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A Parma Style Cheese
In spite of the fact that we could not label a cheese made outside of the designated area in Italy as a true Parma, we will try our best to make a cheese "In the Style Of".

This guide is based on the true Parmigiano-Reggiano produced in the copper vats of Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy.

We will also focus on using a local fresh milk from a local farm and try to reproduce the classic grana or grain texture of the traditional cheese.

 


The Real Deal

Parmesan cheese is still produced in the way it was produced eight centuries ago. It is produced in the same places, using the very same practices, the same methods in order to keep and obtain the same characteristics, the same aspect, the same fragrance.
In 1200, Parmesan cheese already acquired its typical aspects: its characteristics were known for many years before and it is obvious this cheese has origins more ancient than those times.
Legend has it that this is the cheese that the Roman Legions marched on.

In addition to the cows' diet, there are different and unique micro flora and yeasts in the milk. The American practice of heating the milk for pasteurization kills these microorganisms. However, since Italians use raw milk to make Parmesan, these microorganisms add unique flavor components to the cheese that can give you extreme highs and lows of flavor. Pasteurized milk gives you a more consistent product, and it saves money for the manufacturer, but the flavor is hardly comparable.

It's not just the milk that's different in the United States. American cheese makers often use non-animal rennet to curdle the milk. And the starter cultures differ, with Italians using the whey left from the cheese-making of the day before, while Americans generally purchase starters from enzyme manufacturers. Finally, each cheese-making company, and each plant of each company, will have slightly different microorganisms in its environment, which alters the flavor of the cheese being produced.


In Italy

Over the past several years as Ricki's tech person, I have spent a good deal of time visiting these cheese makers in search of the real story behind this great cheese.

True Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is controlled with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from the EU applying to a very specific region of Northern Italy. This is overseen by the Consorzio in the Parma region with very strict rules and inspections to maintain the quality of the cheese.

The Milk
In Italy, the milk is one of the most important aspects of this cheese. The milk producers are paid a premium for this milk and the current trend is to bring back the traditional Vacha Rossa (Red Cow) as opposed to the Holstein types that have been used recently. The milk is always collected immediately following the milking. Even the distances that milk can be hauled are limited by them. On one of my recent visits to a family farm outside of Parma, Julio and his 2 sons would take off each morning and evening heading in 3 different directions to collect the milk fresh from milking.

Parma is not a full fat cheese and the evenings milk is allowed to rest in shallow pans overnight for the cream to rise. The evening's low fat milk is then blended with the morning's full fat milk run directly to the vat. The cream is then made into butter or shipped for other uses.

The Cultures and Coagulants
In addition to the cows' diet, there are different and unique micro flora and yeasts in the milk. The American practice of heating the milk for pasteurization kills these microorganisms. However, since Italians use raw milk to make Parmesan, these microorganisms add unique flavor components to the cheese that can give you extreme highs and lows of flavor. Pasteurized milk gives you a more consistent product, and it saves money for the manufacturer.

The starter culture must be made in each dairy from the previous days whey, which is allowed to ferment overnight. And only rennet from calves is allowed as a coagulant- none of the more modern vegetable or microbial rennet.

It's not just the milk that is different in the United States. American cheese makers often use non-animal rennet to curdle the milk. And the starter cultures differ, with Italians using the whey left from the cheese-making of the day before, while Americans generally purchase starters from enzyme manufacturers. Finally, each cheese maker, and each facility, will have slightly different microorganisms in its environment, which alters the flavor of the cheese being produced.

 

Parmesan cheese does not contain lactose, as a consequence of the quick development of lactic bacteria which ferment all the lactose present in the curd in about 6-8 hours. Even galactose, which derives from lactose, is quickly metabolized by lactose bacteria and within 24-48 hours disappears completely (the primary reason why the cheese is held for so long before salting).

The Vats
These must be copper. The shiny surfaces are not from polishing but from constant use and the acidity of the whey. Officially, the Consorzio holds that copper is used for its superior thermal nature and gives no taste to the cheese. However, the cheese makers insist that copper imparts elements of flavor to the finished cheese. So concerned is the Consorzio with keeping the good name of Parmigiano that it even regulates how many of these heating kettles each certified cheese maker can oversee (a maximum of seven). These certified cheese makers have all studied between ten and fourteen years with a master cheese maker, so obviously the making of this cheese is not something lightly regarded in Italy!

