Monday, July 19, 2004

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Today is Rosh Chodesh Av, the start of an annual nine-day period in which Jews mourn the destruction of our ancient temples. Among the strictures observed during this period (at least by Ashkenazim) is a ban on the consumption of meat. It thus seems an appropriate time to talk about cheese (though no glatt kosher cheese steaks this week, Soccer Dad!).

Lately I've become curious about making cheese. An odd interest for a suburbanite like me, I know. Even odder, my motivations were entirely pragmatic.

I like cottage cheese. I've been eating a lot more of it lately, what with cutting the carbs and upping the protein. It's a good, healthy nosh. But get this: In Israel, cottage cheese is sold only in 250-gram containers. (That's about half a pound, for the metrically-challenged.)

Rather than coming home from the supermarket juggling half-pints of cottage cheese, I figured why not try making my own? I can control the quantity and - for better or worse - the taste. If only I knew what to do.

So far I'm still in the research phase, trawling websites for tips on the production of cheesy comestibles. Once I muster enough time - all right, enough courage - to try making a batch, I'll let you know how it comes out.

Meanwhile, I'm busy being fascinated by the magical properties of milk. Through different processes, it can be made into cream, butter, cheese (countless varieties, soft and hard), yogurt. Byproducts include whey and buttermilk. It can be pasteurized, homogenized, skimmed, fermented, coagulated, soured, powdered. And I thought water was an impressive substance.

Now for the Jewish angle. Milk is kosher if and only if it comes from a kosher species of animal. The situation with cheese is more complex.

The rabbis of the Mishnaic era forbade the consumption of cheese produced by gentiles. The reason behind the decree is a matter of Talmudic dispute, but one thing is clear: It's not out of concern that the cheese might be produced with non-kosher milk.

The rabbis were definite on this point: Non-kosher milk does not curdle, and thus cannot be used to make cheese: "Kosher milk curdles; non-kosher milk doesn't curdle" (BT Avodah Zarah 35b). In fact, the fact that milk has been turned into cheese is considered ample proof that the milk came from a kosher animal!

Intrigued, I investigated further. Is this true? Why should milk curdle only if it's kosher? And hadn't I heard somewhere about camel's milk cheese?

Well, the main characteristic distinguishing kosher from non-kosher animals is rumination, the chewing of the cud. It turns out that the milk of ruminant animals differs from non-ruminant milk. According to Cornell University's Professor Dave Barbano, "Since the pig is a nonruminant, the milk fat will be primarily long-chain fatty acids (probably a lot of C16:0). The short-chain fatty acids that provide the typical flavor to dairy products produced from ruminant milks (e.g. cow, goat, sheep, etc.) would not be present in pig milk."

Prof. Barbano doesn't mention whether this also inhibits coagulation, but it stands to reason that the different chemical compositions and the different propensities to form cheese would be related. I found not a single web site about pig milk cheese,* and also discovered that "no cheese is produced from horse milk."

Regarding camel cheese, recent research has apparently succeeded in producing a cheese-like substance from camel milk after a great deal of intricate processing, as described in this report by the Food and Agriculture Organization. Even this technical report, though, doesn't explain what properties of camel milk inhibit cheesemaking.

I'll leave you with the following excerpts:

The processing of camel milk into cheese is said to be difficult, even impossible.... It is surprising that although the majority of pastoral systems have produced at least one type of cheese, no traditional methods exist for making cheese from camel milk....

It appears that camel milk is technically more difficult to process than milk from other domestic dairy animals.... In the Ahaggar region and the Sinai peninsula only a few rare cheeses are manufactured by acidic separation and heating of milk proteins.... It is noted that these cheese types do not come under the standard definition of cheese which results from the simultaneous action of a milk clotting enzyme and lactic souring.

So: Were the rabbis right? Can milk coagulate if and only if it's kosher? And if so, why, from a scientific perspective?

* Except for this fantasy comic strip and this half-baked comment.


Jan Aquarius said...

You raise an interesting point. However, some of the hyperlinks of your blog are not working, so I could not check out the backlinks. Anyway, a preliminary search in Google with keyphrase "chemistry of cheesemaking" yielded quite a few results. Of them, according to this, one "can use commercially purchased pasteurized cow's milk, TB certified raw cow's milk, goat's milk, sheep or even horse's milk. All will make cheese, each with its unique flavor." According to this article in Journal of Dairy Science, "there has been increased interest in specialty cheeses including cheese made from sheep, goat, and organic milks". See, organic milks? There goes your rabbinical injunctions about ruminants and non-ruminants out of the window. I am not surprised. When these injunctions came out, whoever thought of milking a plant? But what I find disconcerting is that now that we are capable of doing so, the religious edicts have not been modified accordingly!!

Zman Biur said...


Thanks for your detailed comments. I'm not surprised that not all the links work two years later, but I don't think the basic facts have changed.

The feature on horse milk no longer seems to be available online, but the line I quoted did appear in it. Despite the phrase you found ("even horse's milk"), I see no concrete evidence that cheese has ever been made from horse's milk. (Can you find a recipe anywhere?) The closest seems to be the Mongolian food known as airag, which is made of fermented (not coagulated) milk. This site counts it as cheese, but it doesn't sound like real cheese to me.

Regarding "organic milk", I think you're misinterpreting the term. It refers to animal milk farmed using organic farming techniques, not milk produced from plants.

Finally, regarding the rabbinic edicts: There's actually nothing to change. There is no edict that depends per se on whether cheese can be made from non-ruminant milk. The Talmud states it as fact (a fact for which I still see no contrary evidence), but ultimately the edict banning gentile cheese is not related to the origin of the milk. So there is nothing to modify, even if the rabbis were wrong on this point of science.

Zman Biur said...

I forgot to mention this site - anyone for Filly Cream Cheese?

Larry Lennhoff said...

A good two part summary of the laws of Gevinat Akum can be found at the Kol Torah web site.

Personally I wish we paid less deference to the Shach - I don't see a reason not to make Gevinat Akum parallel Chalav Akum in all respects. I miss good cheese.