What is Lactic Cheese?
Most of you likely already know that cheese making involves the process of preserving milk by separating the solids from the liquid by converting milk sugars (lactose) to lactic acid AND getting the proteins to form into a mass of curds that we can cut and drain.
Now there are two distinctly different ways to go about this:
Developing Lactic Acid. The most natural, and probably the original cheese method, is to simply allow the natural bacteria to feed on the sugars, and in the process produce lactic acid. This acid condition will in turn cause the proteins to go from a relationship of repelling one another to one of attraction (sticking together). This is the beginning of our coagulation, or curd formation, for a lactic cheese process. You will note that there was no mention of using rennet for this coagulation process, although a very tiny amount of rennet can be used.
A few things specific to this process are:
It often takes place at lower temperature but will take more time
The cheeses produced need to be much smaller and require little to no press due to a weaker body structure
Instead of cooking and pressing, lactic cheeses undergo a long draining time to allow the whey to drain
The final cheese will always be more tangy (acid) than a hard cheese and have a softer texture
The more common method for hard cheese though, has only a moderate amount of acid and uses a specific enzyme (rennet) to cause the proteins to coagulate, so that the whey removal can begin. Because this process is triggered by an enzyme, it is logically referred to as an enzymatic cheese process. Specific to this process:
The cheese is generally sweeter (less acid)
The cheese are firmer and can be made larger with a stronger body
The cheese is set at a higher temperature and can be cooked and pressed to remove more whey for longer aging
They can be made either very moist or dry for very different aging processes
Now, having differentiated these two processes, I have defined the extreme range of the possibilities of cheese process.
At one end you may have a lactic cheese like Chevre, ready for the table in 48 hours.
At the other end, you may have an enzymatic cheese, like Parmigiano or Cheddar, that may require 8-14 months or more before it's on the table.
In between these two extremes is an amazing array of cheeses, all with different qualities because of major or minor changes in the process. This is why we can literally make hundreds of different cheeses from the same milk.
I feel that it is a very important to understand that in cheese making there is no black and white, indeed there are a thousand shades of grey, each one representing a different cheese.
So to be clear, you could take a lactic cheese guideline for something like Chèvre or Fromage Blanc, and add no rennet at all, or maybe 2 drops of rennet per gallon; then in the next batch increase to 4 drops and then keep increasing rennet each batch. Eventually you will begin noticing a change in the curds as well as the final cheese. We can call this in between process semi-lactic, as the curd development changes.
Eventually, we will reach a very different point of curd behavior and find a need to set the curd at a higher temperature, maybe cook longer and find that it no longer drains well on its own and needs cooking and stirring as well as a press and weight for consolidation. At this point it would be considered an enzymatic or rennet set process.
This is just one part of cheese making that makes it such a dynamic process and part of why there is such an incredible range of cheese being made today.
Therefore with the same milk, the same rennet and the same culture, you can make a Lactic, Semi-Lactic, or Rennet Set (Enzymatic) cheese by varying amounts of culture, rennet, temperature and time.