Cheese and Microbes

Editor: Catherine W. Donnelly1
Affiliations: 1: Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences; 2: Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, The University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont
Content Type: Monograph
Format: Electronic
Publication Year: 2014

Category: Food Microbiology

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Human evolution and history are inextricably connected to a world of microbes. Over thousands of years, a global landscape of food and drink has rested fundamentally on beneficial microorganisms and the process of fermentation.

In , editor Catherine W. Donnelly presents perspectives from internationally renowned experts on the essential role of these wonderful organisms in transforming milk into an extraordinary galaxy of cheeses. The chapters provide a scientific overview of the association of microbes with cheese through the lens of select cheese varieties that result due to surface mold ripening, internal mold ripening, rind washing, cave aging, and surface smear rind development.

  • Explains the transformation of milk to cheese and how sensory attributes of cheese are evaluated
  • Discusses the regulations governing cheesemaking, both in the United States and abroad, that ensure safety
  • Explores how the tools of molecular biology provide new insights into the microbial complexity of cheeses
  • Examines the biodiversity of traditional cheeses as a result of traditional practices
  • Presents research on the stability of the microbial consortia of select traditional cheese varieties
is for cheesemakers, scientists, students, and cheese enthusiasts who wish to expand their knowledge of cheeses and traditional foods.

. —Jeff Roberts, Owner/President, Cow Creek Creative Ventures; Adjunct Faculty, New England Culinary Institute; and Visiting Faculty, University of Gastronomic Sciences

is a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont. She served as the Associate Director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese from 2004 to 2013. Recognized by colleagues for her many contributions to improving detection, Dr. Donnelly is widely regarded as an international expert and has published numerous articles and delivered hundreds of presentations on this bacterial pathogen. Her current scholarly interests include investigation of the microbiological safety of aged raw milk cheeses.

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The Quarterly Review On Biology

20 November 2015

This volume is organized into 12 chapters written by international contributors and covers all aspects of cheese production from a technological as well as from a microbiological point of view. The book begins with excellent introductory chapters that provide a historical overview on cheese and microbes and introduce the technological and chemical basics of cheesemaking. The volume includes a chapter covering the somewhat controversial but nevertheless highly important field of cheese classification, and an in-depth chapter on starter cultures. Also different types of cheeses—such as mold-ripened cheeses, French mountain cheeses, and Italian and Greek cheeses—are discussed in detail in separate chapters. Although each of these chapters is highly interesting and well written, I sometimes found the selection of cheese types discussed a bit odd: some cheese varieties (e.g., local Greek or Italian protected designation of origin (PDO) cheeses) are discussed in great detail, other widespread and well-known cheese types such as Emmental, Cheddar, or blue-veined cheeses are unfortunately only discussed relatively briefly. Also, an inclusion of more molecular data on cheese microbes would have been desirable.

The book includes a chapter on wooden tools as reservoirs for microbial biodiversity and discusses safety and quality aspects of wooden tools. A comprehensive chapter describes general microbiological quality and safety issues in cheesemaking as well as regulatory aspects of food safety. The volume ends with a very nice outlook on how to include molecular and ecological aspects into cheese microbiology.

I very much enjoyed reading the whole book. All of the chapters are well written and presented. In addition, the chapters are very well referenced so that readers can easily find additional information on specific topics of interest. This volume is a great, concise, and informative resource for anyone interested in cheese in general, and particularly for microbiologists and food technologists.

Stephan Schmitz-Esser, Institute for Milk Hygiene, Milk Technology & Food Science, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Vienna, Austria

 Olive Branch United

18 February 2015

There’s a scene in the British TV series Chef where Lenny Henry, disgusted over the law against unpasteurized cheese, says “that’s exactly what cheese is, gone-off milk with bugs and mold, that’s why it tastes so damn good!” This book makes the microbial basis clear, in that cheese requires bacterial (among other) fermentations to achieve its best quality. Given the amount of microorganism in cheese, it seems almost impossible to get sick from cheese that has spoiled.

