Cheese starter cultures are a form of bacteria used in the production of cheese. They are added to the milk at the start of the cheese making process (not for all cheeses though, there are exceptions such as Haloumi) in order to determine taste, smell, texture and mouth feel.
The main cheese starter cultures are Thermophilic and Mesophilic. Thermophilic cultures can handle being heated to higher temperatures, Mesophilic cultures suffers at higher temperatures.
There are also specific culture strains made by commercial manufacturers which fall into each of these types (Therm and Meso) and each subtly changes the results you will get with your cheese. Your recipe should tell you which culture type you need.
There are other cheese starter cultures such as propionic shermanii which affect the final look and texture of the cheese such as creating the ‘eyes’ (holes) in cheeses such as Swiss or Gruyere. As you get more experienced at making cheese you may want to investigate and give these a go.
Recultured or DVI?
Some cultures need to be recultured first or you can get DVI (direct vat inoculation) cultures which are much easier as you just drop them into your pot and stir them in.
Your cultures are likely to have been freeze dried when you receive them and you should store them in the freezer, sealed in a zip lock bag or container when you are not using them.
During your cheesemaking be careful when measuring your quantities as cultures change the acidity of your milk. Too much culture and your pH levels could end up too high, impacting the final product.
I personally use the CHR Hansen brand of cultures but there are others out there so look around. And support your local cheese making supply companies where you can by buying your products from them.
Finally it is possible to create your own cultures with Buttermilk (Mesophilic starter culture) and Yoghurt (Thermophilic starter culture).
Many new cheesemakers start off using these and it is most certainly cheaper to do so but with commercial cultures you are more likely to get the results you are expecting and hoping for.
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