Natural cheese-making and making your own lactic acid ‘starter culture’: is it the panacea of farmhouse cheese-making? - The Courtyard Dairy (2022)

What is natural cheese-making?
Natural cheese-making essentially involves cheese-makers making their own starter cultures rather than buying-in commercial starter cultures to make cheese. But it is difficult to do, and fraught with potential issues.

What is a starter culture?
Natural cheese-making and making your own lactic acid ‘starter culture’: is it the panacea of farmhouse cheese-making? - The Courtyard Dairy (1)Making cheese involves acidifying the lactose sugar within milk, turning it into lactic acid. This key step in cheese-making helps set the milk into curd, assists in giving the cheese its flavour, and makes the cheese long-lasting and safe to eat. This process needs bacteria, specifically ‘lactic acid bacteria’. Nearly all cheese makers within the UK buy these bacteria in. Much like bakers buy yeast to make bread, cheese-makers buy bacteria to make cheese. They add it to the milk at the beginning of the cheese-making process so it helps kick-start the process.
The lactic acid bacteria are grown by scientists in laboratories, and are sold in sachets, called ‘starter culture’, and are well-tried and tested. The milk will then acidify as it’s supposed to and this will help to produce consistent cheese results. The availability of this ‘off-the-shelf starter culture’ has helped improved cheese consistency and flavour in many ways.

These sachets are, however, ‘some-one else’s’ bacteria; bacteria not perhaps natural to the cheese-maker’s area and milk. On large-scale cheese production, using bought-in cultures is essential because when the milk is coming from multiple farms, often collected over several days, and is pasteurised, the cheese-maker needs to repopulate the milk with lactic acid bacteria in order for it to acidify and to prevent ‘bad’ pathogenic bacteria from growing. It also helps produce a more consistent product as the cheese-maker will know exactly what the bacteria they add will do.
For more info on starter cultures read:What is starter culture for cheese and what does it do?

What did people do before starter culture could be bought commercially?
Starter culture has only been commercially available since 1893, when the pharmacist Christian Hansen developed it as a commercial product. And it has only very recently been fully adopted by all cheese-makers. Many cheese-making books up until the 1950s talk about cheese-makers making their own starter, or don’t mention using a starter at all. Indeed many cheese-makers on the European mainland still make their own starter cultures: all Parmesan, Gruyere, Comte and Etivaz producers on the continent make their own cultures; as do many French goats’ cheese-makers.
Prior to the commercial availability of starter culture, all farms and cheese-makers worldwide had to make cheese using their own starter culture – making what is now often called ‘natural cheese’.

So why make ‘natural cheese’?
Natural cheese-making and making your own lactic acid ‘starter culture’: is it the panacea of farmhouse cheese-making? - The Courtyard Dairy (2)If made correctly, a natural cheese will be something completely unique to the cheese-maker and the farm. Rather than treating the milk with pre-made culture, the cheese-maker is allowing their milk to express itself, and the bacteria it naturally contains will grow. The balance and make-up of this indigenous microbial community will be exclusive to each location and each cheese, which will give a cheese with a truly unique flavour. This is cheese in its purest form – a true reflection of where it is made: the ‘terroir’.

At present in the British Isles there are only six cheese-makers using this ‘natural way’: Martin Gott (of Holker Farm – maker of St James), Frank Shinnuck (of Fermoy Cheese), Innes Cheese, KappaCasein (maker of Bermondsey Hard Pressed), Sleight Farm (maker of Tymsboro) and Dudley Martin (at Ludlow Food Centre).

But natural cheese-making does have its disadvantages.

What are the disadvantages of making a natural starter culture?
A lab-made starter culture bought from dairy scientists like Hansen’s is tried and tested, and will acidify the milk as required; the cheese-maker will know exactly what it is going to do. In this way it is safer to use (as bad bacteria are outcompeted) and will produce more consistent results. This is essential for any producer selling to a larger market, or where a customer doesn’t get to sample the cheese each time just before they buy – the producer doesn’t want the cheese to be different each time!

But when using homemade starter cultures, the culture is constantly evolving so will produce different results each day. A good cheese-maker can mitigate the risks, but there is no doubt the cheese may not be consistent or standard every time. Which can be exciting, yes, but also challenging – the cheese will be more variable and sometimes, if the process is not done correctly, can be tainted by off-flavours. As the cultures are also wild and un-refined, the cheese-maker will never know for sure what acidity they will create or what speed they will run at, so knowing how much to use, when to change them and how to maintain them is an art or skill learned through experience.
A cheese-maker making their own starter culture needs to know what they are doing to avoid cultivating ‘bad’ pathogenic bacteria. It is not for everyone. The cheese-maker must have really close control over their milk quality and follow correct methods to make their own starter safely. All of the UK natural cheese-makers mentioned above have to thoroughly test their cheese and starter culture for bad bacteria, and have spent a lot of time working on methods to safely produce their own starter.
Indeed of the producers who make natural cheese in the UK have made cheese for many years using more commercially-available starters before they felt confident enough to start to develop their own.