Cheese and Microbes begins with the basics; an overview of cheeses from hard to soft, and the kind of rinds you can expect. How much fermentation is required, and the kind of bacteria and heat needed, are all covered. In the chapter The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (brilliant title, considering that the greatest cheeses look and smell hideous) we learn that the word “fromage” comes from formos, the baskets that the Greeks used to drain whey from curds. Cheese fermentation, according to this chapter, was a natural development of agriculture, stemming from people eating spoiled milk and eventually coming to like the taste.

Further chapters deal with the development of modern cheese, like Swiss cheese, and the origin of their shape. We learn why they are so popular in their countries of origin, and the need that they serve. A recent book, Bringing Up Bebe (aka French Children Don’t Throw Food) describes how French children are taught to enjoy cheeses from an early age. I remember how people reacted to the book, with “holy cow, you know those disgusting French cheeses, the kids in France actually eat them!” But look at the cheese that American kids eat, like Kraft slices; this so-called “American cheese” is actually a version of Cheddar, and is made with oil and water. It’s full of chemicals that your kid’s body won’t thank him for. Maybe those “disgusting” French cheeses aren't that bad by comparison?

This is a great book for any cheese aficionado, but there is more that can be done with it. I would welcome a version of this book written specifically for children, with more color illustrations. It would be a great way to introduce gastronomically-ignorant elementary school children to “the joy of cheese.” In today’s foodie-crazed USA, I bet the book would fly off the shelves.

Olive Branch United


Reviewer: Ben Wolinsky

Review Date: February 12, 2015

Midwest Book Reviews (MBR Bookwatch)

26 January 2015

Synopsis: Compiled and edited by Catherine W. Donnelly (Professor of Nutrition and Food Science, University of Vermont), "Cheese and Microbes" provides a scientific overview of the association of microbes with cheese, through the lens of select cheese varieties that result due to surface mold ripening, internal mold ripening, rind washing, cave aging, or surface smear rind development. Over the past decade, there has been explosive growth in the U.S. artisan cheese industry. Professor Donnelly, was involved in developing a comprehensive education curriculum for those new to cheese making, which focused on the science of cheese, principally to promote cheese quality and safety. Many of the chapters in this book focus on aspects of that requisite knowledge. "Cheese and Microbes" explains the process of transformation of milk to cheese and how sensory attributes of cheese are evaluated; provides an overview of cheese safety and regulations governing cheese making, both in the US and abroad, to ensure safety; explores how the tools of molecular biology provide new insights into the complexity of the microbial biodiversity of cheeses; examines the biodiversity of traditional cheeses as a result of traditional practices, and overviews research on the stability of the microbial consortium of select traditional cheese varieties; and is a key text for cheese makers, scientists, students, and cheese enthusiasts who wish to expand their knowledge of cheeses and traditional foods.

Critique: Informed and informative, "Cheese and Microbes" is comprised of twelve expertly written articles that are exceptionally well organized and presented, making it an ideal textbook for agricultural school curriculums and a critically important contribution to professional and academic library cheesemaking and microbiology reference collections and supplemental studies reading lists.

Midwest Book Reviews (MBR Bookwatch)

Reviewer: Taylor's Bookshelf

Review Date: December 2014

 Microbiology Today

11 December 2014

 Recent years have seen something of a counter-revolution both in brewing and cheesemaking and a massive resurgence in interest in artisan or craft products. This book, published by the American Society for Microbiology and edited by a director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, looks at the complex microbiology of the huge range of cheeses produced around the world and has enlisted a panel of authors from the United States and (predominantly) Europe to do this.

