The Secret Ingredient: Selected Starters

Have you noticed how cheeses tend to be more and more similar these days?

We’re not just talking about industrial cheeses, but also artisanal ones, made with raw milk from different animal species and breeds, using specific techniques, sometimes even in mountain dairies.

What’s going on? We protected raw milk, local breeds, traditional techniques, out-grazing… What did we miss?

A small, invisible ingredient, which disappears from the cheese once used, and is not even listed on the label: the starter culture.

Let’s start by saying that adding commercial starter cultures to raw milk destined to be turned into cheese is not by itself harmful to health, nor it is even particularly absurd.

The affirmation that they are not harmful to health is based on the fact that there is no scientific research showing the opposite.

So let’s accept this as definitive.


The second observation, however, is a bit more complicated. Using starter cultures is not absurd because the quantity of the lactic acid bacteria needed for cheesemaking naturally present in the milk tends to diminish and this can create problems during processing.

The cultures—needed to turn milk into cheese—are found naturally in the milk, on the animals’ udders, on the bucket used for milking, on wooden tools… But these days most cheesemakers no longer milk by hand, wood is often banned from dairies and the milk passes from pipe to pipe, from steel to steel, through a perfectly hygienic environment that wipes out the natural bacterial flora. A milliliter of milk normally contains a million bacteria, and of these, 800,000 will be lactic acid bacteria.

In a modern dairy, the same milliliter of milk might contain less than 100,000 bacteria, with only 40,000, 30,000 or 20,000 lactic acid bacteria or sometimes none. This objective difficulty is compensated by the addition of specific, standardized cultures: selected bacteria, identical, reproduced in a laboratory. The bacterial species used, however, are few, and the natural biodiversity of microflora is lost. The use of commercial starter cultures facilitates the cheesemaking process and guarantees a final result that is constant and homogenous, making them important and sensible for many producers.

However, we must bear in mind that there are very different methods for reactivating floral bacteria. Selected cultures—always the same and easy to use— can be added to the milk, a shortcut that prevents defects in cheese, standardizes the taste and makes a fortune for the multinationals who produce the packets. As an alternative, the cheesemaker can choose to boost and energize the bacterial flora naturally found in the milk and the work environment. Slow Food believes this is the right path to take.

A technique exists, well codified and widely used, involving whey starter cultures, which can be obtained from the milk or the whey. The recipe is in some ways similar to the one for a sourdough starter. So there is nothing abstruse or particularly high-tech, just culture, knowledge, work, care and time.

With the milk starter, the microflora is strengthened, without introducing extraneous ingredients into the milk that alter the microbial population and reduce biodiversity. There is another aspect to take into consideration: The use of selected, standardized starter cultures is in fact a restriction of freedom. Someone, in some super-specialized laboratory, has decided what the flavor of fontina, or silter, or buffalo mozzarella should be. It is almost always a multinational—the starters are very rarely extrapolated from a local collection. Even in such cases it is not possible to reproduce the complexity of the specific microflora in a lab.

Slow Food supports the freedom to choose “natural” cheeses, made with respect for biodiversity, not just the diversity of breeds, milks and pastures but also their “natural” microflora.

by Piero Sardo

Cheese is an international event by Slow Food and the City of Bra. To see the complete program of the event, come back to this site by the 27th of June. 

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