There is also an argument that the selective cow breeding and modern-day milking and cleaning methods used in the quest for ‘clean’ milk has removed a lot of the natural population of lactic acid bacteria within the environment and milk, so making your own starter culture might actually prove impossible to do in any case!

How does a cheese-maker make their own starter culture for cheese?
Natural cheese-making and making your own lactic acid ‘starter culture’: is it the panacea of farmhouse cheese-making? - The Courtyard Dairy (3)Andy Swinscoe’s great grandma’s notebook (from being a dairy maid in 1912) lists a couple of ways to make starters, which other old texts and current industry practice seems to confirm as the most commonly accepted methods:

  • Hand milking one fit animal into a clean pail (after discarding the first bit of milk from the udder, and using minimal machinery to eliminate the chances of cross contamination).
    To reduce risk many producers will carry out this step multiple times with different animals so if one incubated batch fails, they have a replacement.
    This hand-milked fresh raw milk is then incubated overnight at around 20C. It should then sour and can be treated as the ‘starter culture’ and added to the fresh milk in the morning to start the process of making cheese.
    Before using the incubated milk, it should be tested to see if it has a good set, clean sharp flavour and measured acidity – looking out for potential problems such as floating or slimy curd, gassy curd and/or off smells/tastes.
    The incubated starter could then be halved, half used for making cheese, and the other half used to make the next day’s starter by adding it to fresh sterile milk and incubating again – a bit like for making sourdough bread.
    For some types of cheese production, mainly continental Alpine styles which involve heating the curd, the method of making the cheese means that using their own starter culture is an easier/safer thing to do: they heat up the starter culture or leftover whey and incubate it at higher temperatures (often 38-50C+).
  • Another method is to use whey from the previous day’s cheese-make and ‘carry the culture forward’ into the fresh milk. This relies on the producer making cheese every day and having some whey to start with, or a friendly neighbour farm they can borrow it from!
    To eliminate the risk of passing bad bacteria ‘down the chain across successive batches of cheese’, the whey should reach a low pH (<4.6) and be tested (in a clean pot of milk, and by a laboratory).
  • There are some advocates of using kefir made from kefir grains to make cheese, although the use of kefir is debated within the farmhouse and natural cheese community as kefir itself does contain lactic acid bacteria, but it does contain other fermenting bacteria and yeasts which could potentially influence the cheese-make in an unfavourable way.
    Kefir grains are a naturally occurring symbiotic ‘live’ grain containing many different yeasts and bacteria which live together in a ‘grain’ which looks like a tiny cauliflower, and can be used to acidify and ferment milk and other liquids.

Natural cheese-making and making your own lactic acid ‘starter culture’: is it the panacea of farmhouse cheese-making? - The Courtyard Dairy (4)

Some old methods don’t mention adding any of this pre-cultured milk or homemade starter at all and the milk would still acidify. There are still some producers on the continent who use these methods. They tend to be milking traditional cow breeds such as Salers, and wooden equipment which has been used for many years and is soaked and cleaned in whey (not using any aggressive chemicals at all). These utensils effectively hold the bacteria within the wood. Salers du Buron, Ragusano and Bleu de Termignon are all still made like this.
Some producers tend to just let the evening milk sour overnight by leaving it out warm in shallow pans, before adding it to the morning milk. Although it works for some makers, most farm-producers today have a more hygienic and ‘cleaner milk’ environment than the past, so the chance of their milk generating acidity by these methods in sufficient time to make good cheese is rare.

So does natural cheese have a future?
Let’s hope so! But even in Italy and France the practices of making their own starter are dying out, because buying-in pre-made starter culture does make the whole process of making cheese easier.
Many French and Italian affineurs, as well as The Slow Food Movement in Italy, are therefore trying to document and encourage those still making ‘natural cheese’; as are those at the forefront of farmhouse cheese in the UK.

Natural cheese is definitely harder to make. It does have consistency issues. It should be only carried out by those who are really confident of, and have control over their raw milk. But tied into many other factors (milk quality, animal breed and feed), it can help the cheese to become a complete expression of where it is made – totally unique to the producer. Isn’t that what farmhouse cheese-making is all about?

Click here to view the natural cheeses currently in stock >

(Recently Martin Gott in England got a Nuffield Scholarship to research further “The prevalence and importance of indigenous bacterial cultures in raw milk cheese”; in order to increase our understanding of natural cheese and bacteria[listen to a podcast with Martin talking about natural cheese here>].)

