Inside the refrigerator of the Alumni House kitchen at Washington & Jefferson College, several liquid-filled jars contain students’ latest science experiments. The white, round objects floating inside may look odd at first glance, but they make perfect pizza toppings.
This week, eight students completed the first offering of a course called “Science of Cheese-making.” The three-week Intersession course, taught by Kelly Weixel, Ph.D., addressed the chemical principles of cheese-making, protein organization, flavor chemistry, neurology of taste and even the cultural profiles of various cheeses.
Weixel, an associate biology professor, said she made yogurt for a while and became curious about cheese-making and its scientific components.
“I love food; I love to eat it, love to grow it, love to share it,” Weixel said. “But I’ve always been interested in science, and some of my favorite cooks are scientists. They understand why these things work and what to tweak, and so I thought cheese-making is a lot like this … and once you understand those basic principles, you can pretty much try anything.”
The course is a cross between a chemistry lab and cooking class. “It’s a lot like being in a lab,” Weixel said, except students get to eat their experiments. Luckily for the cheese-makers-in-training, most of the culinary creations have passed the taste test – some even better than store-bought cheeses, Weixel said. However, it hasn’t always been effortless.
“They’ve been patient, and good-humored,” Weixel said of her students. “We’ve had some spectacular fails, but nobody has gotten sick.”
Students learned to make mozzarella, ricotta, feta and chèvre, more commonly known as goat cheese. In addition to a variety of cheeses, students also made yogurt and tofu, and went on field trips to a dairy farm in Bedford County and the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co.
The ingredients most frequently used in class are cow or goat milk, whey, a citric acid like lemon juice or white vinegar, and enzymes and probiotics.
Weixel said one of the more difficult aspects of cheese-making is getting the stove temperature just right, because too much heat can break down proteins or kill bacteria needed for fermenting.
Some cheeses, like ricotta and mozzarella, can be made in less than an hour. Others, like goat cheese, must ferment overnight.
For Corey Young, the hardest part of class was “the suspenseful waiting to see if your cheese is going to turn out.” Young, a junior studying English and pre-medicine, said he took the class because the topic intrigued him.
“I like the combination of science and culture, and learning science while also getting to do something fun,” Young said. “It’s a part of science you don’t actually get to work with in the lab.”
On Wednesday, Young and his cooking partner, Cheyenne Mangold, made a second attempt at making ricotta with whole milk. On the first try, Young and Mangold used whey left over from another group’s ricotta, but there wasn’t enough for the recipe.
“The first time we tried, we were very unsuccessful,” said Mangold, a senior studying cell-molecular biology. “We thought maybe if we kept adding more citric acid it would work. It tasted like a Sour Patch Kid.”
“It was so sour,” Young added.
Mangold, originally from Texas, said she comes from a family of “foodies” and hopes to teach herself how to make queso fresco cheese. She said she will continue making her own cheeses, especially ricotta and mozzarella, for the occasions when her family cooks lasagna and pizza.
Weixel said the class requires a strong attention to detail, but cheese-making really boils down to an ancient tradition.
“You realize that cheese originated so very long ago, not in a laboratory, but in somebody’s home, and therefore the principles are pretty simple,” Weixel said, “but they rely on these skill sets that these students may have learned in a basic science laboratory, but they’re able to apply them to something else.”
Siddharth Sharma, a sophomore math major with minors in chemistry and music, said he learned a great deal about coagulation, curdling and other processes that once were foreign to him. Yet the biggest lesson he took away from the class was patience.
“Results don’t come immediately,” Sharma said, “and I think that just learning the skill of sort of prodding along, being diligent and having patience is a technique that is applicable to sort of any field.”