Linda Gardner Phillips
Presented in slices on elegant appetizer platters, or baked into casual delights like pizza and spinach-feta pie, cheese compliments nearly every cuisine. This delicious and versatile treat inspires smiles and pleases palates around the world.
The winds of time have obscured cheese’s true origins, but legends say that a Middle Eastern merchant accidentally created cheese while transporting fresh milk in a lamb stomach pouch under the hot sun. The sack naturally contained rennet (enzymes which allow young mammals to digest milk), so the warmed milk separated into delicious curds and whey.
Bronze Age people discovered cheese over 6000 years ago, sometime after the domestication of goats and sheep. Remnants of ancient cheese production have been found in Sumeria, Egypt, and Switzerland (ilovecheese.co.uk). Interestingly, the oldest cheese yet discovered emerged from an area where most people are lactose-intolerant: Xinjiang, China, according to the Journal of Archaeological Science. This enterprising community produced highly digestible kefir cheese 3800 years ago without rennet by using kefir grains, a symbiotic culture of lactic bacteria and yeast which ferments milk into a liquid, smoothie-like drink. Like yogurt, kefir retains the nutritional advantages of milk but also provides high levels of probiotics, which WebMD describes as “live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your health, especially your digestive system.” Today, Mediterranean cheesemakers drain salted kefir in cheesecloth to make Labne, a soft cheese packed with healthy probiotics.
Over the millennia, cheese making basics have stayed relatively constant. A cheesemaker begins by gathering a relatively large quantity of fresh milk (ten pounds of milk = 1 pound of cheese), then they add a coagulant (rennet or enzymes) and a starter culture of healthy bacteria.
Cheese can be created without a starter culture, but this good bacteria helps purify the milk while giving various cheeses their unique taste and texture. Culturesforlife.com explains that “cheese cultures rapidly raise the acidity of milk by consuming the lactose (milk sugar) present and converting it into lactic acid. This disables the already-present bacteria and helps the rennet (or coagulant being used) to set the cheese.
After the curd forms, the cheesemaker presses the cheese into shape, then often lets it cure or age. Soft mild cheeses, such as cream cheese or fresh mozzarella are ready to eat without aging. Hard flavorful cheeses, such as cheddar, Gouda, or Parmesan, must be aged to develop their full flavors.
Traditionally, most cheesemakers prepared rennet from the stomach lining of a milk-fed lamb, goat kid, or calf. Even today, the majority of European cheesemakers continue to rely on animal rennet. The majority of cheeses produced in the United States today use non-animal derived rennet such as vegetable rennet (extracted from plants), microbial rennet (derived from fermented fungus), or bioengineered rennet (chymosin). According to Scientific American, 80-90% of all cheese in the United States is now made with bioengineered rennet. In fact, in 1991 chymosin became the first enzyme made with recombinant DNA to be approved for food use. (It was also one of the first items certified halal by IFANCA.)
Not all cheese requires the use of rennet or chymosin. Traditional South Asian cuisines gently curdle the milk with lemon juice to produce a tender solid cheese called paneer. Italian cooks also mix lemon juice with milk, but add salt and heat to create ricotta, a soft spreadable delicacy that’s eaten fresh or baked into lasagna and desserts. Other modern choices include vegan cheeses made with soy or nut “milk” and thickened with nuts, yeast, or agar agar.
Unless you make the cheese yourself, it is difficult to determine how a particular cheese was produced. The FDA requires cheese labels to list rennet as an ingredient, but doesn’t require disclosure of the enzyme’s specific source. This means that enzymes made from animals, plants, or microbes may all be listed as simply “enzymes.” Other cheese labels fail to list enzymes as ingredients, or lack ingredient lists altogether. For example, grocers sometimes rewrap imported cheeses for sale by the piece, and only provide the cheese name and price.
Fortunately some cheesemakers provide clear information about enzyme ingredient origins on their websites. The Organic Valley cooperative produces a wide variety of cheeses using only plant-based microbial enzymes, as do the cheese-making plants owned by Cabot Creamery. Canadian cheesemaker Mariposa Dairy specializes in artisan goat and sheep cheeses, proudly using animal-free rennet that’s free from synthetic Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rGBH) and gluten.
These companies also go the extra step to simplify our grocery store choices by clearly displaying the halal certification symbol on halal product labels. Organic Valley offers halal-certified Cottage Cheese and Cream Cheese bars and tubs. Many Cabot products, including a variety of Greek yogurts, and Cheddars, Pepper Jack, and Munster cheeses also clearly display the halal certification symbol. Mariposa’s halal-certified cheeses include Goat Feta, and a variety of Chèvre goat milk cheeses, such as plain, fig, honey and black pepper. Many of these products are widely available in local stores, national grocery chains, and online.
Of course, it is best to check individual labels for halal certification even if the brand includes halal-certified cheeses. Or take a cue from the past and experiment with making your own cheese at home using kefir grains, lemon juice, or vegetarian enzymes. No matter how you slice it, it’s sure to be delicious and nutritious!
Linda Gardner Phillips is a writer and creative director living at the Deerpath Farm Conservation Community in Lake County, Illinois. Her specialties include food, healthy living, and transformative design thinking. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.