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FAQs

Why are lactic acid bacteria ideal for cheese making? ›

Lactic acid bacteria can be used as a starter culture for cheese fermentation because of their ability to release proteases, lipases, or β-galactosidases to form a unique taste, aroma, and texture (Juan et al., 2016).

What are the starter culture used for the production of cheese? ›

Cheese starter cultures are predominantly composed of lactic acid bacteria, although other bacteria and yeasts may also be involved. In cheese manufacture, the primary role of starter cultures is the production of lactic acid from lactose at a predictable and controlled rate.

Is lactic acid required for cheese making? ›

Making cheese involves acidifying the lactose sugar within milk, turning it into lactic acid. This key step in cheese-making helps set the milk into curd, assists in giving the cheese its flavour, and makes the cheese long-lasting and safe to eat. This process needs bacteria, specifically 'lactic acid bacteria'.

What is lactic acid starter culture dairy? ›

Lactic Acid Starter Culture – These cultures may be prepared by using milk as an initial growth medium. Lactobacillus – This term is noted often as a probiotic. It is in fact bacteria, not a food byproduct, and is named as such for its ability to convert lactose and other simple sugars to lactic acid.

What is a good bacteria for making cheese? ›

lactis and Lactococcus lactis ssp. cremoris are common lactic acid bacteria that are used to make cheeses like cheddar.

How can you make lactic acid bacteria at home? ›

HOW TO MAKE LAB FROM MILK ? Put rice-washed water 15 to 20 cm deep in a jar. Cover the mouth of the jar with handmade paper and leave in shade. Lactic acid bacteria will propagate at 23 to 25 C, and the solution will start to smell sour.

Can I make my own cheese culture? ›

There are, however, numerous benefits of creating your own cheese cultures. By far, the best reason you should consider making your own cultures, as mentioned, is the reduced costs. You can save a whole lot of money by taking one small amount of purchased starter culture and using it to make your own mother culture.

Is lactic cheese healthy? ›

Contains calcium, which is effective in the formation and strength of bones and dental health. Effective for blood clotting, wound healing and maintaining normal blood pressure. Prevents cancer cells.

How does lactic acid affect cheese? ›

Lactic acid is responsible for the fresh acidic flavor of unripened cheese and is important in coagulation of milk casein, which is accomplished by the combined action of rennet (an enzyme) and lactic acid produced by the microbes.

Is lactic acid starter culture safe for dairy allergy? ›

Lactic acid starter culture can be derived from beets, wheat, dextrose or dairy. It is recommended to review where the lactic acid started culture is derived from prior to purchasing products with this ingredient. Lactic Acid Starter Culture may not be safe for those with a milk allergy.

Is lactic acid considered dairy? ›

Adding to the confusion, the prefix “lac-” is Latin for “milk.” However, lactic acid is not milk, nor does it contain milk. It's an organic acid that naturally forms when certain foods or bacteria go through the process of fermentation.

Is lactic acid safe for dairy allergy? ›

Lactic Acid may not be dairy free. The vast majority of lactic acid is dairy free, as it is fermented from carbohydrates like corn starch, molasses or potatoes; however, it is possible that lactic acid could be fermented using lactose, a milk sugar. Lactic Acid may not be safe for those with a milk allergy.

What is the purpose of starter culture? ›

Starter cultures can be defined as microorganisms selected according to their specific properties that are added to meat batter to improve some characteristics such as appearance, texture, aroma and flavour. Use of starter cultures enables homogenisation of production and avoids possible defects.

Are cheese cultures good for you? ›

Cheese cultures also aids in the prevention of bad bacteria growth that can spoil the cheese and shorten its shelf life. This is why cheese lasts longer than milk! The good bacteria found in cheese cultures helps the rennet or coagulant set the cheese and undermines the present bacteria.

Can I make cheese without culture? ›

Sometimes cheese is made without using cheese cultures and instead alternative food acids are used such as: citric acid, vinegar, lemon juice and tartaric acid. With these acid options, you'll end up making soft cheeses like paneer, Queso Blanco, mozzarella or mascarpone.

What is the blue in blue cheese? ›

Blue cheese is made using Penicillium, a type of mold that's responsible for its unique taste, smell, and appearance. Unlike other types of mold, Penicillium does not produce toxins and is safe to consume.

Is cheese bacteria or mold? ›

Is cheese made from mold? Cheese is not mold nor is it the by-product of mold. Some cheese varieties like blue cheese have specific species of mold that are intentionally added during the cheesemaking process to enhance the flavor of texture. The mold added to these cheeses can be thought of as a special ingredient.

Does all cheese have bacteria? ›

Cheese is one of the few foods we eat that contains extraordinarily high numbers of living, metabolizing microbes, leading some participants to say, “Cheese is alive!” The broad groups of cheese-making microbes include many varieties of bacteria, yeast, and filamentous fungi (molds).

