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The U.S. Produces About A Billion Pounds Of Cheese Every Month

This is The Digest, a new FiveThirtyEight column exploring the science, history and economics of food. We’re still working out the essential ingredients to make this just right — we welcome your feedback and suggestions! You can email me, leave a note in the comments, or find me on Twitter. Now, on to this week’s four-course meal.

Ins and outs

I could tell you I was looking at cheese production data because April is National Grilled Cheese Month, but that would be a lie. I was looking at the data because it’s any old Tuesday, and as the mainstay of the FiveThirtyEight diet, cheese is a very important food for me.

The U.S. produces a vast amount of cheese: nearly a billion pounds of it — 956,166,000, to be exact, if the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service is to be believed. That’s not an annual figure — we produced a billion pounds during the month of February alone. Unsurprisingly, Wisconsin manufactures the most cheese of any state (though Idaho reigns supreme in cheese production per capita — 42.7 pounds per person in February). Somewhat surprisingly, New Mexico was the fourth largest cheese producer, after California and Idaho, narrowly beating out New York.

TYPE OF CHEESE PRODUCTION (IN POUNDS)
Mozzarella 341m
Cheddar 258
Other American types 110
Cream cheese and Neufchatel 65
Parmesan 30
Provolone 29
Swiss 24
Hispanic* 21
Ricotta 20
Brick and Muenster 14
All other types 13
Feta 9
Blue and Gorgonzola 7
Other Italian types 6
Gouda 5
Romano 4
Cheese produced in U.S. in February 2016

*There is no breakdown of “Hispanic cheese.” Numerous cheeses are produced across the Spanish-speaking world — some personal favorites include queso menonita, queso fresco, asadero, manchego and quesillo.

Source: National Agriculture Statistics Service

In the Agriculture Department’s data set, cheddar is listed under “American types.” But there’s nothing particularly American about cheddar. In the U.S., cheddar is a generic catchall term for cheese that goes through the cheddaring process — curds are formed into slabs and then piled and flipped until they are dense and largely free of whey, then cut up again, re-formed into molds, and allowed to dry and age further.

In Europe, however, Cheddar is like Champagne — it has a “geographic indication,” meaning a cheese can be labeled Cheddar only if it’s produced under strict guidelines in one of four counties in the southwest of England. In the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a massive trade agreement being negotiated between the European Union and the U.S., one of the sticking points is over “protected geographical indication” status for foods that currently have it in Europe but not the U.S. There are several cheeses in the mix, including West Country Farmhouse Cheddar. If European negotiators have their way, you could soon be buying “New Mexican cheddar-like cheese” during National Grilled Cheese Month next year. Appetizing!

Data-driven recipe of the week

Bread:

5 parts flour

3 parts water

(some yeast and salt)

For most of my life, I preferred baking to cooking, because it allowed me an excuse to always follow a recipe. When I made dinner, measuring out ingredients and following the instructions word for word from an index card felt like a mark of inexperience; when baking bread, it was just the smart thing to do.

But as any good baker knows, while precision is incredibly important in baking, the critical thing is not the exact quantity of each individual ingredient but making sure the ratios between the ingredients are just right.

That’s exactly the premise of author and chef Michael Ruhlman’s 2009 book “Ratio.” It distills about three dozen foods (bread, sausage and Hollandaise sauce among them) to their basic ratios, freeing readers from the tyranny of the recipe. I’ve talked with many a fine home cook about this book and they all swoon, except for one controversial thing: While the book mentions that bread can’t be made without yeast or a leavener, neither is included in the ratio. The secret to making great bread, Ruhlman says, is 5 parts flour, 3 parts water, with some parenthetical yeast thrown in.

My mother, an excellent cook who seems to bake nearly every day, voiced skepticism when she got to that page in the book — why isn’t yeast in the ratio?! I wasn’t sure myself, so I decided to take it up with Ruhlman. (This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Anna Maria Barry-Jester: So let’s get to it. Why didn’t you include yeast in the bread dough ratio?

