Why is salt added as an ingredient when making cheese? Well, it’s not just for flavour!
Salt is very important in cheesemaking, for as well as helping add to the flavour of cheese, it also controls the bacteria that grow inside the cheese, helps with texture development, regulates moisture, and helps preserve the cheese as it ages.
Adding salt is a key step in the cheese-making process, and is essential for making good cheese. The salt is added to the cheese at a very early stage – either by adding it into the dry curd mass before it is moulded into shape, or by applying it to the outside of the cheese once it has been moulded into shape (by sprinkling it on the rind, or by immersing the whole cheese in brine).
As well as contributing to the final taste, the addition of salt has a number of other benefits:
- Adding salt at a key stage of manufacture, depending on the cheese recipe, helps stop further growth of cheese-making cultures (lactic acid and starter bacteria) once a certain acidity and texture has developed in the curd. This allows the cheese-maker to produce differing and longer lasting cheeses.
- Salt helps draw whey (moisture) out of the curd, thus drying out the curd more than would be possible without the addition of salt, which is essential when making ‘aged’ cheeses.
- In certain cheeses, the addition of salt to the outside, by brining the whole cheese or rubbing salt into the rind, helps to form the rind of the cheese. This happens in two ways – either by neutralising the rind to allow moulds and bacteria to develop, (cheeses like Brie, for example), or by drying the rind through osmosis, helping form the tough rinds of cheeses like Parmesan, Manchego and Gouda.
- Salt contributes to the texture of the final cheese because it affects how the fats and proteins break down within the cheese as it ages. It also enables cheese-makers to encourage certain moulds to dominate. Blue mould, for example, tolerates higher salt environments; the blue mould can be encouraged to grow and dominate other moulds by the addition of salt.
- Finally, salt is added for safety reasons because it acts as a natural preservative. When ageing cheese, it is important that the moisture within the cheese is ‘bound’ to salt (effectively like brining itself). For aged cheeses, therefore, salt will help preserve the cheese by preventing spoilage and preventing pathogenic bacteria from growing. That’s why cheeses like Feta can be stored un-refrigerated, and other very-dry cheeses like Parmesan could technically last forever.
So is it possible to make good cheese with reduced salt? Or even make cheese with no salt at all?
With increasing pressure from health-bodies to reduce salt intake, many large scale cheese manufacturers have been working hard to develop low- or reduced-salt versions of cheese. But as salt plays such a key part in the cheese-making and maturing processes, the results so far have been largely unsuccessful.
Some cheeses by their very nature are lower in salt, but these tend to be those that are consumed fresher and thus don’t need salt to help them age and breakdown – cottage and cream cheese are in this category. Some large-scale manufacturers have also been experimenting with using potassium chloride salt to replace some of the normal sodium chloride salt, in an effort to reduce the sodium level and produce low- or reduced-salt cheese. Potassium chloride salt does have some of the same technological advantages of sodium chloride (by inhibiting ‘bad’ bacteria and controlling ‘starter’ cultures) but it has been associated with ‘bitter’ and ‘metallic’ flavours in the final cheese. And although these can be marketed as low- or reduced-salt as they have about 30% lower sodium content, the increased level of potassium chloride could cause other health issues.
So it appears for the time being that genuine low/reduced- or no-salt cheeses can’t really exist. But it is worth bearing in mind that cheese also contains many essential nutrients and contributes less salt per se to the average UK person’s diet than bread, cereals, bacon, ham and many other foods.
As always, the motto is “everything in balance and moderation” – moderate amounts of something properly made and with real flavour are more enjoyable than huge chunks of something bland and adulterated!