An introductory historical chapter from the Editor is followed by an excellent short account of the basic features of cheesemaking, describing how in broad terms the process influences the microflora and consequently the product. The complexity of the underlying microbiology and biochemistry is such that starting from milk, a fairly uniform raw material, it is possible by slight changes in process conditions to produce a huge array of different products. This is well illustrated by the subsequent chapter describing the difficulties in devising simple systems of cheese classification. Chapters on mesophilic and thermophilic starters and mould-ripened cheeses are then followed by a series of contributions on neglected areas, which make this book unique. There are chapters on traditional mountain cheeses, Protected Designation of Origin Italian cheeses, traditional Greek cheeses, the biodiversity in yeast/bacterial consortia associated with surface-ripened cheeses such as Limburger, as well as an interesting contribution on the role of wooden tools as reservoirs of microbes in cheesemaking practice.

A penultimate chapter on issues of microbiological quality and safety is followed by a closing contribution from the Center for Systems Biology at Harvard on an ecosystem approach to studying cheese microbiology integrating the massive datasets available through high-throughput sequencing with measurements of ecosystem properties. This is an excellent book that doesn't lack hard science and might also give you an appetite.

Microbiology Today

41:4, November 2014, Pg. 190

Reviewer: Martin Adams, University of Surrey

Review Date: November 14, 2014

Cheese Notes

31 July 2014

On The Bookshelf: Cheese and Microbes

There is a universe of invisible players participating in the creation of every wheel of cheese; at the microbial level, an army of bacteria, molds and yeasts do the heavy lifting of transforming the white fluid that emerges from the udders into the rainbow of cheese varieties we know and love. Some of those microbes are present in the milk even before it leaves the animal; others are added by the cheesemakers — whether from lab-produced foil packs or carefully nurtured mother cultures — or are resident in the making and aging spaces through which the wheels pass.

Here to tell the story of this microbial world comes a new book: Cheese And Microbes, a compendium of current writing on the role of microbiology in cheesemaking, from ASM Press (the American Society of Microbiology). Dr Catherine Donnelly, the editor, as well as the author of the first chapter, is a professor of nutrition and food science, an international Listeria expert, and was one of the founders of the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese, at the University of Vermont, Burlington (which sadly had to close down its venerated educational program just a couple years ago). As such she is someone who really knows her Candidum’s from her Staph’s, and has been at the forefront of the explosion of new cheesemakers in the US in the last couple decades. (Note: I completed the VIAC Cheesemaker Certification program right before it closed, in 2013).

We might not be able to see these organisms at work, but we can certainly see the results, whether in the brainy wrinkles of a Loire Valley goat’s milk cheese, the pungent red smear of a washed rind or the vibrant indigo veins running through a blue cheese. Whether a cheese, at peak, oozes into a puddle as it warms or sags but holds firm; whether it smells faintly of mushrooms or strongly of barnyard, can come down to which microbes were dominant at crucial points in the aging process.

Every decision that the cheesemaker and affineur makes is in service to these tiny, temperamental lords: temperature, humidity, flipping, brushing, rubbing, aging, all designed to allow certain populations to thrive, while discouraging others from getting a foothold in our wheels. When a cheese wins Best In Show at a competition, it’s because this microbial dance was masterfully choreographed; when a cheese tastes acrid or blows up like a balloon from excess gas, it’s because, at some point in the process, the wrong microbes took over.

The story of microbes in cheese includes the bad guys of course, the Listerias and Salmonellas which can threaten our health, or a mold like the gray, fuzzy Mucor, which, while harmless for human consumption, is a vexing cosmetic challenge driving many a cheesemaker to distraction when it appears on their pristine wheels. Much of the research indicates that our best protection against the unwanted microbes is not to sterilize the milk or the aging spaces in the hopes of killing off the undesirable organisms, but rather to ensure that the desired microbes are able to thrive and form a steadybulwark. The best defense is a good offense, and a wheel that has a thriving population of desirable microbes already resident is a much harder target for invaders.

This is not a cheesemaking guide, and you won’t find any recipes in it. Neither is it a microbiology 101 textbook (although it does cover the fundamentals of both cheesemaking and microbiology). Rather, it collects some of the best studies, essays and research, from a broad array of authors, on the subject of microbes and the science of cheesemaking, seen through the lens of a variety of cheese styles. From Rachel Dutton and Ben Wolfe writing about an “ecological” approach to cheese microbiology; Sister Noella Marcellino writing about “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” of mold-ripened cheeses; a study of the microbiology of Alpine cheeses (comparing the active cultures, and divergent flavor and aroma profiles, in raw- vs pasteurized-milk cheeses); or an analysis of wooden tools as a “reservoir of microbial biodiversity”, each chapter examines cheese from a unique, microscopic perspective.

