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May 23, 2010

As Ricki Carroll states in her book, Home Cheese Making, “…healthy starter is the key to good quality cheese.” – of course, there are lots of other things to consider when making a good cheese but if you don’t get the starter right you may as well forget the whole exercise.

So what is a starter? Essentially it’s a particular culture or combination of cultures that have been identified for cheese making. When added to the milk it carries out a number of key processes that are essential for the creation of a cheese. The main thing it does is to convert milk sugar to lactic acid but this in itself causes a number of other processes to occur. Starter is also key to developing the taste, smell and texture of cheese. Converting the lactose in milk to lactic acid is called ‘Ripening’ and this also:

  • Causes a change to the acidity of the milk
  • Helps the milk coagulate – although this is the primary function of rennet
  • Promotes better separation of curds and whey
  • Aids in the preservation of the cheese
  • Keeps unwanted germs under control

The easiest way to use starter is by simply adding what’s called a Direct Vat Set (DVS) culture to your milk. This is a freeze-dried concentrate of frozen starter cultures available from commercial starter companies and cheese making suppliers that should be stored in a freezer. They are also sometimes referred to as Direct-to-Vat Inoculation cultures or DVI. A more traditional approach is to make a prepared starter which involves adding the culture to a small quantity of boiled then cooled milk and leaving it to sit for about a day during which time a prodigious number of bacteria will reproduce.

Another consideration when making cheese is whether to use a Thermophilic or Mesophilic starter – this comes down to what sort of temperature your milk is heated to during the making process. Thermophilic starter is used for cheeses that require a higher milk heating temperature such as Mozzarella, Parmesan and Pecorino. Mesophilic starter is for lower temperature cheeses such as Camembert, most blue-vein cheeses and Brie.


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