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Tilsit
Tilsit is a wonderful semi-soft, mild, and buttery cheese
needing only a moderate amount of time for aging.

It is perfect for
the home cheese maker.

Tilsit, because of it's mild flavor, is also the perfect cheese for herb and spice additions.


Tilsit has been an extremely popular cheese throughout Europe for many years but when you request a Tilsit, what you get will depend on where you are.
It is a traditionally produced, semi-hard cheese made from cows milk that develops a rind with the aid of Brevibacterium linens (the aroma producing bacteria) during the ripening phase and starts out with between 30 % and 60 % fat in the dry matter. It can be made from either raw milk or pasteurized milk.

The variations can be numerous, but the common traits will be:

  • A semi-soft cheese with a buttery texture and flavor.
  • A smooth, supple interior with tiny irregular holes.
  • Light yellow in color with a springy, supple texture.
  • Some mildly pungent aromatics due to bacteria surface ripening.
  • A flavor with mild fruit and spices and a buttery finish. The cheese can also get relatively strong in flavor as it matures.
  • A very thin and edible rind.


A Bit of History:

I can think of no other cheese that has developed with such a transient history.
It begins with the fertile pastures of a former east Prussian town as its namesake. The town of Tilsit, located in the Baltic lowlands, was surrounded by perfect pasture for the breed of cow named for the region of Schleswig-Holstein - the black and white Holstein cows. The neighboring Baltic Sea provided the cool damp conditions for rich pastures.

During the mid 1800's, migrants from the Emmental valley in Switzerland focused on this region for their new home and production. The Tilsit or Tilsiter (from Tilsit) recipe was first described in 1840, by a Mrs. Westpfahl who lived on a farm in the town of Tilsit. A smaller version of Emmental was the goal, but different equipment, ingredients, and ambient cultures resulted in a more pungent invention with smaller holes.

Although these Swiss brought their Alpine skills and make-procedures with them, the cheese gods had other plans for this cheese.
The lowland pastures and the local bovine population (Holsteins) could not have been more different from the Alpine conditions they had come from:

  • The Holsteins were a much higher milk yielding cow but with lower fat-to-protein ratios than their Brown Swiss of the mountains.
  • The maritime lowlands of the Baltic region produced a much different pasture than the sunny Alpine meadows.
  • The damp conditions produced a very different community of bacteria and molds in the aging cellars. As expected, the cheese became infected with molds, yeasts, and bacteria while being aged in these damp cellars.

So, it should be no surprise that the changes they encountered in their new home made a cheese that evolved quite different. The original recipe was for a young cheese similar to what they made in Switzerland, but due to a very different environment, the bacteria, molds and yeasts of home were quite different due to a much more humid place.

At some point in the late 1800's or early 1900's the Dutch migration with their Gouda also got a foot into the Tilsit door with their Gouda influences, providing a bit more variation.

The Tilsit cheese that evolved in this Baltic region became an extremely popular table and cooking cheese of the surrounding region of north eastern Europe. It was well received throughout Germany and Poland.

Photos of Tilsit production during the 1930's

Continuing into the 20th century, the cheese prospered in it's new home until the wars and resulting geographic re-alignment. In 1945, as Russia absorbed the former German region, the remaining German-speaking cheese makers were expelled, taking their cheese back to their homelands. The town was then re-named 'Sovetsk' and the name Tilsit then existed only in the cheese. The Swiss took their cheese back to Switzerland, the Dutch back to Holland and most notably Denmark, and the Polish and Germans began to make their own variations.

Now, on a more recent note, the family that originally brought Tilsit back to Switzerland (Otto Wartmann ) became concerned with it's international production and right to use the name Tilsit. In 2007, they facilitated the renaming their farm community in Switzerland as the town of Tilsit.

A familiar pattern of migration to a rich dairyland, followed by an emigration for various reasons, all resulted in new variations of the cheese and it's history.  (If you have not read Paul Kindstedt's book 'Cheese and Culture', I do recommend putting it on your 'must read' list for a great insight into how cheese has evolved over history.)

Variations in Style:

The Fog of History now leaves us with the Swiss, Polish, German, Dutch, and Danish all getting involved with it through the paths of time.

