A cow’s diet will affect her milk, which in turn affects the cheese made from that milk. This is especially true with our raw milk cheddar.
So when our cows transition each spring from their indoor winter diet of hay and baleage to a summer outdoor diet of pasture grasses, we have to adjust our cheese making accordingly.
To make a consistent, wonderfully-flavored cheddar, each day we aim for a series of measurable targets for moisture, salt, and pH in that day’s batch. These targets help us control the aging process down the line. The closer we are to these targets, the longer we can age our cheese to yield the flavor profile we want. (We also consider milk quality, and other milk components, too.)
Here’s an example: If the moisture level is too high in the initial make, the cheese will be less stable over time, so we may not age that cheddar out as long. If the salt target is too low, it won’t create enough flavor over time, so again, we might not age that cheddar as long. We taste these batches over the aging process periodically.
As the cows switch to a summer pasture diet out in the fields, we primarily adjust the moisture target. The rich pastures have a lot of digestible protein, and that shows up in the milk as casein (milk’s main protein), which will reduce available moisture in the cheese as it ages. About now, we start increasing our moisture target slightly, so that as the cheese ages, it will still retain the right amount of moisture. In the fall, we’ll dial it back again.
Quality targets aside, summer cheese is different from winter cheese. Because of beta-carotene in fresh grass, the cheese tends to be more yellow-y. And grassy flavors show up. Cheesemaker Megan Holt says, “I really like summer cheese. I think real interesting flavors come through.”
The stage of lactation is also a variable we consider throughout cheesemaking. Most of our cows are bred to calve yearly in March or April, and there tends to be higher fat and protein.
Then there’s the Brown Swiss milk itself. Derick Webb may not have envisioned this when he introduced the breed to the Farm in the early 1950s, but he selected a cow whose milk is almost perfect for making cheddar. It has a terrific balance of protein to fat.
Keep in mind that all our aged cheddars are great. A batch of cheese that might not hold up over time against the flavors we expect in a two- or three-year cheddar, will still make a perfectly delicious one-year. And there’s nothing inherently better about a one-year versus a three-year cheddar. It’s all in what you like!
All of these variables – some static, some seasonally shifting – make cheesemaking as much an art as a measurable science. And collectively, they help keep us a little more closely connected to – and appreciative of – the land this food comes from.