Cheese, Please: Recreating
Using a torsion gelometer,
chemist Diane Van Hekken
examines the fracture
properties of Hispanic-style
cheeses to establish their
America's growing Hispanic population craves the various
types of cheese available in their native countries. Raw milk, which
is used to produce these cheeses, gives them distinctive flavors, textures,
and cooking properties. Even though some American companies are producing
Hispanic-style cheeses from pasteurized milk (a U.S. requirement for
cheeses aged less than 60 days), these do not exhibit the full range
of properties of cheeses made from raw milk.
Researchers at ARS' Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC) in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, are studying Hispanic cheeses to help producers meet the increasing demand for them. Total Hispanic-style cheese production in the United States jumped 52 percent from 1996 to 2001, when more than 102 million pounds were sold, according to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. In fact, it is one of the fastest growing U.S. food markets, outpacing the growth of the cheddar and mozzarella markets.
It's Flavor, Not Fire
Hispanic-style cheese does not mean hot-and-spicy cheese; other ingredients
make Hispanic dishes hot. In general, the cheeses are white or off-white
and moist. They taste like fresh milk. They become soft and creamy when
heated but do not lose shape, run, or separate into greasy solids and
liquids. Most cheeses are fresh, though some are aged. Many are mild
tasting and crumbly. Others are harder and have stronger flavor.
Chemist Diane L. Van Hekken and colleagues in ERRC's Dairy Processing
and Products Research Unit are studying selected Hispanic cheeses made
in Mexico to better understand how specific processing techniques result
in their desirable qualities. They are looking at the cheeses' chemical
and physical makeup to learn how these properties relate to flavor;
texture, such as chewiness and stringiness; and function, such as the
ability to melt or be sliced. They want to find ways to duplicate these
characteristics by following U.S. practices and standards. Then, they
hope to apply the findings to improving cheese-processing techniques
According to Van Hekken, there is not a lot of literature available for researchers on the characteristics of these cheese types, and so a main objective is to compile needed references.
In Search of Authenticity
The researchers are looking at four specific cheese types. The first,
Queso Blanco, may be the most popular cheese south of the border. It
is soft and won't melt. Panela is mild, sweet, and crumbly. Asadero
is a smooth, yellow cheese that is somewhat tangy and good for baking.
And last, Van Hekken's research team traveled to Mexico twice, where
they are working with a collaborator to examine Mennonite-style cheeses
from the state of Chihuahua. These semihard cheesesnamed after
the Mennonite settlers who introduced them to the regionare similar
to Queso Quesadilla and Menonita found in the United States.
"All these cheeses have been developed for specific purposes,"
Van Hekken explains. "People can't cook a Mexican-style dish, for
example, with American-style cheese and expect it to taste authentic.
Restaurants that want their dishes to be traditional know this, and
they search for the right cheeses."
A sensory evaluation board (taste panel) at ERRC has been working since
May 2001 to define the flavor profiles of both raw and pasteurized cheeses.
MaryAnne Drake, a professor with North Carolina University's Department
of Food Science, helped initiate training for panelists to become human
instruments and to use a common terminology in describing what they
The researchers also hope to improve the shelf life of Hispanic-style
cheeses, which will expand their marketability here and in foreign markets
and ensure high food-safety standards.By Jim
Core, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of New Uses, Quality, and Marketability of
Plant and Animal Products, an ARS National Program (#306) described
on the World Wide Web at http://www.nps.ars.usda.
Diane L. Van Hekken
is in the USDA-ARS Dairy Processing and Products Research Unit, Eastern
Regional Research Center, 600 East Mermaid Lane, Wyndmoor, PA 19038-8598;
phone (215) 836-3777, fax (215) 233-6795.
"Cheese, Please: Recreating Unique Properties of Hispanic Cheeses" was published in the December 2002 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.