Let’s start at the beginning. All cheeses start with the same four basic ingredients (milk, cultures, a coagulant called rennet and salt) and different cheesemakers take it from there.
According to Dean Sommer, Cheese & Food Technologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research, cheese ripening is a complex process. That’s because there are so many different factors that come into play.
For example, each variety of cheese is aged, or “ripened” as the experts call it, to a different degree. Some cheeses undergo little ripening (think of fresh cheeses like ricotta), while others experience more significant ripening that can be due to:
- The good bacteria that’s added to the milk during the cheesemaking process (like in Cheddar and Swiss)
- A mixture of yeasts and good bacteria that are applied to the outside of the cheese (Gruyere and Limburger)
- Molds that are inside the cheese (Blue and Gorgonzola)
- White molds that are on the outside of the cheese (Camembert and Brie)
- Some extra enzymes in cheeses like Provolone or Romano for unique flavors
To one extent or another, these ripening methods break down the different components in cheese, which include milk proteins, milk fat and milk sugar (lactose). All of these factors ultimately determine the flavor and texture of the cheese. The breakdown is caused by enzymes, and how quickly a cheese ripens can be based on the cheese’s water content, temperature, salt content and more.
Cheese can be aged for several weeks or for several years. Back in 2012, a block of 40-year-old Cheddar made headlines when a cheese shop owner found it in the back of an old cooler. More recently, a 20-year-old Cheddar was selling for more than $200 a pound.