Preparing cheese, or any other fermented dairy product (such as yogurt, kefir, cultured cream, squeaky cheese, etc), has a lot to do with controlling the growth and development of the beneficial bacteria that live in raw milk.
We call these bacteria cheese cultures, or starter cultures, as we usually add them into the milk to initiate the fermentation process.
Fermentation means transforming milk sugars into acid, (the whole process happens thanks to this beneficial bacteria).
Regardless of whether you decide to wait for this bacteria to develop in raw milk, or you choose to add the store-bought ones yourself, you need to gain control over the growth and metabolism of this bacteria (if you want to make cheese that’s safe and tasty to eat).
Fine Cottage cheese, Blue cheese, Monterey Jack, Hard cheese, Feta cheese, cream cheese, fresh cheese, Parmesan… the quality of their taste highly depends on the presence of probiotics that change the milk in the cheesemaking process and give it a new flavor .
Thanks to the last 40 years of scientific research, today we have at our disposal stable and reliable strains of bacteria to make every cheese product imaginable .
There are two types of starter cultures: mesophilic and thermophilic, and if you want to dive into the process of cheese making in your home, you need to learn everything about them.
In this article, I’ll tell you all you need to know about cheese making starter cultures, how to prepare them yourself, store them, and where to purchase different kinds of cheese cultures, (in case you don’t want to deal with preparing them at home).
What Are Cheese Cultures?
Cheese culture is another name for groups of beneficial bacteria that naturally live in raw milk. We use these cultures to help and control the milk fermentation process during the cheese making process.
Fermentation means that these cultures acidify the milk by converting milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid.
Starter cultures’ job doesn’t end with the initial fermentation process. They’re also responsible for the way your cheese will taste (in the end), as they also aid the aging process.
As an ammateur or professional cheese maker, you need to solve one important dilemma: whether to use homemade or store-bought starter culture.
The answer depends on your priorities: do you want to go through the process as safely as possible, or do you want to put in more effort in order to save up some money?
Many cheesemakers who argue about the benefits of store-bought cheese culture, emphasize that it’s safer, free of any potential contaminants and that it gives you more control over the final taste of your cheese.
On the other hand, cheese makers who prefer using a homemade starter culture, argue that they’re cheaper and in line with the whole process and experience of home cheese making.
If you don’t see yourself in either of these camps you can accept a compromise solution and use a small amount of store-bought starter culture in order to produce your own homemade culture (that’s kind of a compromise, right?).
Types of Cheese Starter Cultures
There are two types of cheesemaking cultures: mesophilic and thermophilic. However, each of these has several sub-types, depending on which cheese you want to prepare.
Although these two types seem to be doing the same job, they do differ by some parameters:
- The temperature they work at
- The type of bacteria strains they contain
- The ratio between bacteria strains.
Depending on the type of cheese you want to make, you’ll need different bacteria configurations and amounts.
Now, let’s focus on each of the starter cultures and explain what they are and how they work.
If your cheesemaking recipe requires low-temperature preparation, then the mesophilic culture is the right choice for you, as it best performs at temperatures below 90F (32C) .
Many simple dairy products that almost every household has (such as yogurt or buttermilk) can be used as a mesophilic starter culture.
Using some of these products as a cheese culture makes the whole process pretty cheap and easy, but at the expense of control and safety, as you won’t have the ability to control the final taste of your cheese.
If you want the whole cheese making operation to be as safe as possible, you should consider using the store-bought mesophilic culture.
They come in various forms, depending on the type of cheese you want to make. For example, you won’t use the same starter culture to prepare Cheddar cheese, Goat cheese, Soft cheese, and Cottage cheese.
Luckily, you can find a specific cheese making culture for each of these types of cheeses.
Later in the text, we’ll show you what types of mesophilic starters you can use for different cheese recipes.
Thermophilic starter culture, as the name says, performs best if you use it for cheese recipes that require heating the milk at higher temperatures: usually above 90F (32C). However, you can use it as a mesophilic cheese culture substitute if necessary.
Typical cheese recipes that require thermophilic culture as a starter are Swiss cheese, or Parmesan.
Just like with mesophilic, you can also use different types of thermophilic culture, depending on the levels of acidity and flavor you want to achieve. The two basic types of thermophilic cultures are type B and type C.
You can try to prepare it home, or use the ready-made one from the store.
Now that you know what starter cultures are and how they work, I’ll briefly explain how you can make them at home, how to safely store them, and where to buy them (if you don’t want to deal with them at home).
We’ll also go through some frequently asked questions about cheese culture in case you need quick and urgent answers for your cheese making process.
How Do You Make Cheese Culture?
Recipes for preparing both thermophilic and mesophilic cheese culture are similar, however, we’ll briefly explain the processes you need to go through to prepare each.
Homemade Mesophilic Starter Culture
The simplest way to “prepare” this culture is to just use plain yogurt or cultured buttermilk. This is also the cheapest way, as usually, every household has these products.
However, if you don’t feel comfortable using that, you can also use the “compromise solution” we described above, and combine a store-bought starter with boiled raw milk to produce a new culture.
This process begins with sterilizing the jar, the lid, and the working space to avoid any contaminants. Then, you need to fill the jar with milk, up to 1 inch from the lid.
The next step is to put the lid on tightly and place the jar in a pot full of cold water. Heat the water up slowly to 72F (22C). If you plan on using the thermometer to measure the temperature, you can remove the lid.
Once the milk cools down to 72F, add the store-bought starter culture according to the instruction on the package. Ripen the milk at around 72F for 15-20 hours.
