Each batch is carefully hand-selected by our
cheese master

To the naked eye, the maze of cheese making equipment at Darigold’s Sunnyside cheese plant looks overwhelmingly complicated; a series of metal pipes connect ten 6,800-gallon cheese making vats with a dizzying array of processing equipment that takes milk from liquid to curd to the kind of cheese you might slice for a sandwich.

Cheddar cheese — a process whose name comes from the way cheesemakers stack and turn a solid mass of cheese curds so more whey can drain out of it, making the cheese more flavorful and giving it its signature firm texture — takes even more care. For the layperson, Tom Rouleau, the plant’s cheesemaker, breaks down the cheddar-making process down into five main steps: milk standardization, starter selection, coagulation, curd milling and curd salting.

But in conversation, Rouleau is more practical. “Cheesemaking is a three-legged stool,” he says. The “legs” he’s referring to — the standardization of farm-fresh milk, the cheesemaking process itself, and the slow, controlled fermentation of that cheese as it goes from curd to brick — are steps Darigold has perfected over its more than two decades in the cheesemaking business. “You have to balance those three parts, and if those three aren’t all done right, the stool tips over,” he says. It’s an easy analogy, and Rouleau, officially the plant’s Technical Manager, doesn’t seem like a guy who’s ever lost his balance. He uses the stool analogy to make sure the 540,000 pounds of cheese that come out of the plant each day are consistently perfect. That’s why Darigold has entrusted their cheese formulas to him for almost 20 years.

Five Steps to Great Cheese

  1. No. 1

    MILK STANDARDIZATION

    To make quality cheese we must start with quality milk. Once the milk is standardized (by blending in additional cream to achieve a predetermined level of fat and protein), it is added to the vat to start the cheesemaking process.

  2. No. 2

    STARTER SELECTION AND USE

    Cultures are added to the vat once the milk is tempered to 88 to 90° F. These microbes do the work to develop the cheese flavor. The fermentation process is ongoing from this point through maturing of the cheese. The cultures not only produce lactic acid, but also enzymes which break down the protein over time to consistently develop a specific flavor profile.

  3. No. 3

    COAGULATION

    Rennet (naturally occurring enzymes) is now added to the vat to initiate coagulation of the milk into curd. The coagulated curd is then cut into cubes and left to heal. The curd is then slowly cooked. When it reaches 101 to 102° F, the whey is drained off, allowing the curd to fuse and matt together.

  4. No. 4

    MILLED CURD PROCESS

    The curd is allowed to knit together into a solid mass, which is turned over once during the process as it continues to firm. The cheese is then milled into strips to allow for salt penetration.

  5. No. 5

    SALTING OF MILLED CURD

    Salt is applied to the milled curd for flavor and to stop further acid development. The curds are then placed into forms and pressed to form blocks of cheddar, after which the cheddar cheese will be aged.

  6. Final Step Image

In april 2013, Darigold tasked Rouleau with a major project: rolling out a new retail line of natural cheddar cheese. While he’s worked at Darigold basically since the milk company’s entry into the wholesale cheddar market, developing a product for home use presented a new challenge. Based on market studies, Darigold determined their new cheddar needed to be sharper than previous cheddars they’d made, with a bit more body. They wanted it to shred, melt, and slice exceptionally well. And they wanted it to be natural, which meant omitting the coloring agents sometimes used to make cheddar cheese orange.

“ most importantly, he used a process that sets darigold cheddar cheese apart from many other cheddar cheeses.

Rouleau, a scientist at heart, developed a series of cheese trials designed to find the cheese with the perfect combination of tang, creaminess, flavor, texture, and age-worthiness. He tinkered with his formulas, changing variables like fat content and starter combinations, adding more or less cream to some test vats and changing how long the cheese spent at different parts of the cheese making process. Most importantly, he used a process that sets Darigold cheddar cheese apart from many other cheddar cheeses. Rather than using a simpler stirred-curd process, Darigold relies on a milled curd process — a cutting, turning and pressing procedure the cheese goes through before it gets formed into bricks. From a cheese taster’s standpoint, “milled curd” cheese means each bite has more protein and fat in it, and less water, which translates to more flavor. Rouleau points out how many cheddar producers skip this step.

On the first cheddar testing day, he tested 16 different cheeses, all in the running (at the beginning) to be the company’s new retail cheddar. “It was a bit of a leap of faith to launch an entire product line based on a few days of testing,” admits Rouleau. But at the first taste test, after grading one test batch — “Test E” — Rouleau’s notes showed a clear winner. “Best of the bunch,” he scribbled that day. He’d made a cheese with good body, developing flavor, and a firm texture that he thought would age well without getting crumbly. Over the next few months, time in the warehouse (which can hold a baffling 25 million pounds of cheese) proved him right. The folks at Darigold’s Seattle headquarters gave Rouleau the green light.

After months of testing and retesting — he wanted to make sure each and every batch of Darigold’s new cheddar came out of the plant with the same taste and texture — Rouleau is ready. And now, on grocery store shelves in Seattle and Portland, so is his natural cheddar cheese.