© Denzil Green
Swiss Cheese is a North American generic imitation of Emmenthal, just as Jarlsberg is a Norwegian version of Emmenthal. In the UK, and in Europe, “Swiss Cheese” has no meaning as a specific cheese. It would be like saying “1 pound of French cheese” — people would ask you which French cheese? Real Swiss cheeses are named after the region of Switzerland they come from, such as Appenzeller, Emmenthal, Gruyère and Vacherin.
In any event, Swiss Cheese as a specific cheese does exist in North America. It’s a hard, ivory-coloured cheese made from pasteurized cow’s milk. It has a mildly nutty flavour.
Rennet is used to curdle the milk. The whey is drained off, leaving the curds, which are worked until they are pliable. They are pulled into strips and folded over and over to make layers. Then they pressed and moulded. As the cheese ages, various kinds of bacteria named “lactococcus cremoris”, “lactobacilli” and “propionibacterium” eat the lactose in the milk and ferment, giving off carbon dioxide. As more and more gas is produced, the cheese stretches to make space for the growing pockets of gas. The bacteria also make up a lot of the flavour in the cheese. If you taste the cheese around the holes, it’s the most “Swiss Cheese” tasting part of the cheese.
The cheese is aged inside plastic wrapping. The plastic allows carbon dioxide to escape, while still keeping the cheese from drying out or developing a rind (therefore no wastage.) A rindless cheese is more cost-efficient to produce, easier for people in retail and restaurants to slice, and means no wastage at home for consumers. Sometimes the plastic on a vacuum packed wheel may appear puffy. This is the cheese continuing to ripen and produce carbon dioxide.
Though the cheese is aged only about 4 months, and though the plastic wrapping prevents the cheese from ever developing anything more than a very mild taste, the upside is that with the short aging and the reduced wastage, the cheese can be made and sold more affordably so that average families can still include it frequently in their shopping baskets.
You can buy it sliced, shredded or in large pieces.
Emmenthal, Jarlsberg, Gruyère, Maasdam
1 cup, grated = 4 oz / 125g
To freeze, cut into 1/2 pound (225g) chunks, wrap well.
North American Swiss Cheese may have got its start when some Swiss immigrants moved to Wisconsin to found the town of New Glarius. They brought their cheesemaking knowledge with them.
Still, imported was still available, even in smaller American cities: “Imported Swiss Cheese. The cheese with the big holes and the wonderful flavor. Per pound. 75 C” — Ad placed by Service Groceries. Lincoln Star. Lincoln, Nebraska. 30 October 1925. Page 14.
It is almost always produced in very large, 200 pound (90 kg) wheels. In the Middle Ages, the Swiss government levied taxes based on the number of cheese wheels produced, rather than on the weight of them. Canny Swiss cheese makers just crammed more cheese into one wheel. Even though much else about Swiss cheese making was modernized in the transition to America, this habit was kept.
The plastic wrapping was instituted in the mid 1900s.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been regulating Swiss Cheese since 1953. Previously, the holes in Swiss cheese had to be from 11/16 an inch to 13/16 of an inch (1.75 cm to 2 cm). In 2003, the USDA changed the regulation allowing the holes to be smaller, down to 6/16 of an inch (90 mm).
Literature & Lore
“It was a ceremony of broad smiles of lusty lip-smackings when the first postwar wheel of Switzerland Swiss cheese weighing 237 pounds was sliced, at a ceremonial tasting held recently for the New York City Press by the Switzerland Cheese Association. The cheese was the gift of the cheese co-operatives in Switzerland, harbinger of the tidings that Switzerland Swiss will be coming to this market in modest amounts by early summer.” — Paddleford, Clementine (1898 – 1967). Food Flashes Column. Gourmet Magazine. April 1946.