Michael Ruhlman: Two reasons. I could have — it’s 3 percent commercial yeast by weight according to the baker’s percentage1. But it’s so small, and people often don’t have the measuring instruments that can detect that weight. It doesn’t really matter how much yeast you have. It’s still going to rise; it just takes longer if you use a small amount and you have to watch it. You could almost add just a pinch with your fingers if you let it go long enough.

I’m trying to bring [the ratio] down to its very basic elements, and because the yeast was variable I didn’t feel comfortable putting it in the ratio.

AMBJ: What happens to the taste of bread based on the quantity of yeast in the ratio and how long you allow the dough to ferment?

MR: The more activity the yeast is allowed to do, the more flavor. It’s also releasing flavorful stuff in addition to rising. That’s why when you use a wild yeast, when you use a sourdough, for example, you get a lot more of the acid that makes it sour and flavorful. The longer it can rise, as long as it doesn’t over-rise, the better the flavor.

AMBJ: It’s been several years since you wrote that book. Is there anything you would write differently now?

MR: It’s all stayed the same. I really didn’t invent these ratios — I just isolated them and called attention to them. But they are timeless.

Morsels

Shout-out: After I wrote about the history of toast a couple of weeks ago, I got an email from a reader, Joe Hopkins, an out-of-work aerospace engineer, who has been working on a book about the evolution of breakfast. He’s downloaded more than 3,000 cookbooks and manuscripts, and is searching through them to find the origins of various breakfast items. The oldest toast recipe he’s found was in a manuscript from 1888, believed to have been originally recorded in 1430. The recipe was written in Middle English; the rough translation below is courtesy of Hopkins:

[1430] Soupes Jamberlayne {Middle English}

xxviiiTake Wyne, Canel, an powder of Gyngere, an Sugre, an of eche a porcyoun, þan take a straynoure & hange it on a pynne, an caste ale þer-to, an let renne twyis or þryis throgh, tyl it renne clere; an þen take Paynemaynne an kyt it in maner of brewes, an toste it, an wete it in þe same lycowre, an ley it on a dysshe, an caste blawnche powder y-now þer-on; an þan caste þe same lycour vp-on þe same soppys, an serue hem forth in maner of a potage. [Harlaien MS 279 / Thomas, Austin, “Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books,” p.11 (Early English Text Society, London), 1888]

And now the translation:

Sops* Chamberlain

Take Wine, Cinnamon, and powder of Ginger, and Sugar, and of each a portion; then take a strainer, & hang it on a peg, And cast ale thereto, and let run twice or thrice through, till it runs clear; and then take good Bread, and cut it in a manner of bread for broth, and toast it, and wet it in the same liquor, and lay it in a dish, and cast white powder enough thereon; And then cast the same liquor upon the same sops, and serve them forth for a good soup [or stew].

*sops – pieces of fried or toasted bread in liquid

The internet of food: I wrote an ode to my fuzzy logic rice cooker a few weeks ago, so you can imagine my delight at learning that the Chinese company Xiaomi is developing a line of appliances called Mijia that can connect to the internet. (Mijia means “rice home.”) A companion app to the line’s first product, a rice cooker, allows users to scan the barcode on a bag of rice, and the machine will cook that brand accordingly. The app can reportedly identify 200 brands already, and the library will expand.

A numbers question that data can’t answer: How much profit should chefs be able to turn when cooking food from other cultures? NPR’s The Salt has started a great conversation.

Amusing bouche

And speaking of scale, I can’t get enough of tiny food videos. I thought these mini-doughnuts2 were my favorite, until I found these:

Footnotes

  1. Also known as baker’s math, the baker’s percentage is a common way of referring to the ratios of ingredients for baking. The bread dough ratio in Ruhlman’s book is based on one of the most basic bread recipes: 100 percent flour, 60 percent water, three percent fresh yeast and two percent salt.

  2. I regretfully must submit to AP style, which demands we write “doughnuts,” though they should clearly be written as “donuts.” I’ve probably lost hours of my life typing those three extra letters. But ”Internet” finally became “internet” at the American Copy Editors Society conference a few weeks ago; I expect they are just working their way up to the important issues.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester reports on public health, food and culture for FiveThirtyEight.

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