On a recent trip, I was lucky enough to visit the Tillamook factory in northern Oregon. Never mind that I’m allergic to most dairy…but still love cheese and eat it, especially cheddar…and did I mention they serve 28 different ice cream flavors. They offer a self guided tour through some very camera unfriendly tinted windows. I got what I could to show you. They weren’t working on the “cooking milk” portion of the gig (they do that early in the am)… But I did get to see the contraptions that make all their wonderful products and see some of the workers in action. I had no idea how big those blocks of cheese they heft around were prior…but I can now tell you they’re big-uns! At the end of the tour, you get to sample curds…or was it whey (not sure)…who cares…I stayed at the cut cubes of cheddar with the little toothpicks!
Now Tillamook has been in the business of making cheese since 1909 so I figured I’d borrow their info. Heck, what do I know about cheese making? I just eat the stuff!
First there is the milk. The farmer-owners produce the highest quality of milk (with the help of their cows) and it is delivered daily to the Tilamook plant. A mixture of dairy cow breeds, starting with Holstein-Friesians and complemented by Jerseys, Brown Swiss and Guernseys, gives the blend of butterfat and protein components that is perfect for making the best cheeses in the world. The milk leaves the farm in a refrigerated milk truck. While still on the truck, samples of the milk are taken and tested for appearance and antibiotics, among other things. Finally, the milk is unloaded at the milk receiving facilities.
The fresh, cold milk now passes through the heat-exchanging pasteurizer. For cheddar, the milk is heat-shocked. While such treatment is conducted at near-pasteurization conditions, the milk is still at a low enough temperature to preserve its beneficial enzymes but kill certain kinds of bacteria. Some strains of bacteria control the flavor, while others contribute to the body and texture of the cheese.
The milk is then sent on to the cooking vats. Starter culture is added to produce lactic acid, critical to the cheesemaking process. To achieve consistently colored yellow cheddar, a natural coloring from the Annatto seed is added; no coloring is added to vintage white cheddars.
A vital step in the process of making cheese is the formation of curd. To begin this development, a material is added to coagulate the milk. They use a microbial/vegetable-based rennet for all of cheeses, except their vintage white cheddars, which use traditional rennet.
After about 30 minutes, the vat of milk is ready. A soft curd, made up of casein, a naturally occurring milk protein, has formed. Large stainless-steel knives are used to cut the soft curd mass into ¼-inch pieces. The temperature in the cooking vat is then raised to about 100° F to aid in firming the curd and releasing liquid from the curd particles. This liquid, called “whey,” contains milk sugar, minerals and water-soluble milk proteins.
When the curd has reached a satisfactory texture, the curds and whey are pumped to the Cheddarmaster unit, a stainless steel piece of equipment that drains the whey from the curd and aids in the cheddaring process. The whey is removed and sent to dryers to be made into non-hygroscopic dried whey. To start the cheddaring process, the curd is matted on a six-foot-wide belt inside the Cheddarmaster.
Here “cheddar” becomes a verb describing the chemical change that occurs in the casein, causing the curd particles to adhere to each other and become stringy. When the proper acidity is reached in the curd, the cheddar mat is forced through the curd mill, which chops the large slabs into small, three-inch-long bits. These loose curd chunks are then passed through a salting chamber inside of which each curd is dusted with a thin layer of crystalline salt.
Once salted, the curd is stirred to assure an even distribution. Salt crystals dissolve on the surface of the cheese, creating a brine that is absorbed by the curd. When the absorption is complete, the curds are transferred to the pressing towers, where a vacuum draws off the excess moisture in the cheese.
After 30 minutes in the pressing towers, 40-pound cheese blocks are cut from the base of the towers and placed in a laminated plastic bag. A high-powered vacuum is drawn over this package of cheese and the pouch is then sealed. The block is now in an airtight, moisture-proof bag.
The sealed blocks are transported to a rapid cool room and held for 24 hours at 38° F. From there, they are palletized and placed in storage for aging and curing at 40-42° F. To achieve the unique flavor characteristics of Tillamook cheddar, the cheese is aged for a minimum of 60 days.
Before the cheese is packaged, it’s tasted. Cheese analysts take core samples from a random sampling of cheese blocks every day. They taste and smell the cheese, checking flavor and texture to determine which cheeses need to be sent back for further aging into sharp and extra-sharp varieties.
After curing and grading, the cheese blocks are taken to the packaging department where the aging bags are removed and the 40-pound blocks are cut for retail sale. Finally, the cheese passes through the packaging machine, which readies the consumer-size blocks for market.