Listen to an interview with Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli and Dr. Mark Johnson from the Center for Dairy Research on Cheese Underground Radio:
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A bit of the backstory:
Cheddar cheese – Wisconsin’s claim to fame. Nearly half of all cheese plants in America’s Dairyland produce cheddar, whether it’s in huge, 640-pound commodity blocks destined to be cut up and sold in big box grocery stores, or in smaller – but still heavy – 40-pound blocks meant to be aged and sold in specialty shops. Some cheesemakers even craft cheddar in 22-pound waxed daisy wheels, or in smaller, 18-pound wheels wrapped in linen and then covered in lard and aged in a cellar for a year or more. So much cheddar, so many choices.
Wisconsin crafts more than 600 million pounds of cheddar every year in every shape and size. And perhaps nobody has a deeper connection to cheddar than the Roelli family. Their historic cheese plant sits at the corner of Highways 11 and 23, halfway between Darlington and Shullsburg in the southwest corner of the state. In 2006, the 4th generation of the Roellis – that would be Chris – brought the family cheese plant back to life, focusing not on commodity cheddar but on small batch artisan cheese.
His latest creation is what he calls a candied cheddar – a 20-pound wheel of deep red cheddar chock full of crystals and a sweet, lovely finish. I stopped at Roelli Cheese last week to get a glimpse at this new creation and talk cheddar with Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli.
Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli almost always knew he wanted to make cheese. Growing up in a cheesemaking family sealed the deal. But what he always enjoyed was tweaking cheesemaking recipes to make them his own. While his father and grandfather made 40-pound and 60-pound blocks of Wisconsin State Brand cheddar, Chris decided to take a different approach.
“We’re making 20-pound wheels of artisan-style cheddar, meaning it’s cellar-aged as opposed to vacuum-sealed and cold aged,” Chris says. His “toolbox” of starter and adjunct cultures is much broader than what was available to his grandfather, and he says when you combine good milk with a wider spectrum of cultures, you tend to get a wider spectrum of flavor. “Then, when you put that cheese into a cellar-curing environment, you get a very different cheddar. It’s almost an old-style, hand-cheddared cheese with a few different cultures that it gives it a candied note: sweet, earthy and nutty.”
To learn how exactly more American cheesemakers are making what Chris Roelli calls “Candied Cheddar”, we turned to the foremost expert on Wisconsin cheese. Dr. Mark Johnson is a distinguished scientist at the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He describes himself as a “trouble-shooter” – helping cheesemakers solve problems and answer questions that seem to stump most everyone else.
Dr. Johnson is exceptionally familiar with the adjunct cultures being used to create American “sweet cheddars.” That’s because he first started researching a new strain of adjunct cultures 40 years ago. He talked a culture house in France to send some to the Center for Dairy Research. The cultures made cheese develop tyrosine crystals faster and gave cheese a sweeter, toasted pineapple note. The first cheese to showcase these cultures was Babcock Hall’s Dutch Kase. Today, it’s being used by several cheesemakers across the country.
So what exactly is a starter culture? Dr. Johnson explains it well:
“A starter culture is a specialized bacteria that is specific for the fermentation of lactose – which is the sugar in milk. It rapidly creates lactic acid. That’s what gives cheese its flavor, but it also makes cheese have a certain body – the more acid you develop, the softer the cheese will become. The acid formed dissolves the calcium in the protein, and that makes the cheese hard and firm. So when you remove calcium, it makes cheese softer, melts it easier, stretch better,” Dr. Johnson says.
So how does a starter culture differ from an adjunct culture? Dr. Johnson says “adjuncts” are strains of bacteria that are added in addition to the starter culture to create special flavors in cheese. They break down the proteins, and that’s where flavor comes. Scientists can even isolate certain bacteria that will make a certain flavor in cheese.
Love cheese more. This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Fromagination, Madison’s premier cheese shop, located in the heart of America’s Dairyland, right on the capital square. Fromagination’s team of expert cheesemongers help you select the perfect cheeses and companions for every occasion. Shop online at fromagination.com, or better yet, visit and taste the cheeses that make Wisconsin famous. Fromagination. Love cheese more.