Cheese that is stored for a long time is hard, whereas a short storage period means soft cheese, right? Wrong. Whether a cheese is hard, semi-hard or soft is all about heat, chunks and the specialist term synaeresis. This sounds complicated, but it’s actually quite simple.
Swiss cheeses are generally semi-hard or hard, while France tends to have more soft varieties. Cheese comes in a range of different consistencies, from almost rock-hard Sbrinz to runny, mature Brie. You might wonder why these differences arise, and you might even come up with a quick, simple answer: soft cheeses have a higher water content than hard ones. This seems logical, but it doesn’t actually explain how a cheese ends up being a soft cheese or a hard cheese.
The cheesemaker determines the hardness
Despite what you might assume at first glance, the main factor is not the length of the storage period. The course is set right at the beginning of the cheese production process, which starts with acidified milk. After coagulation, in which the milk is thickened by adding lactic acid bacteria and rennet, the mass is cut into pieces with a cheese harp. This creates chunks, also known as curd. And this is the key: if these chunks are as small as grains of rice, lots of the whey and hence moisture separates out in a process known as synaeresis. The result is that the cheese contains very little water and becomes a hard cheese. Conversely, larger walnut-sizes pieces mean that only a little of the whey is lost. Ideal for a soft cheese with a high water content.
The hotter it is, the harder it is
Temperature and stirring also play a role. Mechanical movement and heat allow even more moisture to evaporate from the cheese. And pressing helps too, of course. A soft cheese is only drained, whereas a future hard cheese has as much moisture as necessary pressed out of it.
Last but not least, bathing in brine removes even more moisture. Softer cheeses are soaked briefly, while harder ones steep for longer. And yes, a long storage period does also lead to moisture loss. That’s why Sbrinz, which could be matured for up to three years, is one of the hardest cheeses around.
Runny through maturation
In the maturation process, enzymes give a cheese its unique strong, spicy taste. The enzymes break down the milk proteins, releasing the cheese’s typical flavour and aroma. This protein breakdown also results in a structural change, altering the texture of the cheese. Soft cheeses are usually produced in small wheels, so the enzymes and bacteria have a large surface area to attack. This leads to relatively fast maturation. The high moisture content and the special lactic acid bacteria used for soft cheese also mean that maturation makes the cheese even softer, in some cases even runny.
Cave-aged cheese is particularly flavoursome
Emmi sells cheese in all degrees of hardness. The extra-hard variety is Sbrinz AOP, refined in the cheese cellar in Lucerne. The hard cheeses come from the Kaltbach caves and are a gourmet treat with products such as Kaltbach Le Gruyère and Kaltbach Emmentaler. Scharfe Maxx is a semi-hard cheese with a spicy, flavoursome taste. Luzerner Rahmkäse is also semi-hard. The soft cheeses include Le Petit Chevrier Camembert and Le Petit Rouquin.