Last Updated on June 11, 2023 by Aaron
Asiago cheese, a beloved Italian delicacy, has a rich history and a unique production process that sets it apart from other cheeses.
Originating from the Asiago Plateau in the Veneto foothills of Italy, this cheese has been a part of the Italian culinary tradition for over a thousand years.
Below we will delve into the intricate process of making Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Asiago cheese, a process that has been refined over centuries and is protected by strict regulations to ensure the quality and authenticity of the cheese.
We will also explore the production of non-PDO Asiago cheese and provide tips for making other Asiago varieties.
Table of Contents
Step 1: Milk Collection and the Importance of Terroir
The first step in the production of PDO Asiago cheese is the collection of milk, a process that is deeply intertwined with the geography and culture of the regions of Veneto and Trentino in northeastern Italy.
The milk used for Asiago PDO cheese comes exclusively from cows that graze in specific areas within these regions. The designated production area spans across seven provinces: the entire province of Vicenza, the entire province of Trento, and parts of the provinces of Padua, Treviso, Belluno, Verona, and Venice. This geographical restriction is a crucial aspect of the PDO designation, as it ensures that the cheese is deeply connected to its place of origin.
The cows are raised on local farms, where they are fed a controlled diet primarily consisting of grass from the local pastures. The diet of the cows plays a significant role in the final product’s flavor profile, as the unique combination of grasses and herbs found in the pastures of the Asiago Plateau imparts a distinct taste and aroma to the milk.
Once collected, the raw milk is quickly transported to cheese factories, known as ‘caseificio,’ to ensure its freshness. These factories are often located within the same geographical area as the farms, further strengthening the link between the cheese and its terroir.
The milk collection process is a testament to the symbiotic relationship between the natural environment and human activity.
For Asiago Pressato (younger version) making, whole milk will be used. While Asiago d’Allevo (the aged version) uses partially skimmed milk. For detail, check out this CLAL guide.
Step 2: Coagulation – The Transformation Begins
Once the milk (from the 1 or 2 milkings) has been collected, it is transported to the cheese factories, or ‘caseificio,’ where the transformation from milk to cheese begins. The first step in this process is coagulation, a crucial phase that sets the stage for the formation of cheese.
- Preparation: The collected milk is first pasteurized to ensure its safety and quality. It is then heated to a specific temperature, usually between 33 and 37 degrees Celsius. This optimal temperature prepares the milk for the addition of the starter cultures and rennet.
- Adding Starter Cultures and Rennet: The heated milk is combined with natural whey starter, a by-product from the previous day’s cheese-making process. This starter contains lactic acid bacteria that play a crucial role in the cheese-making process, as they ferment the lactose in the milk to produce lactic acid. This acidification process contributes to the cheese’s flavor and helps in the coagulation process. Along with the starter, calf rennet is added to the milk. Rennet, an enzyme found in the stomach of ruminant animals, is the primary agent that causes the milk to coagulate. It acts on the milk proteins, causing them to transform from a liquid state into a semi-solid mass.
- Formation of Curds: The addition of rennet triggers the coagulation process. The milk proteins, specifically casein, react with the rennet and form a network, trapping the fat and water and creating a gel-like matrix. This matrix is what we commonly refer to as curds. The transformation from liquid milk to solid curds is a fascinating process that is fundamental to cheese-making.
The coagulation process is a delicate balance of temperature, timing, and the correct proportions of milk, starter, and rennet. It requires the cheese-maker’s skill and experience to ensure that the conditions are just right for the formation of perfect curds.
Step 3: Cutting and Cooking the Curd – Shaping the Texture and Flavor
Once the curds have formed, the cheese-making process moves on to the next critical steps: cutting and cooking the curd. These steps are crucial in determining the final texture and flavor of the Asiago cheese.
- Cutting the Curd: The solid mass of curd is cut into small pieces using special cheese knives or mechanical curd cutters. The size of the curd pieces is an important factor that influences the cheese’s final texture. For Asiago cheese, the curds are typically cut into grains the size of wheat or rice. This process, known as ‘breaking the curd,’ allows for further expulsion of whey from the curd.
