for 15 seconds, followed by rapid cooling to below 50°F (10°C ). Low Temperature Long Time Treatment (LTLT) pasteurization involves heating the milk to 145°F (63°C) for 30 minutes. Some of the naturally occurring organisms that are important to flavor in cheese are destroyed during pasteurization and are replaced by adding starter cultures. (See Starter Culture.)

Pasturage – Refers to the practice of feeding a milk-producing animal by allowing it to graze on grass growing in a pasture. Planned pasturage describes controlled planting of the fields to standardize feeding. The pasture grasses may later be dried as hay or fermented for winter feed. Natural pasturage describes encouraging native vegetation along with any introduced grasses, thereby creating local, seasonal variations in the milk. (See Silage.)

pH – The scientific symbol of the acidity or alkalinity of a solution. pH 7 is defined as neutral, with declining numbers indicating increased acidity and numbers higher than 7 indicating an alkaline solution. As lactic acid is produced in cheese, the pH decreases. pH is easy to measure and is the most widely used indicator of acid production in cheesemaking.

Protein – A complex natural substance composed of amino acids useful in cheesemaking to form the web that holds the nutrients in the cheese and as a food source. (See Casein.)

Pressing – A cheesemaking term that refers to the process of placing soft, wet cheese curds under pressure to remove whey and minimize fat loss. Many California cheeses, including Monterey Jack, are pressed.

Queso – The Spanish word for cheese.

Queso del País – A Spanish term describing the simple farmstead-style cheese (literally, "country cheese") that originated in the late 1700s with the California missions. This type of cheese evolved as a California farmstead cheese and eventually became commercialized under the name "Monterey Jack" cheese in the 1880s. (See David Jacks.)

Real California Cheese Seal – A seal awarded to California cheesemakers by the California Milk Advisory Board. This seal on cheese packaging assures consumers that they are purchasing a natural cheese, made in California exclusively from California milk.

Rennet (Chymosin) – Milk-clotting enzyme added to coagulate milk. Rennet can be either of animal origin (e.g., enzyme from a calf stomach) or microbial origin.

Rind – The outer surface of cheese that creates a seal and helps control moisture loss during ripening.

Cheese rinds typically fall into four basic categories:

  • Natural Rinds are created by wiping the surface of the cheese with lard, vegetable oil, or olive oil so molds carefully cultivated in the aging room will develop only on the rind.
  • Rindless cheeses are made without a rind and vary from fresh cheese (Cream Cheese or Fromage Blanc) to cheese wrapped in leaves or vacuum-sealed in plastic.
  • Smooth Rinds are relatively impervious rinds that seal in moisture and seal out unwanted microbes.
  • Surface-ripened Rinds fall into two categories. Washed Rind: created by washing the surface of the rind with whey, brine, or a beverage such as beer to encourage moisture-loving bacteria, yeasts and molds to colonize on the surface. White or Bloomy Rind: created by adding white mold strains to the curd or wiping the surface.

Ripening – Nurturing cheese under ideal conditions and with proper handling to control its development over time. Proper ripening is fundamental to enabling many cheeses to fully develop characteristic flavor, color and texture. Fresh cheeses are not aged. Other terms used for ripening are "aging," "maturation" and "curing."

Salting – A cheesemaker adds salt during the cheesemaking process to slow the fermentation of lactic acid bacteria and dry the curd by drawing out the whey. Salt enhances flavor and creates surface environments advantageous to rinds. Salt can also be added through the brining process. (See Brine.)

Silage – Animal feed consisting of chopped corn that is allowed to ferment anaerobically, although wheat, barley, vetch and alfalfa are also used. In most places it is used year-round as part of the feed given to many dairy cows, always in combination with other forms of feed.

Soft & Soft-Ripened Cheeses – A category of California cheeses that are typically soft, with a high moisture content (50 to 75 percent water), but have been allowed to mature to various degrees. Soft-ripened cheeses, such as Brie and Camembert, ripen inside of a fluffy white rind caused by adding bacteria, yeast, or mold to the surface of the rind. Mild when young, these usually develop a fuller flavor with age and become softer and creamier. Soft cheeses are similar to soft-ripened but do not have the fluffy white mold rind. Teleme is a popular soft cheese created in California. Some soft cheeses are not ripened, such as Cottage cheese, Ricotta, Quark and Mascarpone.

Specialty Cheese – A Specialty Cheese is a natural cheese that commands a higher price than a commodity cheese because of its high quality, limited production and value-added production techniques or ingredients. Specialty cheeses can be unique varieties of cheese (i.e., Camembert, St. George, Teleme) or specialized versions of popular cheeses such as Cheddar, Jack or Mozzarella (i.e., raw milk Cheddar, Dry Jack, High-Moisture Mozzarella). This category also includes artisan and farmstead cheeses. Specialty cheeses are typically sold as branded products in specialty food stores and in supermarket gourmet cases.

Spiced & Flavored Cheeses – A category of California cheeses that includes natural cheeses to which the cheesemaker has added natural spices, herbs, or vegetables during the cheesemaking process. A number of popular California cheeses are produced in spiced and flavored forms. Popular flavors include jalapeno, garlic, herb, pesto and black pepper. California produces more than 80 types of spiced and flavored cheeses.

Starter Culture – Selected strains of harmless living bacteria–mostly lactic acid bacteria–that are added to milk as one of the first steps in the cheesemaking process in order to preserve the nutrients from spoilage through controlled fermentation. These bacteria consume the milk sugar lactose, transforming it into lactic acid, while enzymes in the culture transform proteins to build the structure that holds the nutrients. Starter enzymes contribute to flavor development in cheese.

Terroir – A French term meaning "of the soil" that is commonly used to refer to the many diverse natural influences on a food's flavor development–soil composition, microclimate, geographical location, native microbiology and even local cultural practices. In Europe, terroir has a more precise meaning with somewhat different connotations than it does in the U.S.

Unripened Cheeses – Describes soft cheeses that have not been allowed to age or mature. (See Fresh Cheeses, Soft & Soft-Ripened Cheeses.)

Very Hard Cheeses – A category of California cheeses that includes aged cheeses that are hard enough to grate or crumble. Romano is included here, as is Dry Jack, a popular California original often used in place of Parmesan. Cotija Añejo and Enchilado are Hispanic-style very hard cheeses. Water content of very hard cheeses will be 30 percent or less.

Washed-Rind – A cheese whose surface is sprayed or rinsed regularly with water, brine, beer, wine or other liquid during ripening. This technique encourages the growth of certain micro-organisms and affects flavor and texture. Examples of California washed-rind cheese are Schloss and Red Hawk. (See Rind.)

Whey – The liquid byproduct of producing cheese. Because whey contains significant proteins, lactose and minerals, it is increasingly being used as an ingredient in producing other foods. Whey is often used to make Ricotta.