The Art, Science and Versatility of Cheese

Cheese’s ubiquity stems directly from its versatility. Hard, soft or fresh, at breakfast, lunch or dinner, and across consumer packaged goods (CPG) grocery categories, there’s a cheese for every occasion. Continued consumer demand growth appears to be on the horizon, according to Datassential’s 2020 Cheese and Dairy SNAP! Keynote Report. But it’s not all cheddar and mozzarella. As global cuisines continue to spread, people are eating more gouda, Manchego and goat cheese, along with cotija and paneer.

For R&D chefs and product developers at CPG food manufacturers, creative possibilities are multiplying. So it’s more important than ever to understand the science of cheese: how specific physical and sensory properties of cheese varieties impact the taste, texture, smell and overall consistency of products and dishes served up to cheese-loving palates. 

“There really isn’t a cheese that you can’t incorporate into whatever you’re cooking,” says Gary Grossen, a certified Master Cheesemaker and research cheesemaker at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Dairy Research. “Cheese is one of the most versatile foods there is.”

More Than Just Four Ingredients at Play

All cheese contains milk, rennet, cultures and salt. Each impacts the production of a cheese in different ways. The more fat in the milk, for example, the richer a cheese will be, says Michael Tunick, an assistant clinical professor of culinary arts and food science at Drexel University and author of The Science of Cheese. Rennet, an enzyme used to thicken curds, can influence a cheese’s character similarly, Tunick adds. 

But cheese wouldn’t exist without beneficial bacteria coagulating milk into curds, which can then be pressed and cut into familiar cheese shapes. Yeast cultures are a world unto themselves, offering a wide variety of potential flavors. “Each cheesemaker knows his culture and works with culture companies,” Grossen says. “Cultures determine your flavor.” Cheesemakers also use adjunct cultures to produce different flavor profiles and find shortcuts to flavors that would otherwise require years of aging, he adds.

Temperature is another key element of cheesemaking, along with aging. “There are cheddars that are aged for five years. But something like cream cheese or cottage cheese is shipped out right away,” Tunick says. A general rule of thumb: the longer the aging process, the more flavor a cheese possesses.

In simple terms, cheese is essentially milk that has been preserved via dehydration, acidification and salting. “The relative rates and scale of these processes—the cultures and environmental conditions applied in their execution—is the basis of the diversity of cheese types we have today,” explains Tony McCarthy, vice president of technical services, research and development for Saputo Dairy USA.

Traveling with Taste Buds

Flavor is crucial, but it’s just one cheese characteristic an R&D chef or innovation specialist factors into a dish or product. Texture, aroma and even visual appeal are also in the mix. 

“Consumers are looking for unique, authentic and exciting flavors,” McCarthy says. “Cheeses such as Romano, blue and goat—when used at low levels in combination, for example, with mozzarella on a pizza—offer unique and delicious flavor profiles ranging from subtle to bold while still delivering on the more traditional functionalities consumers expect.”

KayLee Ryker, a senior food scientist at Kerry, elaborates: “If you see pieces of cheese in a bread or the pull of melted cheese on top of a frozen meal or frozen pizza, it can make you feel as if you’re consuming something premium,” she says. “If you can also taste the sharp punch of salty, savory and complex characters of cheese, it can elevate the eating experience.”

Evolving consumer tastes and expectations are changing how CPG manufacturers incorporate cheese into products. Ryker points to “taco cheese” as an example. In the past, it was basically thinly shredded mild cheddar with added seasoning. But today, “consumers want to travel with their taste buds,” she says. If you look in a grocery store’s refrigerated section, “you can find many Mexican-style blends that utilize more authentic cheese varieties—like queso, asadero and manchego. Consumers are willing to try new exciting flavors.”

Jeff Lowrance, director of culinary and product development at Ventura Foods, agrees that today’s consumers are more adventurous. His California-based company, which manufactures deli and bakery products along with various retail brands, views products with added cheese as a premium. For the company’s salad dressings, “when we’re looking to add some texture to a product, we will add a harder cheese like Parmesan. When we want something that can be blended in for a creamy finish to a dressing, we’ll use a softer cheese like feta or blue cheese,” Lowrance explains.

Beyond the Usual Cheese Suspects

Anyone in the business of delighting hungry customers should remember the biggest cheese trend of recent decades: “People are getting more sophisticated about cheese,” Tunick says. “A lot of people grew up eating Velveeta. They thought that’s what cheese is supposed to taste like.” Now, he adds, “there’s Trader Joe’s pizza with gorgonzola and pear.”

As they create new dishes and products, R&D chefs and CPG manufacturers should note these tips:

  • Get location-specific. “Consumers are gravitating toward cheeses that call out a specific region or even state, such as Wisconsin Aged Cheddar or Vermont Sharp White Cheddar,” Ryker says. 

  • Drive craveability with bold cheeses. Marrying strong cheeses to dairy flavor profiles can deliver unique flavor twists, Lowrance says. Consider, for example, Romano or Asiago cheese in a spicy ranch dressing, or a cheddar cheese in a creamy jalapeno dressing. 
  • Mix familiar cheeses with up-and-coming flavors. An approachable Parmesan could be mixed with the flavor of Calabrian chili pepper and hints of olive oil to create a cracker seasoning, Ryker suggests. “Adding an emerging flavor to a mainstream cheese … can draw people to purchase the product.”

The wide world of cheese delivers the flavors people crave. Culinary professionals can earn their business by incorporating authentic ingredients, like cheese, into their products and dishes.

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