Ask A Scientist: When Your Cheese Crunches

Unprofessional Cookery

Admittedly, I was having a hard time finding a good food science topic this week.  Nobody was asking me questions about why their drinks were glowing or what the difference between pickling and denaturing were.  Not much was jumping out at me from the pages of any of my books.  So I asked my mother if she had anything that she’d like to know about in the food science realm.

Indeed she did.  In a way.  She wanted to know why those little Gouda cheeses came dipped in wax.

Although, technically speaking,  the wax coating question was within the realm of food science when presented from the right angle, it didn’t really “speak” to me as a full length article.  (The wax coating on large Gouda wheels, mom, is for moisture retention while aging.  I think the small ones are just for decoration really.)  However, as my fingers did the walking on this subject, I became fascinated with how Gouda was made in regard to the finished product.  Specifically, my ears perked up when I read about lactic acid crystallization in gouda.  Exciting!

Gouda, a semisoft washed rind cheese, is to the Netherlands as Mozzarella is to Italy.  This cheese is as common as dirt.  You could walk into just about any store over there and find the newer, yellow or red waxed wheels sitting next to the grande dames cloaked in black.  Gouda with nettles.  Gouda that’s smoked.  Plain Gouda. Cow milk, sheep milk and goat milk Gouda.  Gouda large and small.  There’s a Gouda to suit your every whim. Gouda, Gouda, Gouda.

However, as with just about any cheese, there are some varieties of the Dutch national product that are better than others. (Notice that I didn’t use the word Gouda again?)  While you could go buy red coated wheel anywhere, the prized variety of Gouda has been aged for years in ideal conditions where, ever so slowly, tiny crunchy bits are left to form deep within the caramel colored, hardened interior.  What were these prized little crystals and were they a constant?

Those crunchy little nuggets in an otherwise unexciting cheese were lactic acid crystals that had slowly formed over time. Many varieties of cheese (such as Cheddar and Gruyère) form crystals deep within their interiors, that’s not unusual.  However, what is fascinating about these little lactic acid cheese crystals is that they aren’t guaranteed to form.  They’re persnickety.  Some aged Gouda may be chock full of crunchy goodness whilst others may be as creamy as butter- even in the same cheese batch.

The reason behind this lies in ineffective salting when making the Gouda, which probably happens when washing the curds or brining the cheese.   If the salt content within the cheese curds is less, the overall moisture content within the finished cheese will be greater than the effectively salted varieties (obviously).  These lower salt versions of the cheese with more moisture will form more lactic acid within the cheese itself as it ages.  More lactic acid within the cheese means a   lower pH level than the evenly salted varieties and thus inhibits crystal formation because the lactic acid wants to stay in a soluble state.  If the low pH Gouda were left uncoated to age, the rind of the cheese may become crystalized due to greater dehydration, but the wax prevents this from happening.

This is to say, loosely, that gouda can be fickle. And, interestingly, I brought this article loosely into a full circle by answering the question my mother had posed.  In a roundabout way.

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