These vats, while only at waist height on the cheese room floor, are tapered to a narrow bottom and about 9 feet deep, going well below the floor level. The shape is much like an inverted bell. The reason for this is that the curd, once cooked, sinks and forms a compact mass at the bottom, simply due to its own weight.

In some other more remote regions, I do find smaller versions of these bell shaped vats in use sometimes with wood fires. They probably go back to a less mechanized time when smaller cheeses were produced. This vat pictured is being used for a Bitto cheese in the mountains above Lake Como.

 

The Curd Production

Unique to this cheese is a very quick coagulation to a soft curd, a very quick cut to wheat or rice sized curds, and then a VERY QUICK scald to 131-133F. I remember the first time I actually timed the scald from 96-133F and how it went against what I had been taught. The key here is that small curd size.

This small curd size and quick cooking are the primary reason for the "Grana" or grain like structure in the finished cheese. It is also the reason why Parma can age for such long periods and result in such a complex cheese.

The curd is cut much earlier than most other cheeses using the tool shown here. It is called a Spino and I am told this refers to the forked stick that may have been used in years past.
Once the curd has been cut to the small grain and cooking begins, a very rapid stirring (usually mechanized as shown) is done. One point that threw my observations off initially is that all temperatures are read in an old Swiss scale of Réaumur (note the "R" on thermometer in the picture above). All of these have been converted to Fahrenheit here to avoid confusion.

Once the curd scald is done, the cheese maker needs to pay special attention to the final state of the curd. This is a very subjective observation made by the experienced cheese maker simply pressing a handful of curds and observing how they consolidate. This will only be achieved by experience.

Once this final texture is determined, the vat stirring is stopped and the curd is allowed to settle into the narrow bottom of the vat for about an hour where the sheer weight of the curd consolidates itself. This curd mass is normally about 180 to 190 lbs for each vat and will later be divided into 2 cheeses.

This step is largely responsible for the 'Grana' or grainy structure so characteristic of this cheese. This is also partially why it is difficult to reproduce the true character in a smaller cheese.

 

The Final Challenge

Bringing this curd mass up from the depths of this deep vat is a performance in itself. The 180 pound mass of curd, aptly referred to as the 'Bambino', has been consolidating under its own weight and needs to be coaxed from the vat to drain in its form. The tool of choice here is a long 10 foot paddle. The cheese maker gently levers the cheese from the bottom to the surface where it is captured in a heavy draining cloth.

The cheese is then worked back and forth in the cloth to smooth out the surface and then hung from a heavy bar to drain while the whey is drained from the vat. The next step is to divide the mass into two separate cheeses.

The forms have been made ready on heavy tables and rolled into place near the vats. The cheese is now ready to be hauled from the vat and into the forms. Not a task for lightweights since these can weigh about 90-100 lbs each.

These forms will now rest for several days during which a Fascia sheet with the identity of the cheese maker and date it was made will mark the cheese surface. These will also embed the words "Parmigiano Reggiano" over the entire surface of the final cheese.

Because of the large mass of these cheeses, very little weight is used. The total added weight is of 26-30 lbs.

Following this long rest, during which the final lactose is consumed, the cheese will then be placed in a long salt bath of up to 20-30 days.

Following the whey removal from the vats, the whey is heated for Ricotta. Parma is a very good candidate for this and most producers make the ricotta. The remainder of the whey after the ricotta is drawn is pumped for travel to the Famous Parma Pigs. Yes, Parma Ham.

In the end, it all goes to the aging room where it is held for 14 months up to several years. It will be graded and if it passes, it will receive the "Parmigiano Reggiano" stamp literally burnt into its hide. If it fails, the entire surface of the cheese is scored removing all traces of the "Parmigiano Reggiano" embedded into its surface. This cheese is then sold at lower prices for cooking.

PS ... This is still a great cheese at a really great price.

 

 

In the end, this is a truly extraordinary cheese ... it is never cut, but broken with special knives for prying. This reveals the unique grain-like structure of the cheese.