  • The Swiss took their cheese back to Switzerland where it has evolved into the Swiss Tilsiter, a cheese that is more along the line of their Alpine style cheese with a mild semi-soft texture and a much closer body with round holes, compared with the open body of the other Tilsit style cheeses.
    The Swiss now make a range of their Tilsit cheeses:

    • Green label for pasteurized milder cheese.
    • Red Label for unpasteurized, stronger flavor "Farmhouse Tilsit". This is a more intense cheese and is aged for about 5 months, which yields a strong-smelling cheese similar to Limburger in aroma.
    • Yellow label for pasteurized but with added cream for a mild and creamy cheese.

  • Danish Tilsit has followed the Polish Tilsiter style, but currently has evolved in the direction of the Danish Havarti style and is sometimes referred to as Tilsit-Havarti. This is typically a semi-soft, moderately aromatic cheese with many cracks and splits caused by the curds not being heavily pressed in molding.
    This has further evolved into the Danish creamed Havarti which has more cream added, no B.linens used, sealed in plastic with no rind. All adding up to a much milder cheese that has been found to be more suited to the American taste as well.  The smear bacteria is washed off after two months of allowing it to penetrate the cheese, then a thin wax outer coating is applied, which stops the cheese from molding.

    In the mid-19th Century, Dutch/Danish settlers came to East Prussia as well (now part of Russia and Poland) near the town of Tilsit. Without their familiar cheeses, these settlers grew to crave the Gouda they had come to love. Through their determination and their passion for fine cheese, these settlers resolved to attempt a recreation of their beloved Gouda. However, one cannot make Danish Gouda in a damp, moldy Prussian cellar and so was born their Tilsit, also known as Tilsit-Havarti.

  • Holsteiner Tilsiter is a cheese currently made in the Baltic region of Germany and as of recently (Dec 5, 2013) is a geographically protected cheese by the EU.  A sign of the excellent reputation of ‘Holsteiner Tilsiter’ is it's very specific aroma and it's particular flavor, which is characterized by the special way in which it is spiced with caraway. Both properties can only be achieved through the special bacteria cultures, which can only exist in type and combination in the climatic area between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.
    This German variation features the eyes and cracks that are typical for Tilsiter. The flavor ranges from mild and lightly aromatic to strong and spicy, depending on how long the cheese is stored.

All in all, this has been a very interesting evolution for a cheese. I think that the take-away message here is that any cheese should be what we want it to be.
It is really a matter of working with what the land and it's environs provides for us and working with that to make what we like.
This is true 'Terroir' (sense of place) and every place on earth has something good to offer.


A Recipe for Making Tilsit Cheese in Your Kitchen

My guide, as written here, is for a 2 gallon project which will yield a little more than 2 lbs of finished cheese, but I normally do a double batch as in the photographs below for a better surface-to-mass ratio, as well as to obtain the low form profile for this cheese. You can very easily double the ingredients below.

Before You Begin:

You will need:

  • 2 gallons of whole milk (not ultra-pasturized)
  • 1/2 packet each of our Buttermilk culture and our C201 culture
    Note: Ideally this cheese is made with an aromatic culture (Buttermilk) and a thermo/helveticus (C201) combo. Optionally, about 1/4 tsp of our MA4002 culture may work just fine, but will not have the benefit of the helveticus during the ripening process.
  • Liquid single strength Rennet (1/4 tsp)
  • A small amount of B.linens (1/16 tsp)
  • Salt (non-iodized)
  • A good thermometer
  • A knife to cut the curds, and a spoon or ladle to stir the curds 
  • 1 SmallMold-M3 with follower
  • A colander and butter muslin to drain the curds
  • Draining mats to allow the whey to run off from the molded curds
  • A Cheese Press or weights to apply sufficient weight for consolidation of the curds
  • Calcium Chloride (1/4-1/2 tsp) to be used for cold stored or pasteurized milk (not usually needed if using fresh raw milk stored for less than 3-4 days)

Everything, including the work area needs to be clean and sanitized before you begin.

