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Dairy Cultures: The Invisible Society of Cheese
Cheeses derive their distinct flavors from different colonies of bacteria. Discover the inner workings of these microcosmic societies with Groupon’s study of dairy cultures.
Your body may not have much in common with a wheel of edam cheese, but thousands of tiny, helpful organisms are constantly at work in both. Many of the lactococci, lactobacilli, and streptococci bacteria that keep us alive and healthy are what also bestow cheese curds with earthy flavors, warm pungency, and distinct textures. However, the human eye is unable to witness these organisms at work. Instead, it’s only through a microscope that we can see the tangles of bacteria devour milk sugars, converting them into lactic acid and giving the characteristic tang to cheese, buttermilk, and yogurt.
Even slightly different microorganisms can yield wildly different finished dairy products. Swiss and emmentaler cheeses, for example, are known for their holes—called “eyes” by cheesemakers. The holes are actually bubbles of carbon dioxide that the bacterium propionibacter shermani expels while converting sugars into extremely quiet show tunes. Though bacteria are crucial in separating and flavoring curds, microorganisms in the fungi kingdom also help cheesemakers. In the French town of Roquefort, cool caves provide the ideal home for penicillium roqueforti, a mold that romps in emerald bolts across wheels of cheese, leaving it with a potent aroma and flavor. The complex maze of bitter earthiness is so unique that the cheese has been protected by a royal patent since the 15th century.
It is possible that some of the exact same colonies of microorganisms flavoring today’s roquefort cheese have survived the ensuing 500 years. This is because maintaining the tiny creatures is a simple and fulfilling process, whether making cheese or other dairy treats. “I’ve made my own yogurt nearly every week for more than 10 years, beginning with a starter given to me by a friend from yogurt-loving India, and using the last spoonfuls of one batch to make the next,” says Harold McGee, better known as the New York Times’s Curious Cook. “It’s a satisfying ritual of continuity and caretaking.”