Last Updated on July 16, 2023 by Aaron
Provolone is a type of Italian cheese that originated in Southern Italy. It’s a full-fat cow’s milk cheese, typically aged for two to three months, but sometimes up to a year or more.
The process for making Provolone is quite involved. Here’s a step-by-step process:
Table of Contents
How It’s Made
Milk — Collecting the milk
Provolone cheese is traditionally made from cow’s milk. The quality of the milk is a critical factor in the flavor, texture, and overall quality of the cheese.
In traditional Italian cheese-making, the milk often comes from local cow breeds and can even be specific to a certain breed depending on the region.
Cow’s milk is chosen for its fat content and flavor profile, which lends itself well to the aging process and results in a flavorful, full-bodied cheese. The milk can be either raw or pasteurized. However, the pasteurization process can affect the flavor of the cheese, as it kills off some of the natural bacteria in the milk that contribute to flavor development during aging. In the European Union, including Italy, it is permissible to use raw milk for cheese production, as long as the cheese is aged for a certain period of time to ensure safety.
The diet of the cows also plays a significant role in the flavor of the milk, and thus the cheese. Cows that graze on grass and hay produce milk that has a different flavor profile compared to cows that are fed primarily on grain.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that while Provolone is traditionally a cow’s milk cheese, variations made with other types of milk (such as goat or sheep) might exist, especially outside of Italy. However, these would not be considered traditional Provolone cheese, and they would have different flavors and textures compared to the cow’s milk version.
In many countries, including the U.S., it’s illegal to sell provolone cheese made from raw, unpasteurized milk (if that’s not been aged for more than 60 days), due to potential health risks.
Curdling is a key part of the cheesemaking process, and this holds true for Provolone as well. When milk curdles, it separates into solid curds and liquid whey. This happens due to the activity of certain enzymes or acids on the proteins in milk. Here’s how it works in the case of Provolone:
- Adding Starter Cultures: The cheesemaking process starts with the introduction of starter cultures to the milk. Starter cultures are specific types of bacteria that begin to ferment the lactose (milk sugar) in the milk, turning it into lactic acid. This process helps to lower the pH of the milk and starts the curdling process.
- Adding Rennet: Rennet is added next. Rennet is an enzyme that further curdles the milk by acting on the milk proteins and causing them to coagulate. The milk transforms into a custard-like consistency, called the curd. The clear liquid remaining is the whey. The most common rennet used is calf rennet, which can also be lamb or kid. Rennets provide different properties in setting the milk, where calf rennet is often used for mild provolone whereas lamb or kid rennets are used for older provolone.
- Cutting the Curd: The curd is then cut using a tool called a curd knife. This process allows the whey to be expelled from the curds. The size of the curd pieces will determine the moisture content of the final cheese – smaller pieces result in a harder, drier cheese because more whey is released.
The entire curdling process is carefully controlled, as the temperature, timing, and pH level will determine the texture and flavor of the final cheese.
Every cheesemaker has specific techniques and secrets when it comes to this delicate process, which is part of what gives each cheese its unique character.
Cooking and Draining
Once the curd has been cut into small pieces, these pieces are cooked by raising the temperature of the vat. This additional heat encourages the curds to release more whey, making them firmer. The heat also helps in killing off unwanted bacteria, ensuring the cheese remains safe to eat after its aging process. The cooking temperature and time vary, but it’s usually done until the curds reach a specific firmness and a targeted temperature, often around 105-130°F (40-55°C), but can be even higher in some recipes.
After cooking, the whey (the liquid part of the milk) is drained from the curds. It’s important to remove as much whey as possible because it contains lactose, which can interfere with the aging process of the cheese.
The whey that is drained off isn’t always wasted. In many cases, it’s used to make other products like Ricotta cheese or used as an ingredient in animal feed.
Pulling/Stretching the curd (pasta filata)
This is a critical step in making Provolone and other similar cheeses like Mozzarella.
After the whey has been drained, the curds for Provolone undergo a unique process known as pasta filata or stretching. The curds are submerged in hot water (or sometimes heated whey), causing them to become elastic. The cheesemaker then stretches and kneads the curd until it reaches a taffy-like consistency.
This stretching process aligns the proteins in the cheese and gives Provolone its distinctive texture. After this process, the curd can be molded into the desired shape for the final cheese.
Shaping and Molding
Once the Provolone curd has been heated and stretched, it’s ready to be shaped and molded.
