Glossary of Cheese Terms


These definitions are original versions done for my client the California Milk Advisory Board

Anaerobic – An organism that can live without oxygen. In cheese, it refers to cheese that can mature within the vacuum seal created by plastic wrapping.

Acidity – In cheese, a tart flavor caused by lactic acid. The byproduct of lactic fermentation, lactic acid is what preserves the nutrients of milk in cheese. All cheeses are tart, each in their own way.

Affinage – The art and science of proper 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.” (See Ripening.)

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 are very widely diffused in nature and multiply with marvelous rapidity. Certain species are active agents in fermentation. Important to cheese are the lactic acid bacteria as they transform the milk sugar lactose into lactic acid.

Batch Culture – Starter culture made by creating a batch of living culture that is then kept isolated and from which the cheesemaker draws enough each day to make that day’s cheese. Batch culture is a hybrid of traditional indigenous cultures and modern laboratory-developed cultures to allow some native bacteria the opportunity to grow in the starter.

Brine – A 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 grown of undesirable bacteria. Brining refers to the process of immersing the cheese in brine to slowly absorb salt over time.

Butterfat (or milk fat) – The fat in milk that consists of fatty acids and vitamins. The butterfat content of the milk influences cheese flavor and texture and varies according to the type and breed of animal. Most of the fatty acids in butterfat fuel energy rather than store fat in the body.

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

Cheddaring – A technique where the drained curds are folded on top of each other a number of times and left to sit. Cheddaring raises the acidity level in the curd before pressing in order to knit the curds so they mature into the soft, crumbly texture that characterizes cheddar.

Chymosin (pronounced “kye'-ma-sen”) – An enzyme that occurs naturally in the inner lining of the stomachs of ruminant animals or is produced in the laboratory through the fermentation of special microbes. Like most enzymes, chymosin breaks down as the cheese matures. It has little impact on flavor. (Microbial chymosin is sometimes called “vegetarian rennet” and is Kosher approved.) (See Rennet)

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 – Separating the curd from the whey by introducing acid or rennet to milk. Coagulant enzymes can be from plant, animal, or laboratory sources. While very important to cheesemaking, most coagulants have only a small influence on flavor.

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.

Creams – as in Single, Double and Triple – 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. As an example, Camembert and Brie contain up to 50 percent water. Hard, dry cheeses like Parmesan contain much less. So an ounce of Brie may contain less fat than an ounce of Parmesan).

Cultured – Describes a food product, like cheese, to which bacterial cultures have been added to control fermentation and preserve the good qualities and flavor of milk. Milk can be cultured by adding a laboratory prepared bacterial starter directly to the vat, or in batches, or by letting it sour naturally.

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

Curing – Another term for “ripening.” (See ripening)

Direct Vat Culture – Describes laboratory cultures (usually frozen or freeze-dried) that are added directly into the vat in cheesemaking.

Enzymes – Complex compounds released by bacteria during the cheesemaking process that help to break down proteins (proteolytic) or fats (lipolytic). Enzymes contribute to flavor complexity.

Farmhouse Cheese or Farmstead Cheese – Cheese made on the same farm where the milk is produced. (See Artisan Cheese)

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 and enzymes that create the starter culture. The process is called lactic fermentation and refers to the controlled conversion of milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid. (See Acidity)

Indigenous Culture – Starter culture made by the fermentation of milk from naturally occurring bacteria found in a particular location. Indigenous cultures are made by letting milk sour then using it to inoculate batches of milk, choosing the batch that is the most lively to make the mother culture. Indigenous cultures are generally resistant to phage and tend to create variations in the cheese that may be desirable for small artisan producers. Larger producers requiring standardized results typically do not use indigenous cultures. (See Phage)

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. In cheese, it preserves the nutrients of milk.

Lactose – Milk sugar.

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 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.

Mold – A member of the fungi family that appears on some cheeses by design and on others as a result of poor 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 cheeses as a result of poor handling and storage are harmless and can simply be brushed, wiped or trimmed off before consumption. (See Storing Cheese Lecture)

Natural vs. Processed CheeseNatural cheese contains only milk, salt, enzymes and flavorings; no artificial preservatives are added. It is the result of the natural fermentation of milk, making it a living food that changes in flavor and texture over time. Processed cheese, which is also called Processed Cheese Food, is made by combining batches of different cheeses, milk byproducts like dry milk solids, and chemicals to increase shelf life and approximate the flavor of natural cheese. Processed cheeses are heated to high temperatures during production to blend their components to create texture and increase shelf life. It is not a living food and will maintain its desired flavor and texture for a long time.

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 161oF (72oC) for 15 seconds, followed by rapid cooling to below 50 degrees (10oC ). Low Temperature Long Time Treatment (LTLT) pasteurization involves heating the milk to 145oF (63oC) 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 to make silage 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 growth in cheesemaking.

Phage – (Bacteriophage) Any of a group of viruses present in nature that attack and destroy bacteria. In cheesemaking, phage can significantly slow acid production in the starter and the vat, harming the cheese.

Protein – A complex natural substance that has a fibrous structure 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.

Raw Milk – Milk that has not been pasteurized. (See Pasteurization). In the U.S., cheese made from raw milk must be aged at least 60 days to ensure that it is safe from any undesirable organisms.

Rennet (Chymosin)– Milk-clotting enzyme added to coagulate milk. The two main types are animal (e.g., enzyme from a calf’s fourth stomach) and microbial. (See Chymosin)

Rind – The outer surface of cheese that creates a seal and helps control moisture loss during ripening. 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. 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. Smooth Rinds are relatively impervious rinds that seal in moisture and seal out unwanted microbes. Surface Ripened Rinds fall into two categories: white or bloomy rinds, created by adding white mold strains to the curd or wiping the surface, and washed rinds, created by washing the surface of the rind to encourage moisture-loving bacteria, yeasts and molds to colonize on 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 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 whey. Salt enhances flavor and creates surface environments advantageous to rinds. Salt can also be added through the brining process. (See Brine)

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. The introduced 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.

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.

Structure – Cheese structure is very important in determining cheese flavor. Structure refers to the structure of the curd that forms a web of fibrous proteins trapping the milk solids (butterfat, minerals, moisture, and enzymes). Structure defines a cheese’s potential for flavor and texture development.

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 different connotations than it does in the U.S.

Texturizing – The manipulation of curd by stretching (as in Mozzarella production) or matting (as with Cheddar) to control moisture content and change the texture of cheese.

Vat Culture - Starter culture that is prepared added to milk in one of two ways. Direct Vat Culture is the direct addition of a prepared culture – usually in frozen or freeze-dried form – to the milk in the vat. One-Step Vat Culture is a variation on Direct Vat Culture that involves activating the purchased culture to allow it to grow before adding it to the vat.

Whey – The fluid by-product 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.