Swiss cheese has always been a popular kind of cheese. It’s one of the most delicious and also the most visually stimulating kind of cheese because of its large holes (which are known as “eyes” in the cheese world). Its mild, sweet and nutty flavor is well-loved by a lot of people. Swiss cheese is a staple in a lot of recipes such as fondues, quiches, salads, chicken Cordon Bleu, Cuban sandwiches, Reuben and countless others. It’s also a great type of snacking cheese and it’s also the type of food you want to drink fruity red wines with.
The type of Swiss cheese popular in United States resembles Emmental cheese – the yellow, medium-hard cheese full of holes that originated in Emmental, Switzerland. If you buy a Swiss cheese in any cheese store in United States, Canada, New Zealand or Australia, you’d get that kind of cheese. However, if you travel in Europe and you want to buy that kind of Swiss cheese you’re familiar with, you’ll have to ask for Emmental. The use of the word “Swiss” is just used to refer to the origin of the cheese, not its actual name. Also, traditional Swiss cheese is named after the place where it originated, such as Emmental, Gruyere, Appenzeller and others.
Swiss cheese found in the U.S. may either be imported or domestic. Generally, imported Swiss cheeses are made with raw, unpasteurized milk, while the American take on Swiss cheese is made of pasteurized whole or low-fat cow’s milk.
History of Swiss Cheese
The common type of Swiss Cheese that we know, the Emmental cheese, originally came from the Emme River Valley in the West Central region of Switzerland, which is also known as the Emmental area. This place is rich in pastures with large rolling fields ideal for grazing dairy cattle. When the cows were milked, some of it are transformed into cheese.
Historians believe that the farmers in Emmental first started to produce the Emmental cheese sometime in the 14th century, but it was only known during the 1800s. The Swiss kept this cheesy goodness a secret for hundreds of years, because it was only during the early 1800s when the first cheese dairies came to existence. The development of these dairies led to the production in larger quantities, enabling them to market the cheese to other areas of the country and eventually the world.
Today, Swiss cheese is marketed and manufactured throughout the world. Even the French have their own version of the Emmental, which has a slightly stronger flavor than the Swiss variety. But if you want to experience “real” Emmental, it’s best to visit the locality and taste their cheese. Its flavor will be different from other Emmental cheese because dairy farmers in the region are very choosy about what they feed their cows since it affects the final flavor of the cheese. They never feed their cows silage and they only let the cows dine on herbs during the summer. Also, every farmer in Emmental owns no more than 20 cows, so they can take care for each cow more carefully.
When you were a kid, you have probably seen it in cartoons depicted as the cheese rats used to love, and the holes in it are made by mice nibbling it away. As cute (or really gross) as that image may be, the reason for cheese having holes can be explained by science.
Swiss cheese, or specifically Emmental, gets its holes and distinctive flavor from due to the bacteria that turns milk into cheese. All cheeses contain bacteria because it helps in producing lactic acid. During cheese production, the cultures of the bacteria S. thermophilus, Lactobacillus and P. shermani are mixed with cow’s milk. These bacteria help produce curds that are pressed and soaked in brine inside of the cheese molds. After that, the cheese is stored at 72 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and left to ripen. At this point, the P. shermani bacteria consumes the lactic acid excreted by the other bacteria and releases carbon dioxide gas, acetate and propionic acid. The carbon dioxide forms the bubbles that develop the “eyes” of the cheese, while the acetate and propionic acid gives the sweet and nutty flavor to the cheese.
The bubbles that form don’t just disappear, so it results into a hole-y final product. But the size of the holes can be controlled by cheesemakers by changing the acidity, temperature and curing time, which makes it possible to have baby Swiss and regular Swiss cheese options.
In general, the larger the eyes of the Swiss cheese, the more defined its flavor, because it shows it underwent a longer fermentation stage. However, this poses a problem with the mechanical slicers, because the bigger holes do not keep the cheese intact. As a result, the FDA regulated the holes in Swiss cheese to be only between 3/8 and 13/16 of an inch in diameter.
Not all cheese that have holes are Swiss cheese, and not all Swiss cheese have holes. Different varieties of European Swiss cheeses range in flavor from buttery and mildly sweet to a sharp and nutty taste. Here are some of the popular varieties of Swiss cheese:
1. American Swiss cheese – These cheeses are labeled as generic “Swiss cheese” and are made from pasteurized cow’s milk, in regular and low-fat varieties. It can be found sliced or shredded, and is only aged for 4 months. It also has a milder flavor compared to the real Swiss varieties. These cheese melt easily, that’s why they’re popular for fondues and sandwiches. There are three types of American Swiss cheeses generally available:
- Baby Swiss – semi-soft cheese with a pale yellow color. It has a soft and silky texture with delicate, small holes and is made from whole cow’s milk. Its flavor is mild, creamy, buttery and slightly sweet.
- Lacy Swiss – a semi-soft cheese with a texture and flavor like Baby Swiss. It also has small holes. Its difference is that it’s made from low-fat cow’s milk.
- Aged Swiss – a harder cheese with an open texture and larger holes. Its flavor is sharper and has a distinct nutty tinge to it.
2. Emmental – Also known as Emmentaler, this cheese is the oldest and most prestigious cheese from Switzerland. It’s a pale yellow cheese made of part-skim, unpasteurized cow’s milk. Its flavor is mild, buttery, slightly nutty and almost fruity. The holes in Emmental cheese range from small to olive-size. It is manufactured in giant wheels.
3. Gruyere – This cheese originated from the Gruyere valley in Fribourg, Switzerland. It uses cow’s milk with more fat that naturally sweetens the buttery and nutty flavor. It has a brownish-gold rind as it is aged from 10 to 12 months. The center is pale yellow, and the holes are smaller and more evenly placed compared to Emmental.