The book comes out at a very timely moment: with the recent brouhaha over the FDA’s threatened-then-retracted ban on the aging of cheeses on wood, it’s more important than ever for cheesemakers, cheesemongers and even “civilians” — i.e. the customer standing at the cheese counter wondering what to buy — to have a solid, informed understanding of the role that the microbial kingdom plays in cheese, and where the dangers do — or do not — really come from. (Spoiler alert: wood is not a common vector for contamination and may even provide some protections that plastic does not offer). Dr Dennis D’Amico, who taught my Sanitation & Hygiene class at VIAC and has long been an advocate for improved safety practices in artisan cheese operations, authors a chapter titled "Microbiological Quality and Safety Issues in Cheesemaking". Education becomes doubly important with increased scrutiny coming from the FDA and state inspectors, and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) imposing additional requirements, such as a HAACP Plan, on producers. More than ever, small-scale producers can benefit — and protect themselves — with a deeper comprehension of the science of cheesemaking.

The book begins with the basics — the first chapter, from Dr Donnelly, is titled “From Pasteur to Probiotics: A Historical Overview of Cheese and Microbes”, followed by Dr. Paul Kindstedt writing on “The Basics of Cheesemaking”, Dr. Montse Almena and Dr. Bernard Mietton discussing “Cheese Classification, Characterization and Categorization”, and so on, gradually advancing into more complex territory (I’ll admit some of the charts and graphs in later chapters made my eyes cross a little). Some of them are dense and technical in nature, with page after page of data (such as the chapter on the “Microfloras of Traditional Greek Cheeses”), while others take a more conversational, essayistic approach (Sister Noella’s chapter is both technical and entertaining at once, recounting her adventures in the caves of france and the labs of Connecticut). But even with the more technical chapters, the information presented is fascinating enough to keep you moving (well, if you’re a gigantic cheese nerd at least).

Just because you make cheese doesn't mean you understand the scientific processes occurring in the vat or the cave, anymore than a baker can necessarily identify the precise strains causing their loaves to expand, or a brewer really knows the critters giving his beer a proper head. But one of the interesting paradoxes of this new age of artisan, small-scale, homemade, local, DIY, is that a technical, scientific understanding of food preparation has become more sought after than ever. Even as we reject the manufactured, hyper-standardized approach of industrial foods, we are bringing many of the skills and know-how of the laboratory into our own small-scale operations. Whether it’s pickling, fermentation, brewing, baking, or cheesemaking (David Chang with his R&D Lab, or Sandor Katz, are just a few of the culinary stars of this moment), we are looking beyond the recipe, and seeking to understand the why and the how, even at the microscopic scale. If this is something that interests you, or if you are a current or aspiring cheesemaker, Dr Donnelly’s book is an excellent resource to have at your fingertips.

It should be said that this book is not cheap. At a list price of $150, it’s clearly priced for the textbook market. I’d say it’s worth the investment, but I’ve already had more than one professional cheesemaker say to me that they’d love to read it, but…it’s just a little too expensive for their budget. Perhaps there will be a paperback edition down the road that will be more affordable; this is the kind of book that should be on the shelf in any creamery.

UPDATE: ASM Press has announced that the price has been lowered to $125, and $99 for ASM Members! View it on the ASM site here.

Cheese and Microbes Editor: Catherine W. Donnelly Publication Year: 2014 Category: Food Microbiology Print ISBN : 9781555815868 e-ISBN : 9781555818593 DOI: 10.1128/9781555818593

Cheese Notes


Reviewer: Matt Spiegler, VIAC-certified urban cheesemaker and blogger

Review Date: July 2014

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