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.