Acidifying and Heating the Milk:

Begin by heating the milk to 90F. You do this by placing the milk in a pot or sink of very warm water. If you do this in a pot on the stove make sure you heat the milk slowly and stir it well as it heats.
Calcium Chloride can be added at this point, if needed, as shown above


The milk is picked up fresh in the AM and is carefully transferred and heated

Once the milk is at 90F, the culture can be added. Only 1/2 pack of each is required due to the long slow acid development, which will maintain a sweeter flavor.
To prevent the powder from caking and sinking in clumps, sprinkle the powder over the surface of the milk and then allow about 2 minutes for the powder to re-hydrate before stirring it in.
Note:  In this recipe, a mesophilic culture is used for the primary conversion of lactose, but also a thermophilic culture is added and worked at the lower temperature. The thermophilic will carry through to the ripening stage, helping to convert the proteins to the soft, buttery texture that is characteristic for this style.

Allow this milk to ripen for 60 minutes for the bacteria to re-vitalize themselves and begin their work of converting lactose to lactic acid.

Coagulation with Rennet:

Then, add about 1/4 tsp (1.25ml) of single strength liquid rennet diluted in 1/4 cup cool non-chlorinated water. Stir this into the milk in an up and down manner for about 1-2 minutes. The milk should quickly become still.

The milk now needs to sit still for about 30 minutes while the culture works and the rennet coagulates the curd. You will note the milk beginning to thicken at about 15 minutes but give it the full time for a complete set.
The thermal mass of this milk should keep it warm during this period but it is OK if the temperature drops a few degrees during this time.

Check for a firm curd before continuing. If the curd tends to be too firm, use a bit less rennet in the next batch. If it seems too soft at 30 minutes, wait until you see a firm curd (one that splits cleanly) but make a note to increase the rennet proportionately for the next time you make this.

Cutting Curds and Releasing the Whey:

A firm curd is now ready to cut. Begin cutting vertically with a long knife, making 1/2-3/4" parallel cuts, then turn the pot a half turn and make secondary cuts at a right angle to the first cuts. The end result will be a checkerboard pattern on the surface. Let this sit for 4-5 minutes until you see whey rising in the cuts.

Your next cut will be horizontal with a flat ladle or spoon. Do this evenly, but gently to avoid the curds clumping together. The final result should be a curd of between 1/2-3/8 inch. They will become smaller as you proceed with stirring and they release their whey. The smaller you cut the curd, the drier the final texture will be and the longer they will take to ripen.

Cooking the Curds:

Now, it is time to begin drying out the curds as the bacteria continue to produce lactic acid from the lactose. This will be done:

  • First, by stirring the curds slowly and steadily for 15-20 minutes to allow the surfaces to form a slight skin, and then letting the curds settle below the whey.
  • Next, about 30-40% (2.5-3 qts) of the whey is removed from the pot. I find that using a plastic colander (it floats) holds the curds back and makes it easy to ladle the whey off. This should bring you just about to the curd level. Stir the curds enough to float them, then add about 1qt of 125-130F water back to the pot slowly over 20 minutes as you stir. This should slowly and evenly increase the temperature to 100F.


Removing whey and washing with warm water to reduce lactose and slow acid development

  • Finally, continue stirring slowly at 100F for another 40-50 minutes, which will continue to dry the curds. This is optional, but some people do find that adding about 1/4 to 1/2 oz. of salt to the curds will help to draw moisture from the curds, as well as discourage the bacteria from becoming too active and keeping the curds sweet. Remember, our goal is a slow acid development for this cheese and a relatively sweet final cheese.

The final curds should be cooked well through and should be examined to make sure that enough moisture has been removed. A broken curd should be firm throughout and the curds should have a moderate resistance when pressed between the fingers.

When this point is reached, the curds can be allowed to settle under the whey.

Transferring to Forms:

The sanitized mold lined with butter muslin should have been prepared ahead.  The dry curds can now be transferred to the form.

First, begin by allowing the curds to settle in the pot, then transfer the whey to the forms. This will help to wet the cloth for better wicking/drainage as well as to pre-warm the molds. It is a good idea to avoid any excess cooling of the curds before they have had a chance to consolidate.

Once the whey has been drained to the curd level, give the curds a good stir before transferring to the forms. If you are adding herbs to the cheese, this is the time to add them in alternating layers with the curds.


Transfer of curds to the mold

Note: For a more open texture (as in the Danish style Tilsit), you can pre-drain the curds before molding, but if a closed body (Swiss style) is your goal, then transferring direct to the forms with the whey is best.

