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Art, Science Behind US Smear Ripened Cheese Market Remains Bit Of A Mystery

Milwaukee, WI—Part science, part skill, the growing smear-ripened cheese category in the US still remains a bit of a mystery to researchers, cheese makers and consumers.

The smear-ripened cheese niche in the US is unique and an area we don’t know a lot about, said John Jaeggi, cheese industry and applications coordinator at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR).

Jaeggi led a session entitled “Techniques and Tools for Smear-Ripened and
Washed-Rind Cheese” here last week at the 2016 International Cheese Technology Expo (ICTE).

First, according to Jaeggi, a quality smear-ripened cheese must have breathable packaging.

When you look at a piece of smear-ripened cheese, you really don’t see any vacuum packaging, Jaeggi said. It’s all breathable film – butcher block paper, laminates wrapped around paper – but the big issue is breathability.

“When you Cryovac packages of cheese and put them in an environment with a seal on it, you’re making a mini ripening room,” he said. “You’re actually increasing decomposition by sealing it.”

“The higher the moisture of the cheese, the quicker it breaks down,” he said.

Cheese contest judges come across the same defects in smear-ripened cheeses, Jaeggi said. Bitterness is usually at the top of the list.

“I think anyone who’s evaluated these cheeses would say ‘Yeah – that’s number one’,” he said.

It’s the breakdown of the protein – whether it’s whey, cultures or something in the ripening room. In our cheese grading courses, we always tell students to look at the paste first – is it bitter? That helps track where the defect is coming from, he said.

“Is it overly ammoniated? When we evaluate cheese, that’s part of the game, but is it too much? Is it over the top? That’s a defect we see quite a bit,” Jaeggi said.

Is it too salty? Smears have a salt content anywhere from three to six percent, so when you do that day after day, you’re building salt up, he said.

The soft and semi-soft smear ripened category includes German Bierkase, Limburger, Raclette and others with 50 percent moisture or higher. These varieties have typically little or no rind with a smeared, tacky surface.

Hard surface ripened cheeses include Alpine style varieties like Gruyere, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, and Tarentaise with lower moisture and stored much longer during the ripening process.

For smear-ripened cheeses, the characteristic flavor profile works from the outside in, Jaeggi said.

Cheeses like Saint-André are similar to a double creme Brie with a chalky interior and that’s the manufacturer’s intent, Jaeggi said.

If a Limburger had the same chalky interior, I’d know that’s an issue, he continued.

Setting The Stage
In setting the stage to get that “target” smear-ripened cheese, we need to start with whatever milk we have coming in – raw, heat-treated or vat-pasteurized.

“If you’ve got a raw milk cheese, you’ve obviously got that 60 day window to hold it right at the start,” Jaeggi said.

Regarding heat treatment, current research recommends that the majority of pathogens are eliminated at 148 degrees Fahrenheit, while you still keep some of the beneficial enzymes, he said.

“Some people will use heat treatment if they’re afraid to go fully raw,” Jaeggi said.

“Two of my favorite cheeses are Rush Creek and Winnemere,” he said. “I love that texture. It’s like a processed cheese sauce, but it’s a natural, wonderful cheese. It would be great to see more of these types of cheeses.”

There’s a couple ways to accomplish that using raw milk, Jaeggi said. The enzymes kind of break down that paste, making the cheese more liquid. Again, there’s a safety concern because it’s a high pH product.

Cultures added to the raw milk will also break down the cheese initially.

Harder, Alpine-style raw milk smear-ripened styles are easier to stomach because those cheeses will be held for six months before they go out for sale, he said. Aged
varieties are held for 18 months or more.

“If it’s a raw milk cheese, you get a quicker flavor development and keep in mind with lower moisture, you have lower water activity, so all the metabolism that goes up from the bacteria is at a much slower rate in lower moisture cheeses than higher moisture cheeses,” Jaeggi said.

There’s a bit of a misconception with some of these Alpine style cheeses, he said.
The first thing everyone says when they see the holes in Gruyere is that the cheese maker is adding propioni bacteria like they do with Emmenthaler. That’s not the case – it’s the natural microbes, he continued.

Regarding starter culture, in general, the soft surface ripened cheeses typically use mesophilic starter cultures – the same you use in Cheddar, Jaeggi said.

Alpine style cheeses – the regions of the Alps that produce Italian-type cheeses – typically use thermophilic cultures, he said.

“Don’t sell this part short,” Jaeggi said. “Even though outside influences contribute a lot to the flavor, cultures also contribute to setting the stage on how you’re going to develop flavor down the road.”

How these cultures set the stage often comes down to acid development, he continued.

Geotrichum candidum is a good one, Jaeggi said. That can give you those cheeses with the real grainy look. Smeared, high moisture cheese, even a Tarentaise, with a white haze on it – that’s Geotrichum. It’s a yeast with a lot of mold-like tendencies.

“The big thing for cheese makers is controlling the rate of acidity,” Jaeggi said. “If you want a cheese that’s very broken down, you want a lot of acid with an aggressive pH drop up front.”

“As a cheese maker, now you have to put your artisan hat on and control the acidity. If it’s racing out of control, how do I control it? Is it heat? Is it adding a little bit of water? Is it how I smear it to try and get it to buffer back up? Make no mistake – rate of acid development really impacts the texture of that paste,” he said.

On the flip side with the Alpine cheeses, those are typically much sweeter in the vat so you tend to develop more acid at the press and your pH is very slow, Jaeggi said.
That’s how they get the characteristic texture.

Rennet is another thing as an industry we don’t look at very much, he continued.
There’s different levels of proteolytic activity with a lot of the coagulants out there. It has a big impact on where you want to go.

You’ve got different options – animal rennet, vegetable rennet and specialty thistle rennet. I still find with microbial coagulants in younger cheese, I still get bitterness, Jaeggi said.

“If you use a microbial rennet on a high moisture cheese, you could be setting the stage for a bitter cheese,” he said. “It’s something to keep in mind when you pick. I look at the aged flavor – is it a short-hold smeared cheese like Limburger or something long-hold like an Alpine style.”

“There’s science behind all this, but there’s also an artisanal aspect – a feel for cheesemaking.”
—John Jaeggi, CDR

Most soft styles are unpressed like Raclette, and others like Brick and Muenster are put in perforated stainless steel hoop and flipped.

“For heaven’s sake, if you’re doing a really nice, high moisture cheese, don’t leave it in a hot summer make room at 80 degrees – it will lose water like you won’t believe,” Jaeggi said. “You’ll end up with a rock-hard hockey puck.”

Art Of Smear-Ripening
While science is accountable for the successful smear-ripening of cheese, the art of cheesemaking also plays a major role.

“We all fall in love with the smear rooms because it’s something we barely know, or we’re just scratching the surface,” Jaeggi said. “But don’t forget the actual making of the cheese.”

“What happens in the vat – the milk quality, the starter cultures you use,” he said. “As a cheese maker, having the ‘gift’ really helps.”

“There’s science behind all this, but there’s also an artisanal aspect – a feel for cheesemaking,” Jaeggi said. “Getting that texture just right is some of the smear organisms, but it’s also controlling the rate of acid development. That works for the cultures you use, the ripening times, the temperature.”

“It’s a process,” he said. “It’s not taking any piece of cheese. If that’s the case, just take a 640, chuck it in the room, start smearing it a bit and call it a day.”