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Tools of the Trade: The Cheese Vat

The first U.S. cheese factory opened in New York in 1851. Cheese factories relieved farmers from the burden of small-scale cheesemaking, a complicated and labor-intensive process. Small farms began selling their milk to local cheese factories rather than making their own cheese, which proved far more lucrative for the farmer. In terms of ownership, factories were owned by a single or a few proprietors or were cooperatively owned by farm patrons.

Factory cheesemaking produced a consistent, high-quality product under the direction of a skilled cheesemaker. Their job was to create good quality cheese across the board. The significant income of factories allowed a certain level of marketing, which in turn resulted in brand recognition and steeper prices. Local factories did not often market locally, but to large, distant cities.

Commercial-farm cheesemaking equipment continued to be used in factory cheesemaking, though it was improved and utilized on a larger scale. The cheese vat was one such tool, becoming larger and more numerous than in the past. In commercial farm cheesemaking, farmers used vats that were self-heated; in a factory setting, the vats were heated by steam from a dairy boiler. Early boilers were powered by wood and later, by coal. These boilers not only heated the cheese vats with their steam, but also powered centrifugal milk testers, and pumps for milk or water, and heated the building itself.

Cheese vats were vital to the cheesemaking process. Milk was poured into the cheese vat, where it continued to ripen overnight. A mechanical stirrer was employed to constantly stir the milk, insuring that the fat didn’t separate out as cream. In cheese factories, a “carefully controlled lactic culture” was often used to expedite the ripening (as opposed to buttermilk, sour milk, or whey in the commercial-farm). The whey was then siphoned out and the curd was cut using a large-scale curd knife. Once the curd was ready, it was removed from the cheese vat to the cheese press and the process continued.

Photo by Denis Balibouse courtesy of The Atlantic

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