Switzerland is the motherland of Swiss cheese, one of the most recognized styles of cheese across the globe. While there are many wonderful styles of cheese that are local to Switzerland and can thus be referred to as “Swiss”, most Americans use the title Swiss cheese as a generic catch-all for a Swiss style speckled with holes.
The Hole Story
Those holes in your cheese indicate a specific type of Swiss. This cheese’s proper name is Emmentaler, because it originated in the Emmental region of Switzerland. Emmentaler is distinguished by extra-large holes and a unique flavor. So what in the world causes these gaps in your snack? They are due to a starter culture of bacteria added to the milk at the start of cheesemaking.
Once in the vat, this strain of bacteria, called Propionibacter shermani, consume lactic acid and release bubbles of carbon dioxide gas. These air bubbles become trapped in the rind of the cheese and slowly form holes, or “eyes.” Cheesemakers are able to control the size of the holes by changing the temperature to which they bring the milk, the acidity of the milk, or the aging time of the wheel.
The Flavor of Love
The unique flavor of Emmentaler is also caused by our Propionibacter shermani friends. Carbon dioxide isn’t the only side product that is created when the bacterium eats lactic acid in the young cheese. When CO2 is released from lactic acid, the lactic acid is converted to propionic acid, which is responsible for the unique, pungent smell and flavor we associate with Emmentaler.
Emmentaler can vary widely in taste depending on the activity level of the Propionibacter shermani. Interestingly, flavor and the size of the eyes are related. Larger holes in the cheese mean a more intense and developed flavor. Cheese that has aged longer features increased flavor-enhancing bacteria. This may explain why American-produced Swiss, with its smaller air pockets, sports more mild and creamy flavors. European versions tend to be round, rich, and often nutty.
- You can’t go wrong throwing a slice of Swiss cheese on a ham and cheese sandwich or a hot, buttery croissant.
- Try it on a juicy burger or any number of grilled items.
- If it’s happy hour, pair with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc or a smoky Merlot.