Once when tacos were on the menu at our house, I encountered big, crunchy crystals in a bit of Hook’s two-year cheddar we were using up. (Lacking a better comparison, the biggest ones were about the size of a Nerd candy.) I did a little poking around online, and it seems that crystals in cheddar are calcium lactate that results as the cheese loses moisture and lactic acid crystallizes. It’s apparently more common in longer-aged cheddars. It was bit unexpected when I first encountered it and — horrifying as it sounds — sort of felt like coming across a chipped piece of my own tooth in my taco!
In my online digging, I rediscovered this piece by Kyle Nabilcy that I had read in the Isthmus (Madison’s weekly alternative newspaper) when it first appeared. I’ve never tasted the Hook’s 15-year cheddar, but inspired by Kyle and other aficionados, I’ll try to take a positive view of those odd crunches in my cheese.
For more info about cheddar crystal formation that is technical but not wholly (!) inaccessible to a non-cheesemaker, head to the lead story in this PDF from the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. As reported by Mark Johnson, senior scientist with the WCDR, their research
confirmed observations that packaging (gas flush vs vacuum), temperature cycling and temperature of storage play a role in the appearance of crystals. Many researchers have found a correlation between crystals and higher levels of lactic acid in cheese. Despite these helpful leads, we knew the puzzle wasn’t solved because we also saw that not all cheese with high acid developed crystals and not all gas flushed cheddar cheese with high acid developed crystals. Although vacuum sealed packages greatly limited calcium lactate crystal production, they did not stop it completely. Now, in the last several years we are seeing crystals forming in young cheese.
Like I said, it’s a technical piece, but it definitely makes for a fascinating read, so I encourage you to check out the full article for yourself.
The Conscientious Omnivore is away this week. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on September 12, 2011.