How long can you store lactic acid bacteria? ›

LAB culture may be kept refrigerated for 6 months.

Is lactic acid bacteria good for you? ›

Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) are one of the most significant groups of probiotic organisms, commonly used in fermented dairy products. Among other benefits, these microorganisms can enhance lactose digestion, stimulate the immune system, and prevent and treat diarrhea [5].

How do you preserve lactic acid bacteria? ›

The established methods for preservation are freezing and freeze-drying, in which cells are maintained in frozen and dried forms. The frozen cells should be kept at a low storage temperature, such as −80°C, and rapid thawing is recommended for cells frozen with liquid nitrogen.

What is the role of bacteria in the production of cheese? ›

The starter culture is a selectively characterized group of bacteria that are intentionally added to the collected milk. Their primary purpose is to convert lactose in milk into lactic acid. In addition, the starter culture contributes directly to flavor development through production of enzymes and metabolites.

What is lactic acid bacteria cheese? ›

Lactic acid bacteria are often called "starter cultures", as they play the main role in converting the basic milk sugar, lactose, into lactic acid, a step which lowers cheese pH and makes the cheese inhospitable to many spoilage organisms and is the first step towards deliciousness.

What does lactic acid do to milk? ›

When we add lactic acid bacteria to ferment the milk, the bacteria begin to multiply. At the same time, the lactic acid produced causes the protein in the milk to bind together in a network that thickens the milk as well as creates various aroma elements.

What is the role of bacteria in making of cheese and yoghurt? ›

Abstract. Yogurt is a popular fermented dairy product produced by lactic acid bacteria, including Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus. During yogurt production, these bacteria produce lactic acid, decreasing pH and causing milk protein to coagulate.

What is the process of making cheese called? ›

Cheesemaking (or caseiculture) is the craft of making cheese. The production of cheese, like many other food preservation processes, allows the nutritional and economic value of a food material, in this case milk, to be preserved in concentrated form.

Does cheese have good bacteria? ›

Is cheese a good source? A. Probiotics, good bacteria that can contribute to gut and overall health, can be found in some types of cheese as well as in dietary supplements, fermented foods, and yogurt.

Does all cheese have bacteria? ›

In raw (unpasteurized) milk cheeses, the natural bacteria from the environment and in the milk stay alive while the cheese ferments. So when you eat it, you introduce live bacteria, all those good probiotics, into your body and they help you stay healthy.

What does lactic acid taste like? ›

Like most acids, lactic acid has a sour taste. It is found in sour milk, molasses, and many fruits. The lactic acid found in milk is usually a mixture of both isomers. It is used commercially in the textile and dairy industries.

What are some milk products made from lactic acid fermentation? ›

Lactic Acid Fermentation Products
  • Dairy products (yogurt, cheese, kefir)
  • Fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi)
  • Kombucha (also undergoes some alcoholic fermentation) Vinegar.

Can you make cheese with Lactobacillus? ›

Lactobacillus species are identified as dominant species in cheeses produced from raw milk because they can grow under severe selective conditions and cause desirable sensory properties due to their proteolytic activities [12].

Is lactic acid considered dairy? ›

Adding to the confusion, the prefix “lac-” is Latin for “milk.” However, lactic acid is not milk, nor does it contain milk. It's an organic acid that naturally forms when certain foods or bacteria go through the process of fermentation.

Is lactic acid good for gut health? ›

Some strains of lactic acid bacteria found in food are probiotics, such as those belonging to the genus Lactobacillus. This means many foods high in lactic acid have probiotic qualities and can boost your gut health. Lactic acid can also protect you from constipation and other gastrointestinal issues.

Is lactic acid bacteria good for you? ›

Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) are one of the most significant groups of probiotic organisms, commonly used in fermented dairy products. Among other benefits, these microorganisms can enhance lactose digestion, stimulate the immune system, and prevent and treat diarrhea [5].

What microorganisms are used in production of cheese yogurt and a milk? ›

The manufacture of cheese, yoghurt and other fermented milks and some types of butter depends on the activity of starter microorganisms. The most important of these, are species of Lactobacillus, Lactococcus, Leuconostoc and Streptococcus which form part of a group commonly referred to as lactic acid bacteria (LAB).

How is fermentation useful in manufacturing dairy products? ›

Fermented dairy products are obtained from fermentation of milk, through the action of suitable and harmless microorganisms. In addition to lactic acid bacteria, fermented dairy products have bioactive compounds as well as bacteria derived metabolites produced during fermentation.

What is the importance of bacteria in dairy industry? ›

The growth, location, and distribution of bacterial colonies in dairy products are important factors for the ripening and flavor development of cheeses, yogurts, and soured creams. Starter, non-starter, spoilage, and pathogenic bacteria all become entrapped in the developing casein matrix of dairy foods.

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