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Cutting the Curd

Check equipment to make sure it maximizes its use

Volume 127, No. 30, Friday, January 13, 2003

Looking back on my 2002 cheese-
making year one thing that stood out above all else was the state of the curd knives. 

There comes a point in the running of a cheesemaking operation when attention to detail becomes an integral part of achieving quality, an attitude that comes of not wanting anything to prevent the production of a great piece of cheese and the maximum amount of it.

Of course you can make great cheese and not have created the perfect piece of curd but when I look at the great cheeses created from imperfect curd there is more to the process than meets the eye. 

In our modern factory model the perfect curd is one that maximizes component retention but many traditional methods of manufacture used tools that did not create the perfect curd but in fact they did. 

If your boss caught you cutting a vat with a blunt instrument, smashing pieces of curd your days may be numbered, the only time you might get away with such conduct was if he didn't know the difference or you were reproducing the activity of some more traditional approach. 

So why do I find cheese makers new to the industry so ready to use equipment that is not suited to the outcome (knives missing wires or blades, or knives too wide for the vat size and over-cutting occurs)?

In the production of cheese where the curd must be reduced in size to promote moisture expulsion it is generally regarded that the particles should be created by cutting the curd cleanly. But I observe two common faults, over cutting and the creation of fines, under cutting and crushing of curd by agitator blades or careless hand stirring. 

In the traditional procedures which create very fine curds such as some Swiss type, some Italian types, there is a process of curd recovery that enables the recovery of almost all of the curd particles. In such cheeses which were made in kettles the curds are allowed to drop to the bottom of that kettle prior to final collection. A cloth is drawn under the curds with great care and the whey allowed to drain past trapping the finely cut curd.

In the above situation the curd mass along with the cloth are like a filter media, capturing the curd particles and the whole process comes together to yield the final outcome. But when we do not observe in such detail all aspects of the traditional process in a modern situation much can be lost. 

When a broken knife is used to cut curd, a knife that may have wires or blades missing it should be obvious to even the untrained eye that uniformity will not be achieved. 

When excessive fines are created due to over cutting or breaking of uncut curd particles it is almost certain that many of those fines are lost to the whey, a loss of profit and quality. The loss of solids is the result of curd handling practices which may involve the use of screens, fine particles are not captured. But the problem is not limited to cheese makers in small plants; in automated plants the uniformity of curd size is critical. 

Uniform curd particles progress during the cheesemaking process similarly, not so with non-uniform particles. In at least one plant where curd-cutting practices produced uneven particle size the curds proved to be prone to damage in transfer pumps and by stirrers on draining belts. 

The solution was a modification of the curd cutting procedure that produced more uniform particles.
Curd cutting is also made more difficult when milk solids are increased and cheese makers must pay careful attention to detail, as solids increase the cutting characteristics change. 

When dealing with a situation that is no longer “natural” or “normal” the corrective action may require a process change that may not be considered “normal”. The first thought of many cheese makers is to reduce rennet when forming curds from high solids milk, not a good solution when the cheese is expected to develop good and normal flavor. 

Using less rennet may save a few dollars but if the cheese takes longer to age it may not be worth the trade-off.

Those knowledgeable who strive for quality will not question the need to have a curd knife repaired and will demand of their employees that they treat this humble piece of equipment with great care. The cost of avoiding damage is nil, the cost of repairs is substantial. 

The discipline that can be applied to cutting a vat has been developed over centuries and is practiced with great care by those who understand the ramifications.

Neville McNaughton, president of Cheez Sorce, St. Louis, MO, has many years of experience manufacturing dairy products in both New Zealand and US. He has been a judge at several cheese competitions. Neville will be writing a regular column in Cheese Reporter and will take any questions regarding cheese manufacture. You can reach him at CheezSorce@sbcglobal.netjumhoefer@wischeesemakersassn. org

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The Shape of Cheese
Adding the Extra Column
Pasta Filata Cheese
Very Hard Cheese
Hard Cheese with Eyes
Gouda, Edam And Other Washed Curd Cheese

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