The warm, elastic curd is carefully shaped by the cheesemaker. This can be done by hand or using specially designed molds. Provolone can take several shapes – it can be round or cylindrical, or it can have the traditional salami or pear shape, often complete with a characteristic knob at one end.
If molds are used, the curd is packed into the mold, ensuring there are no air pockets. The weight of the curd and gravity help to push out any remaining whey. For some larger shapes, the cheesemaker might use a special net or a pair of tongs to maintain the cheese’s form during the aging process.
Once the cheese is molded, it’s cooled to help it retain its shape. This is typically done by immersing the cheese in cold water or a brine solution. The cooling process also helps to slow down the activity of the bacteria, preparing the cheese for aging.
If not done during the cooling step, the molded cheese is often soaked in a brine solution (a mixture of salt and water). The brine adds flavor and acts as a preservative. It also forms a rind on the cheese, which helps to maintain its shape during aging.
The shape of the cheese not only contributes to its aesthetic appeal but can also affect how the cheese ages.
For example, thinner, smaller cheeses will age more quickly than thicker, larger ones due to the larger surface area exposed to the aging environment.
Provolone cheeses are typically aged in cool, humidity-controlled environments. These environments can be specially designed aging rooms or natural caves.
The duration of aging for Provolone cheese can vary widely. Some Provolone cheeses are aged for a short period of about two to three months. This yields a milder flavor and a smoother, more supple texture, often referred to as Provolone Dolce.
Other Provolone cheeses, such as Provolone Piccante, are aged for much longer — six months to a year or more. The longer aging process results in a sharper, more complex flavor and a harder, more granular texture.
Turning and Caring for the Cheese: Throughout the aging process, the cheeses are regularly turned and sometimes even brushed or wiped down to ensure they age evenly and to control the development of molds on the rind.
Role of Bacteria: The bacteria that were added to the milk at the start of the cheesemaking process continue to work during the aging process. They slowly ferment the remaining lactose and other compounds in the cheese, producing a wide range of flavors and aromas.
Rind Formation: Over time, the exterior of the cheese hardens and darkens, forming a rind. This rind helps protect the cheese and also contributes to its flavor.
The end product of this lengthy process is a Provolone cheese with a rich depth of flavor and a firm but supple texture. The specific characteristics of the cheese can vary widely, depending on factors like the length of aging, the bacteria used, and the conditions in the aging environment.
Some provolone cheeses are smoked for additional flavor. This is done over a wood fire and can add a unique flavor to the cheese.
Provolone is typically not wax and it’s not a traditional part of the Provolone cheese-making process. The rind of Provolone cheese is edible, but it can be quite tough, especially on cheeses that have been aged for a long time, and some people may choose to remove it before eating the cheese.
PDO and non-PDO provolone
The milk used often affects the flavor of the final product. Furthermore, taste variations may occur depending on the particular Italian cheese maker’s recipe and tradition. This is particularly true for non-PDO provolone cheese (aka the Italian-style cow milk cheese), which does not always reflect the real taste of Italian provolone.
Provolone with the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) label is indeed different from “regular” or domestic or non-PDO Provolone. It has a geographical protection status under the EU and UK law.
The PDO label is a certification that guarantees a product is produced, processed, and prepared in a specific geographical area, using recognized and recorded methods.
In terms of Provolone, there are two varieties that have earned the PDO status: Provolone Valpadana and Provolone del Monaco. Both of these cheeses must adhere to strict rules regarding their production to carry the PDO label.
Provolone Valpadana: This cheese can be produced in several regions of Northern Italy, including Lombardy, Veneto, and Emilia-Romagna, among others. The milk used for this cheese can come from various cow breeds, and the cheese can be sold in different shapes and sizes. It comes in two main varieties: Dolce (mild) which is aged for 2-3 months, and Piccante (spicy) which is aged for more than three months and up to a year or more.
Provolone del Monaco: This cheese is produced only in specific areas of the Naples province. The milk used to make Provolone del Monaco must come from a breed of cow known as the Agerolese, which is native to the region. This cheese is typically pear-shaped and has a more robust flavor compared to Provolone Valpadana. It must be aged for a minimum of 6 months.
In contrast, “regular” Provolone cheese can be produced anywhere in the world and does not have to follow the strict rules that PDO Provolone cheeses do. It might be made using different types of milk, processes, and aging times, and therefore the flavor and texture may vary significantly from PDO Provolone. However, it can also be high quality and delicious in its own right, depending on the skill and methods of the cheese maker.