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How to Choose a Culture

By Mary Jane Toth

Probably the most often asked question from new cheese makers is how to choose a culture. This can be a daunting task, but made much simpler when you have a basic understanding of how and why the cultures work. I hope you find the following information useful in choosing which cultures you need to be successful in your home cheese making endeavors.

It’s important to understand why you need a culture. The purpose of the culture is to raise the acidity of the milk, which helps the rennet to set the cheese as well as aiding in preserving and developing the flavor during the aging process.

Milk is a perfect medium for good and bad bacteria. The culture inoculates the milk with the good type of bacteria, which multiply by consuming the lactose (milk sugar) in the milk. The result raises the acidity and once the good bacteria have taken hold in the milk they help prevent the bad bacteria form gaining a foothold. It’s like a war between the good and bad. The good win the war when they can quickly outnumber the bad.

Basic information

Cultures can be broken into two types: mesophilic and thermophilic. Choosing either a thermophilic or mesophilic will depend on the type of cheese that you are going to make.

Mesophilic is a non-heat loving culture and is used for making cheeses that are not heated to more than 102°F. This is the most common and is used to make 90% of the variety of cheeses. This would include soft cheese, chévre, blue cheese, feta, cottage cheese, farmers cheese, Colby, cheddar, Camembert, brie, cultured buttermilk, and sour cream, etc.

Thermophilic is a heat loving culture and is used to make cheeses that can be heated to 130 degrees. This is used in most Italian cheeses such as Parmesan, provolone, mozzarella and Swiss, Monterey jack, etc. Yogurt is also made using a thermophilic culture.

Many varieties of these two types are available with names such as flora dancia, lactoccus bulgarius etc. No matter what types of fancy names are specific to that culture it will still fall into one of the two types of culture. This simply means that they can have different strains of bacteria, which can produce slight differences in taste. I have used several with results pretty much the same and with no big noticeable difference in taste in the end product. No matter what it’s called, mesophilic will always be a mesophilic and the same is true of the thermophilic.

Freeze dried DVI or reculturable:
Which type of culture should you use?

Another question asked often is choosing between making a mother culture and using a DVI culture. All cheese cultures will come as a freeze-dried packet. Keep them frozen for long-term storage.

DVI Culture:

DVI stands for "direct vat inoculant"; this is added directly to the milk, usually at a rate of 1/8 teaspoon for each gallon of milk. The freeze-dried packet can be kept in the freezer for several months. I have been using one from my freezer that is about five years old. Just make sure to keep it double bagged in good freezer bags. The advantage to the DVI culture is that it can be kept in the freezer for long periods of time. It’s very handy for the average home cheese maker who is not making cheese on a daily basis. DVI cultures are definitely my preference. They are more convenient and produce more consistent results. Even large cheese making plants now use them.

Reculturable or Mother culture:

Must first be cultured in sterile milk before it can be used. This type of culture can be recultured by saving some from the previous batch to make the next batch. This can be kept going for a long time but the biggest drawback is that it will only keep in the refrigerator for about three days or it can be frozen in cubes for about a month. This means that you will need to be diligent about reculturing it so that the live bacteria are kept viable. It will not last forever. If not properly recultured on a regular basis it can produce inconsistent results.

Chevre Spreadable Cheese

Chives & Garlic

1 lb. soft goat cheese
2 teaspoons dried chives or 2 tablespoons fresh chives
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon garlic powder
Mix ingredients together. Shape into logs or balls. Refrigerate.
French Onion
1 lb. soft goat cheese
3 tablespoons dried minced onion
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Reconstitute dried onion in warm water. Squeeze out excess water before measuring onions for this recipe. Mix ingredients together well and shape into logs or balls. Refrigerate.

Horseradish Cheddar Spread

8 oz. soft goat cheese
2 pkgs. cheddar cheese powder
1 teaspoon sugar
4 teaspoons horseradish, squeeze out excess juice

Mix ingredients together. Store in a recycled margarine tub with a lid. Chill before serving. Makes a great party spread for crackers.

Quick Tip: The cheddar cheese powder used in this recipe comes from inexpensive boxed macaroni and cheese dinners. We use the cheese powder for seasoning cheese, and the macaroni is used in other dishes. Bulk food stores also carry a powdered cheddar cheese.

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