If it doesn’t ripen, leave it for another 8 hours. In this process, the milk is supposed to coagulate. If it doesn’t, don’t bother, you’ll probably need to add animal rennet later anyway when you start with the cheesemaking process.
Once this process is over, chill the jar and put it in the fridge. Keep it like that up for to three days, or if you’re not planning on using it within those three days, just put it in a freezer. You can either pack them in freezer bags or as ice cubes.
Homemade Thermophilic Starter Culture
The recipe for the thermophilic starter is literally the same as for the mesophilic, except that the milk needs to cool down after boiling to a higher temperature of 110F (43C).
Also, when it’s time for ripening, you need to maintain that same temperature for 6-8 hours to get a thermophilic starter.
Thermophilic starter should be kept in the refrigerator as well, or frozen.
How to Store Cheese Cultures?
When your starter culture is finally ready, you need to figure out whether you need all of that culture for the homemade cheese recipe you’re planning on using. You have around three days to figure that out, as that’s how long this culture can sit in the refrigerator.
If you don’t plan on using the culture within that period of time, make sure to store them in the freezer as ice cubes or in freezer bags (for later use).
If you decide to store your starter culture as ice cubes, keep in mind that you’ll need 1 cube for every 2 gallons of milk.
You can also use them instead of the store-bought starter to make a new culture, as we explained in the paragraph above.
Where to Buy Cheese Starter Cultures?
Store-bought cheese starter cultures can be used directly to make cheese, or to prepare your own starter culture, as described above.
Cheese making cultures are not so cheap to buy every time, which is why we recommend the middle solution: buying the first supply of cheese culture from the store but using it to prepare your own starter for later.
You can probably find some starter cultures in your local shop, but if you want to purchase some high-quality cheese culture, we recommend that you order online.
- Mesophilic Direct Set;
- Thermophilic Direct Set;
- Fromagina starter;
- Flora Danica Mesophilic Starter;
- Fromage Blanc, and many others.
Each of these can be used to make different kinds of cheeses.
The advantage of purchasing your cheese making starter supply from an online company is that that you can first conduct detailed research:
- Which starter culture is commonly used to make which kind of cheese;
- How much of the starter culture do you need for the amount of cheese you’d like to prepare;
- Precise user manuals for each cheese making starter culture, and so on.
In case you’re interested in making other types of fermented milk products, and you want to use a ready-made starter culture, you can find yogurt, kefir, sour cream, or buttermilk starters as well.
In this section, we’ll answer some of the frequently asked questions about cheese culture.
What Is Cheese Culture Ingredient?
The primary cheese culture ingredient is Lactic Acid Bacteria. This bacteria is crucial for making cheese, as it initiates the fermentation process.
Where Do Cheese Cultures Come From?
Cheese cultures come from the fermentation process or the transformation of the milk sugar into acid.
What Are Cheese Cultures and Enzymes?
Cheese cultures are groups of beneficial bacteria strains that live inside raw, skimmed milk. We call them probiotics.
These cultures usually produce enzymes, proteins responsible for catalyzing and speeding up chemical reactions and making the fermentation process more efficient. They’re also responsible for the transformation of milk into curd, or as we call it, coagulation.
Is Cheese Culture Vegetarian?
Yes. Cheese culture is vegetarian, although cheese itself often isn’t, due to the later addition of animal rennet.
Animal rennet is an enzyme very often used to make cheese, especially in Europe, as it helps the cheese curdle.
This enzyme is usually found in a young animal’s fourth stomach. Most often it’s cows, but goats, sheep, and pigs also culture rennet in their digestive systems.
If you want to prepare a vegetarian homemade cheese, make sure that your cheese culture has coagulated enough, so you don’t need to add rennet.
Do Cheese Cultures Contain Probiotics?
If you’re making cheese using raw, unpasteurized milk, then yes, your cheese cultures contain a lot of probiotics.
This beneficial bacteria from the environment and from the milk survives the milk and cheese fermentation process, so whenever you eat soft cheese, Blue cheese, Cottage cheese, or any other cheese, you’re introducing your body to live bacteria that maintain your gut health.
You can culture probiotics even with home cheese making.
Are Cheese Cultures Good for You?
Yes! Cheese cultures can play an essential role in human gut health, which is further essential for maintaining a strong immune system.
For example, feta cheese is rich in Lactobacillus plantarum bacteria which has anti-inflammatory effects.
The Bottom Line
More often than not, cheese culture is used for cheesemaking. However, all fermented dairy products require using cheese culture: kefir, yogurt, sour cream, etc.
Regardless of whether you want to make fresh cheese, cream cheese, or cheese with a longer aging process such as Monterey Jack or Blue cheese, you’ll need to pick the right cheese making culture.
Different cheese recipes require different procedures when it comes to the aging process, cooking temperature, etc.
If your cheese recipe requires heating the milk at temperatures higher than 90F, then you need the thermophilic culture, while cheesemaking below this temperature should be conducted with the proper mesophilic starter culture.
If you decide to go with the store-bought culture, make sure to check which type should be used to make exactly the type of cheese you want to prepare.
Cheese culture is easy to use, as all you need to do is add the right amount to the unpasteurized cow, or goat milk, and wait for it to ferment.
If you’re not planning on using your homemade cheese starter within three days of making it, make sure to freeze your cheese making supply in freezer bags, or as ice cubes.
Frozen starter culture supply can be used as a homemade starter for later cheese making, or for fermenting other dairy products, such as yogurt or sour cream.