Making this on a smaller scale

The Challenge of working with less milk

For the small batch cheese maker, having access to raw or very fresh milk, there will be several considerations in making this cheese:

  1. Adjusting the milk fat
    This can be done by collecting fresh milk in the evening and then again in the morning. The cream is then skimmed from the evening milk and the low fat milk is blended with the full fat morning milk.
  2. Sourcing an appropriate culture
    In Italy, they still use a culture that is prepared from yesterdays whey. It would be very difficult to find an appropriate whey culture in the US and commercially this is usually rejected by the inspectors. I use a prepared Yogurt culture (Y1) here because of its 50:50 blend of Thermophilic and Bulgaricus cultures. Along with the raw milk that has been held at room temperature overnight, this gives me my "local" complexity.
  3. The Vats
    The traditional copper vats would be hard to come by in the US and inspectors for small farms are not happy about the use of copper, so this is probably not an option here.
  4. Cooking the curds quickly
    In Italy, the heating is done with steam and can be done quite quickly. I work here with a Bain Marie style pot system. Traditionally it was not a problem for me to raise the temperature in the outer water pot but with such high heat demands, I find that I need to add an amount of boiling water to the outer pot or sink to get the curds cooked quickly. I simply keep a good volume of boiling water on the side for additions.
  5. Dealing with the smaller mass of curds
    The shape of a cylindrical pot or rectangular vat create a challenge in consolidating the curds under their own weight in the hot whey. The solution will be to extract the curds to cloth and then suspend this in the hot whey for consolidation.
    Also, more weight in pressing will be needed to consolidate the curd mass well.
    It is this consolidation in the vat of the small dry curds that gives Parmigiano-Reggiano its final texture and the right to the name "Grana".

Yes, it has taken me a few tries to get this right, but I do love a challenge!

 


A Recipe for making a Parma style cheese

Before you Begin:

You will need:

  • 5.5 gallons of farm fresh milk (Not Pasteurized)
    I allow 3 gallons of evening milk to sit overnight then skim the butterfat leaving about 2.5 gallons to be mixed with 3 gallons full fat morning milk. This results in final milk of 5.5 gallons
  • 3.5 oz. of our Y1 Yogurt culture that has been made up beforehand
  • Liquid rennet ( 1-1/8 tsp or 5.5 ml)
  • Calcium chloride is not needed for the raw milk
  • Mold M19 large Tomme includes follower
  • Salt for Brine
  • A good thermometer
  • A curd knife OR long handled whisk to cut the curds, and a spoon or ladle to stir the curds with.
  • A colander and butter muslin to drain the curds

Note: a larger cheese can be made by increasing ingredients proportionately but I do not recommend making a smaller cheese than this because for longer aging, the cheese will become too dry due to the greater surface to mass ratio in a smaller cheese.


Again, Everything needs to be clean and sanitized for this cheese. Due to its long aging, clean sanitized equipment is most important.
The easiest and most thorough method is to begin the day with the milk pot and about 2-3 inches of water on the stove and boiling anything that will survive those temperatures. Let this all boil for 10-15 minutes. Then take all of your tools and lay them on a sanitized surface ready for use.
Make sure the molds, colander, and draining cloth are also sanitized and ready to go because following the whey removal, the curd must move quickly into the cloth for reheating in the whey.

Also, because the curd cooking is done VERY quickly after coagulation and cutting, another large pot of water should be kept on the stove just off the boil to add to the water bath in the curd cook/scald step found in the instructions below.


The Milk

For this cheese I will use the freshest milk available. My source is fresh raw milk collected after the evening milking and then again the following morning. I leave 3 gallons of evening milk to set at room temperature of about 55-60F and then skim the cream from this the following morning. The low fat milk is then mixed with the 3 gallons of full fat milk collected in the morning.
The final amount of milk to the milk pot is about 5.5 gallons. The cream can be used for butter or simply added back to the whey for a richer ricotta.

Acidifying and heating the milk:

Begin by heating the milk slowly to 91-93F. Using a milk pot in a water bath is the best way to do this but, if careful in heating, it can be done directly on the stove top. I use 2 thermometers to monitor bath and milk temps and keep a 10-20F differential between the two until I approach the target temp for the milk. The thermometers on Ricki's site do a great job.

