Ash on cheese? Live yoghurt? 11 questions you were afraid to ask about dairy

16th April 2018

Wonder what makes Greek yoghurt ‘Greek’? Or if all cheese is vegetarian? Hugh Thomas seeks the answers to the cream of the crop of dairy questions.

It’s a topic that crops up when on the subject of our health; we have a lasting obsession with it in its coagulated form (aka, cheese); and it’s largely undocumented when it comes to sustainability. Dairy is an intimidating conversation to have. But need it be? Here are a few of those questions you never got round to asking.

Should I bake with butter or margarine?

Paddle-slapped butter at Berkeley Farm.

Not long ago, saturated fat (which is found in butter, as with a number of nice things) was demonised for contributing to heart disease and diabetes. Now it’s thought butter is unlikely to kill you, but margarine – its trans fat equivalent made from refined oil and water – ‘just might’. So butter is fine. If only we listened to our grandmothers all along.

What makes Greek yoghurt ‘Greek’?

Alex and Dan make Dorset’s answer to Greek yoghurt in small batches on their farm.

Greek yoghurt goes through the same initial process as yoghurt. After this however, the yoghurt is strained to remove whey and lactose, giving it a thicker texture. It’s got about three times the amount of saturated fat (yay!) as regular yoghurt, and double the protein. But for industrial producers, all this fermenting and straining is way too arduous. So they have their own interpretation of it, and it’s called ‘Greek-style’ yoghurt. ‘Greek-style yoghurt will not involve straining the milk,’ says Alex, a strained yoghurt maker at Dorset Dairy. ‘But they’ll make it thicker by using milk powders and thickeners like starch. That’s why some supermarket branded ones will tend to have quite a cardboard-y taste.’

Why is there ash on my cheese?

The glorious Pavé Cobble Sheep’s Cheese has been covered in ash. Its appearance should change from a wrinkled silvery grey when young to a more natural mold rind dominated by greens and blues. Photo: Natale Towell.

Don’t worry. It’s supposed to be there. Firstly, the alkaline content in the ash coating (usually salt and vegetable ash) on the cheese helps it reach a certain acidity, therefore ageing the cheese without over-aging it. Secondly, and more traditionally in the case of Morbier – which has a distinctive black line of ash through its middle – it discourages insects and unwanted microbes from eating the product. Unfortunately it can have that same effect on humans as well, though that shouldn’t be the case – cheesemakers only use sterile, food-grade ash.

Is all cheese vegetarian?

Did you know: parmesan must be made with animal rennet to be labelled ‘parmesan’? Photo: Natale Towell.

Cheese is made by coagulating milk. Traditionally, this is achievable by the addition of animal rennet. That is, enzymes found in the lining of young livestock – typically goats or calves. Most modern methods however now use bacteria obtained from things like figs (as since the ancient Greeks), nettles, or cultivated microbes. Being heavily rooted in tradition, parmesan ­– for it to be labelled parmesan – must be made with animal rennet. The same goes for varieties such as gorgonzola, Gruyere, and Manchego, though in some instances vegetarian alternatives exist.

What makes ‘live’ yoghurt better than not?

Photo: Andrew Burton.

The majority of yogurt sold is live – meaning it contains living bacteria cultures – so it’s a bit of a superfluous label used to promote yoghurt as healthy for the gut. Want to know what’s more misleading? When you introduce something like honey. ‘Yoghurt that is sold with honey included: that honey is an antibacterial, and kills all the bacteria in the yoghurt,’ says Alex. ‘Any yoghurt that calls itself live honey yoghurt is stretching the truth.’

What’s the difference between yoghurt, sour cream and crème fraiche?

In terms of its production, not much. They are all made with fermentation, where a bacterial culture eats the lactose in the milk and excretes (that’s right) it as lactic acid.  What we see and taste is a product that’s turned milk thick and sour. The main difference is that yoghurt is fermented milk, and sour cream is fermented – you guessed it – cream. Sour cream and crème fraîche are very close to being the same thing. Sour cream is made from cultured single cream and crème fraîche is made from cultured double cream. It’s thicker, fattier and richer – meaning it holds up to heat in cooking – and is not quite as tart as sour cream.

Does all cheese improve with age?

Organic Wiltshire Mozzarella by De Luca Mozzarella. Photo: Natale Towell.

That depends on how you like it. But with things like mozzarella, fresh from the cheesemaker’s is best. Which means no freezing at home, and if you can help it, no refrigerating either. ‘If you want the real product, the best way is to not put it in the fridge at all,’ says Claudio De Luca of De Luca Mozzarella. ‘The cheese starts losing its structure when it’s in the fridge, and when it goes back to room temperature, you don’t have this nice elastic product anymore.’

Cloth-bound cheddar? What the heck is that?

Traditional cheese maker and cheese master Jamie Montgomery amongst his cloth-bound cheeses at Montgomery Cheese.

Back in the day, wrapping cheese in cotton cloth helped a cheese (usually cheddar) from losing its moisture during maturation. Newer technologies rendered this technique as obsolete, but even now, when compared to cheddars protected in other ways – such as in wax – some say there is no comparison in flavour and texture. So small scale producers have held on to the idea. Though not a guarantee, it’s generally the hallmark of a cheese into which more time and care has gone.

I love cheese, but it makes me feel bloated. Is there no hope?

There is hope! Photo: Natale Towell.

This could be due to a lactose intolerance. Which would leave those particularly partial to cheese a tad stymied. But as George Lang from The Cheese Merchant says, all is not lost. ‘Goat’s cheese and ewe’s both contain less lactose than cow’s milk cheese,’ he says. ‘Which those with an intolerance can generally digest better.’

I heard there’s 10 pounds of milk to every one pound of cheese. Why the waste?

In many cases, farmers turn to cheesemaking as a profitable way of not wasting their milk. And when their milk does get to the cheesemaker, they’re interest is on using it all. ‘We don’t throw anything away,’ says Claudio. ‘By being next to the farm, we’re able to only use what we need.’ Claudio and co also produce burrata – a cheese made from the residues left over after processing mozzarella – specifically to counter wastage. A philosophy which De Luca are expanding to other things too. ‘We are coming to a point where 90% of our products are packed in recyclable material,’ says Claudio. ‘People come back with the empty packaging, we sterilise them, then they can be used again.’

Can you eat cheese rind?

Tuck into the rind if you want to. Photo: Natale Towell.

If you don’t, depending on your tastes, you’d be missing out, as rind and cheese often complement the flavours of one another. ‘If the cheese has been wrapped in manmade material ­– for example the wax around a Gouda, or some cheddars – you don’t eat it,’ George says. ‘If the cheese rind is natural, it adds a huge part to the cheese experience. However in some cases people don’t like to eat it because they may find it bitter or too strong. I believe its all about giving it a go and working out what you personally like.’ If you’re a newbie to eating cheese rind, ease yourself in with nettle-wrapped Yarg.

Hankering for a chunk of the good stuff? Try these 5 top chef cheese dishes you need in your life or make yoghurt, paneer, butter and dairy-free milks at home.

Get your cheese fix with our recipes for British Tartiflette, the ultimate Cheese Toastie, classic Macaroni Cheese, a killer Mac & Cheese Toastie, and Honey & Thyme Baked Feta and over 80 artisan cheeses at

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