Pressing:

Pressing for this cheese will be very light and a weight of 4-5 lbs for 2-4 hours should be sufficient for the 4.5" mold used for this cheese.

IF using a larger mold or pressing a drier curd, increase the total weight proportionately to the surface area of the mold.

As usual, the rate of whey running off after the initial flush is simply a matter of drops and not a rush of whey being released. This is a good rate of whey removal during pressing and will slow even more as the residual free moisture is released. You should see tears of whey weeping from the form very slowly.


At each turn the cheese takes on a more consolidated appearance

The character of this cheese will be more open than most other firmer pressed cheeses.

The cheese should be removed from the press, unwrapped, turned, re-wrapped, and put back into the form at about 1 hour intervals for the first 5-6 hours to assure an even consolidation.
At each turn, you will notice the cheese has formed a smoother surface and rests lower in the mold.

At about 6-8 hours, the cheese can be removed from the mold and is ready for the brine salting.

Salting:

You should have a saturated brine prepared for salting this cheese.
You will find all of the details you need on brining here.
A simple brine formula is:
1 gallon of water to which is added 2.25 lbs. of salt, 1 tbs. calcium chloride (30% solution), and 1 tsp. white vinegar.

The cheese now needs to be immersed in the brine for about 5 hours.
The cheese will float above the brine surface, so sprinkle another teaspoon or 2 of salt on the top surface of the cheese.
Flip the cheese and re-salt the surface about half way through the brine period.

At the end of the brine bath, wipe the surface and allow the cheese to surface dry for 12-24 hours in a space of about 85% moisture and 60-68F before beginning the rind development.


Rind Preparation and Aging:

Once you have the cheese out of the brine and dried of any surface moisture, you are ready to begin the rind development. A natural smeared washed/smeared rind is traditional for this cheese due to the conditions where it developed ... cool and moist.

The first step will be to preserve the moisture of the cheese and not allow the rind to dry on the surface. This will definitely need a moist area (90-95%) and for home cheese makers, I suggest a plastic container with a seal-able lid. The temperature should also be warmer (60-65F) for the first 5-7 days as well. The cheese needs to be turned daily and the container wiped of any excess condensation that might drip on the cheese.

A good program for progression of the rind development would be :

    1. Brine salt is moving towards the center of the cheese and the salt dried surface post brine will begin to soften in the next few days.
    2. Natural air-borne yeast will have populated the surface (from the air and your handling) and begin to grow.
  • Day 3-5
    The surface will become softer as the salt migrates to the center of the cheese and moisture from the center migrates outwards to the drier surface.
    The cheese will also take on a greasy surface as the yeast develops, as well as a rather yeasty aroma.
    As you see the greasy surface develop, prepare a wash from 1 cup water, 1tbs salt, and 1/16 tsp B.linens. This needs to rehydrate overnight in the fridge.
  • Day 5-9
    The surface should show signs of the yeast growth and is ready for the first wash.
    The wash is done with a clean sanitized cloth dipped into the prepared brine with B.linens. Rub the surface well, dipping and rinsing the cloth in the brine frequently.
    When finished, the surface should be much less greasy.
    This will grow back over the next 2-3 days and should be washed again at least once more at day 7-9. Do additional washings until you begin to see signs of a light red/orange.
    The storage temp should now be reduced to cave temp of 52-56F and a high moisture 90-95%.
  • Day 9-Final aging
    This will normally be another 4-5 weeks or longer depending on the character you want. During this time, the surface should be lightly smeared with a new wash prepared as above, but no B.linens. This should only need to be done every 3-7 days with brine damp cloth and the purpose now is to smear the rind rather than wash it off. Many of the holes will begin to fill in.

The character of the cheese can be controlled by the number of times it is washed and the length of ripening time.

    • Mild @ 5 weeks
    • Medium @ 3 months
    • Sharp @ 6 months and very aromatic ... more like Limburger

The character can also be modified by removing the surface mold and dropping the temperature to 42-46F while the aroma stabilizes but the cheese body continues to soften.

As you can see, there is a lot of control in making a cheese like this, so feel free to experiment and make the cheese you like. This is the beauty of making your own cheese.


Jim Wallace
Feb 2014


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