Do you know how the same four basic ingredients can produce countless varieties of cheese? Read on to learn the fascinating process of how cheese is made! 

Three large wheels of cheese stacked up on a white wooden background. Text overlays read: "The Art and Sciencce of Cheesemaking,, Learn what makes cheddar different from Parmesan!"

Okay, warning…I’m about to nerd out a little on you guys. I recently traveled to Napa Valley with one of my clients, the United Dairy Industry of Michigan to attend the Food and Culinary Professionals Workshop. We had such an amazing time cooking and learning together (I’ll share some photos in this post) and it was a little hard for me to decide what to share with you.

Five women standing in front of a large fork outside.

Our group at the Culinary Institute of America – we cooked on the same countertop Julia Child once cooked on!

However, one session I attended was particularly fascinating to me. I’ve always had a deep love of learning (perhaps that’s why I stayed in college for almost 8 years to get my doctorate), and I learned so much in the session about how cheese is made…The Art of Cheesemaking. I love learning more about the food we eat because it gives a new appreciation for what you’re cooking and consuming. I was frantically taking notes during the session so I could share what I learned with you. I hope you find it as interesting as I did!

Number one takeaway from this? Cheese is MILK that has been preserved to consume at a later date.

All basic cheeses are made with 4 ingredients:

  1. Milk
  2. Culture
  3. Coagulating Enzyme
  4. Salt

They all start the same, but it’s what happens to them throughout the process that differentiates them. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s talk about ways to categorize cheese. There are three different ways to categorize cheese:

Cheese can be categorized by type. In America, the most common types are semi-hard and semi-soft which is where cheeses such as cheddar come in.

  • hard
  • soft
  • semi-hard
  • semi-soft
  • blue
  • fresh
  • pasta filata (stretched cheese such as fresh mozzarella)
  • processed
  • soft-ripened

Cheese can be categorized scientifically using three properties:

  • Moisture content, measured as a percentage. The lower the moisture content, the harder the cheese. The higher the moisture content, the softer the cheese.
  • Fat Content, measured as a percentage. The lower the fat percentage, the harder the cheese. The higher the fat percentage, the softer the cheese.
  • Calcium Content, measured in milligrams per 100 grams. The lower the calcium content, the more crumbly the cheese will be. With higher calcium content, the cheese will be more rubbery or elastic.

Cheese can be categorized into 8 families – Categories 1, 2 and 3 make up 70% of the world’s cheese and categories 1 and 3 are the most common in America, with category 2 growing in popularity.

  1. Cheddar (includes Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Colby)
  2. Continental (These are creamier cheeses with more textural variety, which comes from the cultures used, not from higher fat levels. They have a buttery flavor note. This family includes Gouda, Fontina, Muenster, Havarti, Manchego, and Raclette.)
  3. Pasta Filata (includes Mozzarella and Provolone)
  4. Cottage and Fresh (includes cheese such as Queso Fresco)
  5. Swiss (cheese that has “eyes”)
  6. Soft (includes mold ripened cheese, blue veined cheese, rindless cheeses)
  7. Hard (includes Parmesan and Pecorino)
  8. Traditional Greek Feta and Regional Specialties
A woman, laughing, with a chef's hat on, as she makes fresh mozzarella.

Kirsten of Comfortably Domestic making Mozzarella!

Still with me? Now that you know all about how cheese can be categorized, we’ll talk about how cheese is made. All categories of cheese go through the same six steps to achieve the final product – there are minor difference along the way that gives us the wide range of cheese varieties that we’re able to enjoy.

Wood fired pizza on a wooden background topped with mozzarella, tomatoes, and pesto.

Pizza with pesto, Mozzarella, Parmesan, caramelized onions, confit tomatoes, and mushrooms


Six Steps of Cheesemaking:

1. Coagulating

In the Coagulating step, milk and enzymes (there are 3 common enzymes used) are mixed in a large vat. At this step in the process, the mixture resembles jello.

2. Cutting

Cheese is cut into big or small pieces depending on how much moisture you want to remove from the cheese. Sizes range from the size of rice to about 1/2-inch. The most common size is 1/4 to 1/2-inch pieces.

3. Cooking

Cooking removes more moisture and dries the cheese. There two main cooking techniques — in a pot or vat (this is how Cheddar is made), or in water which is used with the Continental family of cheeses. Cooking in water produces a less acidic, more buttery tasting cheese. The temperature to which the cheese is cooked also determines the final type of cheese. A higher temperature yields a drier cheese.

4. Draining

This step in the process separate curds from whey. The curds are the cheese portion and the whey is the watery component which I learned is great for feeding to animals or fertilizing plants.

5. Salting

Salt is used in cheesemaking to help preserve the cheese (important part of food safety!), to create texture, and to of course develop flavor. There are a couple different ways to salt cheese. You can dry salt the cheese curds or you can form the curds into a block and brine the cheese. For example, Parmesan is brined for several days.

6. Ripening (Aging)

This is an important step in producing different types of cheese. Most cheese is aged, some less than others. During the aging process, proteins are breaking down and flavor is coming through, making cheese sharper or stronger. The longer the cheese is aged, the sharper the final product. Mild Cheddar is aged less than a month and some Parmesan cheese is aged for more than two years.

Two women wearing chef's hats and aprons, one is feeding the other as the one eating makes pasta with her hands.

I always require spoon-fed taste tests of fresh Mozzarella while I’m making homemade pasta. ;)

The process of making cheese is altered to accomplish various flavor profiles. These factors can all be modified:

  • Milk Composition (cow’s milk, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, fat content of milk)
  • Cultures Used (low or high temperature)
  • Acidity (from cultures fermenting)
  • Temperature
  • Cut Size
  • Salting Method (brining, dry salting, surface salting)
  • Ripening Time
Looking up at palm trees against a bright blue sky.

I’m moving to California.

So that’s how you make cheese, in a nutshell! I hope you guys found it as fascinating as I did. I learned so much on this trip and I’ll be sharing a little more next month along with a delicious new recipe inspired by another session at the workshop.

If this post left you craving cheese, you can search my entire archive of cheese recipes or try some of my favorites:


Disclosure: Milk Means More paid for my travel and workshop expenses and this post is part of my partnership with them. All opinions are as always, my own, and I really am a nerd. Find out more about why Milk Means More on TwitterFacebookYouTubeInstagram and Pinterest.