Engineering R&D: Research yields new reasons to say cheese

Peppermint cheese, anyone? How about lemon?

Peppermint cheese, anyone? How about lemon?
Even if you answer no, researchers still believe that tailor-made cheeses may be just what the consumer ordered. Funded by U.S. dairy farmers and managed by Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), research at Western Dairy Center at Utah State University, Logan, has resulted in technology allowing manufacturers to make custom-flavored, custom-colored specialty cheeses as needed, thus reducing inventory concerns while providing numerous color/ flavor combinations.

Liquid flavor

Project researchers built an injection system that shoots liquid flavor and color into cheese for a customized, finished product. The liquid is injected into young cheese -- one to two days old -- when the curd has not yet knit together. The injected colors or flavors follow cracks in the curd, giving the cheese a marbled appearance. Further, the system allows manufacturers to inject into cheeses as small as one pound, and to adjust the intensity of the injected flavor or color.

"That's the beauty of this process," said Carl Brotherson, associate director of the Western Dairy Center. "It allows for experimentation and a customized product without forcing manufacturers to maintain large inventories of a specialty cheese flavor."

Tailored product is just one way that U.S. researchers are looking to improve the manufacture, functionality and appeal of cheese. For instance, technology developed at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR) in Madison has introduced a novel method of manufacturing "ingredient cheese" that mimics the compositional and functional characteristics of a traditionally manufactured pasta-filata style Mozzarella. The process uses a stirred, washed, direct-salt cheese manufacturing protocol -- similar to the process used to make cheddar -- instead of a mixer.

"This opens up the market to any cheese manufacturer of stirred-curd direct salted cheese, such as Cheddar, and can help ensure a more constant supply to the end-user," said Carol Chen, head of the cheese applications lab at CDR.

Another researcher at the University of Vermont, Burlington, studied direct acidification to make Mozzarella cheese without using starter cultures, for a more rapid and consistent make time and improved moisture retention, among other benefits. The combination of a higher pH and low calcium results in a softer, more meltable cheese that doesn't brown as much as traditionally manufactured Mozzarella, due to a lack of proteoloysis that would take place in a product made with starter cultures.

Researchers are also targeting population segments concerned with fat and calories, particularly in the area of low-fat cheese. At the California Dairy Foods Research Center, researchers studied the effect of treating various adjunct cultures used in Cheddar manufacture and their subsequent effect on modifying the sometimes bitter flavor of Cheddar cheese. Their results show that freeze-shocked Lb. Helveticus culture BS provides the best results as a debitterase agent in low-fat Cheddar cheese, enhancing and improving flavor quality and modifying texture. An adjunct culture is a non starter culture, added to the process with the regular culture for additional benefits it might provide.

In this case, the adjunct culture results in cheese with a smoother texture, because of the extra enzymes that act on breaking down the proteins. Best applications for use of the adjunct culture would be for smoother texture in a processed cheese spread, and more uniform particle sizes and smoother end result for cheese powder.

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