When the milk is at temperature add the culture. I am using .5% of the Y1 yogurt that has been made up before hand . That is 1/2% percent of the milk volume as prepared yogurt or 3.5 oz. and this should be quite fresh and clean.
Normal store bought yogurts are not the same here in the US. Our Y1 yogurt is a 50:50 blend of thermophilus and bulgaricus cultures (both high temperature active) and while not the same as the more complex cultures that yesterdays whey provides in Italy, it will provide a great alternative, especially with the raw milk ripened overnight.

This should be stirred well with a spoon to break up the clumps, mixed into the milk thoroughly and then held at 93F for about 30 minutes.

Coagulation with rennet:

After the 30 minute ripening, give the milk its final stir before adding rennet. Allow it to go quiet and add the rennet, stirring in an up and down motion for 30 seconds.

At about 8-10 minutes you will notice the milk beginning to thicken but for this milk it needs to sit quiet for another 5-7 minutes until the curd becomes much firmer. This is a total coagulation time of 15 minutes from rennet addition to a final curd ready for cutting.

Cutting curds and releasing the whey by heating:

Cut the curds to about 3/8 to 1/4 inch. I find that a coarse 1" cross cut with a knife breaks up the curd mass nicely and then using a long handled whisk with fine wires produces good results in reducing the curds to size nicely. Begin slowly with the whisk in a top to bottom manner and then speed up as the curd becomes smaller. Take about 10 minutes for this. Finding a long handled whisk with thin wires will make the small curd cutting go much easier.

 

The curds should be cut and stirred for another 10 minutes. Then the water bath should be heated, as shown in the chart below, to achieve the final curd temp of 132-133F by adding enough of the boiling water to the sink or outer hot water pot.

I have included this chart for guidance in the rapid curd heating for this cheese :

Increase Curds:
in
Hot Water Bath Temp:
93-100F 5 min. 115F
to 110F 5 min. 125F
to 120F 5 min. 140F
to 132F 5 min. 140F


Add cold water to 135F
A total of 20 minutes from 93F to 132F

This heating does go against the basics of cheese making that most of us have been taught (raise temp only a couple of degrees per minute over a long time to keep from surface hardening) but the rules ARE to be broken. The obvious 'science' here is that the small curd size, rapid speed of stirring in the vat and high heat do a great job at drying the curds out evenly.

The curds will quickly cook down to a smaller rice or barley grain size. They will also easily consolidate into a nice curd mass. Once the vat reaches the final temperature, the water jacket needs to be cooled to 135F and stirring should continue. Depending on the milk used, the curd should be ready to consolidate in 5-10 minutes. This is where the cheese maker begins looking at the state of the formed curds. The final curd needs to be dry, but not so dry that they do not hold together when pressed. As I mentioned previously, this is quite subjective and may take a few tries to get it right. This really is where the hands on workshops really help the newer cheese makers.

Below are several photos showing this final curd condition:

Curd Consolidation in the Warm Whey

This next step is in lieu of the Italian cheese makers allowing the huge curd mass to settle into the narrow bottom of the vats. We are missing the weight of that large curd mass, so will not quite accomplish the tight consolidation of the larger cheese-but this will work just fine. We will simply need to add a bit more weight in the final molding step.

IMMEDIATLY after achieving the proper curd, it is time to transfer the curds to a cloth lined colander. Collect the whey to pour back into the pot and reheat to 135F.
Form the cloth and curds into a ball and submerge the cloth with curds in warm whey @135F for 60 minutes. It is best to allow this cloth of curds to "free-hang" by tying the cloth around a bar or long spoon across the vat. Make sure the entire curd mass remains submersed in the whey.
This will help in forming a natural round curd mass.
At 10-15 minute intervals, untie and roll the curd mass back and forth in the cloth to consolidate it into a smooth surfaced mass.
At this point the culture will not be active due to the high temp, but this step is needed for the "Grana" structure of the cheese. It is this "soft" consolidation of the small curds that gives the cheese its characteristic grain or 'Grana' structure.

Finally, retrieve the consolidated curd from the warm whey and transfer the consolidated curd mass in the cloth to the prepared mold.
At this point the curd should have formed a nice smooth surfaced mass. Press firmly with hand pressure into the mold, but do not break the curd mass.

 

Draining and Pressing The Cheese:

The mold should already be sanitized and placed into its draining area. Now transfer the consolidated curd mass in the cloth to the prepared mold.