- Cooking the Curd: After cutting, the curds are cooked at a controlled temperature, usually between 45 and 50 degrees Celsius. The heat causes the curd grains to shrink and harden, expelling more whey and intensifying the flavor. The precise temperature and duration of cooking can significantly affect the cheese’s texture and flavor. For Asiago cheese, the cooking process results in a semi-hard texture and a rich, full-bodied flavor.
The curds are placed on a draining table to expel whey and salt may also be added at this stage.
The curds are then ready for the next steps in the cheese-making process: pressing and salting. These steps further shape the cheese’s final characteristics and prepare it for the maturation process.
Step 4: Pressing and Salting – Finalizing the Form and Enhancing the Flavor
After the curds have been cut and cooked, they undergo pressing and salting, two crucial steps that finalize the cheese’s form and enhance its flavor.
- Pressing the Curd: The cooked curds are transferred into molds, where they are pressed to remove any remaining whey. This step also gives the cheese its final shape. The pressure applied must be carefully controlled; too much pressure can make the cheese too dense, while too little can result in a cheese that is too crumbly. For Asiago cheese, the pressing process results in a wheel-shaped cheese with a semi-hard texture.
- Salting the Cheese: After pressing, the cheese is salted. Salting can be done by immersing the cheese in a (16-19% salinity) brine solution or by applying dry salt to the surface. The salt enhances the cheese’s flavor and acts as a natural preservative. It also plays a role in forming the rind and aids in the cheese’s maturation process. The salting process for Asiago cheese is carefully controlled to achieve the perfect balance of flavors.
With the pressing and salting complete, the Asiago cheese is now ready for the final and perhaps most transformative step in the cheese-making process: maturation.
Step 5: Maturation – Developing Characteristic Flavor and Texture
The final step in the cheese-making process is maturation, also known as aging. This is a crucial phase where the cheese develops its characteristic flavor and texture.
- Maturation Process: The Asiago cheese wheels are left to mature in an 11-14 °C temperature and 80-85% humidity-controlled environment. The cheese is regularly turned and brushed to ensure even maturation. The maturation rooms often have a unique mix of natural microbes, which contribute to the cheese’s flavor development.
- Duration of Maturation: The duration of maturation can vary significantly, ranging from a few weeks to more than a year. The length of this period depends on the type of Asiago cheese being produced. Asiago Pressato, a fresh and softer variety, is typically matured for a shorter period, while Asiago d’Allevo, a more mature and harder variety, is aged for a longer time. The latter can be further categorized into Mezzano (aged for 4-6 months), Vecchio (aged for more than ten months), and Stravecchio (aged for two years).
- Effects of Maturation: During maturation, complex biochemical processes occur that profoundly affect the cheese’s texture, flavor, and aroma. Proteins and fats are broken down into smaller components, such as amino acids and fatty acids, which contribute to the cheese’s flavor profile. The maturation period also affects the cheese’s quality traits.
The maturation process is a testament to the art of patience. It is during this time that the Asiago cheese develops its unique characteristics, transforming from a simple curd into a culinary delight.
Non-PDO Asiago Cheese Production: Imitation?
While PDO Asiago cheese follows a strict production process defined by geographical and production guidelines, non-PDO Asiago cheese allows for more flexibility. The non-PDO Asiago cheese can be made anywhere from different regions or countries and is also called asiago-style cheese.
This can result in variations in the cheese’s flavor and texture, as the characteristics of the milk can be influenced by factors such as the cows’ diet and the local climate.
These Asiago cheeses may also differ in production methods. While the basic steps of cheese-making remain the same—milk collection, coagulation, cutting and cooking the curd, pressing and salting, and maturation—the specific techniques and conditions can vary.
For instance, the type of starter cultures used, the temperature and duration of cooking, and the maturation conditions can all differ, leading to a wide variety of flavors and textures.
Despite these differences, non-PDO Asiago cheese can still offer a delightful taste experience.
It provides an alternative for those who enjoy the characteristics of Asiago cheese but are looking for a different flavor profile or a more accessible and affordable option.