At this point the curd should have formed a nice smooth surfaced mass. Press firmly with hand pressure into the mold but do not break the curd mass.

Begin pressing with the follower in place.
Initial pressure will be just enough to keep a thin trickle of whey running from the curd mass (10-15 lbs) for 15-30 minutes. The curd should be removed from the press, turned, and re-dressed (smooth out wrinkles) in the cloth at 10-15 minute intervals for the first hour.

As whey runoff slows, increase weight to 25 lbs for another 30-60 minutes and then to 50 lbs for another 8-12 hours.

My calculations show that the larger cheese and weight is about 6 times greater per sq. inch than smaller cheese.
THEREFORE
We need 6 times the weight per square inch or 25 pounds of weight on the smaller cheese.
IN ADDITION
I mentioned the lack of consolidation due to the smaller curd mass in the vat so I simply doubled the 25 lbs to 50 pounds and this seems to work just fine and gives me a nice consolidated cheese with a smooth rind for aging.

Anyhow, its a bit of science/math and a bit of "driving blind" calculation that seems to work for me here. So, if my mathematical wanderings leave you totally confused, just go by my numbers above and you should be fine. I just thought I would throw in some "speed bumps" for this cheese making adventure

At this point the culture will not be active due to the high temp, so keep the cheese warm (80-85F) since the culture is still working and acid is being produced.

As the curd mass cools from 112 to 80F, it is at this cooling temperature that the culture bacteria will produce the final acid development.
Press for 8-12 hours then no weight and hold in the mold with no cloth (temp should be held at 65-75F).
The cheese can be removed from the mold the following morning, but keep it from drying out. I find a small plastic box with cover works well for this. The cheese will now be held for 2 days as the culture finishes working before the final salting in brine.

Final yield is about 5 lbs from the 5.5 gallons of milk. The lower yield is due to the high scald temperatures and degree of cooking which results in less moisture. This is also why the cheese is capable of longer aging and more flavor.

Salting:

Salting is done in a saturated brine for about 6.5 hours per pound since this cheese is quite dense at this point and the salt will take longer to penetrate.

It will take about 2.25 lbs of salt to saturate 1 gallon of boiled water. When cooled to 50F (recommended brining temperature) there should be salt undissolved in the bottom of the container, assuring that the liquid is saturated.

The cheese is placed in a non-reactive pan or basin with enough brine to float the cheese. Since the top will be above the brine and not receive any salt, sprinkle a good teaspoon of salt over the surface of the cheese at the beginning of the brining and again at the midway point in brining.

Here is a link to more info and details on brining .

Ricotta from the whey

Do not forget the ricotta since this is a fabulous cheese for yielding great tasting "recooked" cheese. It works especially well if you add the skimmed butterfat back to the whey before heating. This batch yielded over 2.5 lbs of great ricotta in addition to the 5 pounds of Parma.

Aging:

The cheese is now ready to dry off for a day or two and then can be aged at 80-85% moisture and 52-58F.
Mold should be brushed or rubbed down with a medium stiff brush or coarse cloth as it develops.
After about 1-2 weeks the rind should harden somewhat and the mold will not grow as readily. A light coat of oil will also discourage mold growth and make the mold easier to remove.
This cheese will be somewhat earlier in ripening and should show good character at about 12-14 months.

 

 


Comparing the use of the 2 milks
we have used in the 2 sessions for Parma


Store bought pasteurized & homogenized
Fresh farm milk
Milk
3 gallons 2%
This is a high temp processed milk (172F)
5.5 gallons raw (skimmed)
No pasteurization
Culture
C201 Thermophilic Pack
Y1 Bulgarian Yogurt
Calcium Chloride
1/2 tsp
None
Rennet
Animal 6 ml (1/2-3/4 tsp)
2 ml per gallon
(some milks may need to use more)
Animal 5.5 ml (~1-1/8tsp)
1 ml per gallon
Coagulation time
30 minutes due to the weaker curd performance of high heat milk
15 minutes

  Hearing about your wonderful cheese making adventures always brightens up our day. Please feel free to send us stories and maybe even a photo to:
info@cheesemaking.com
  

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Thanks for joining our cheese making family, keep those stories & photos coming. We love to hear from you!

In Peace,
Ricki, the cheese queen

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