Why Is Cheese Made in Wheel Form?

Cheese wheels are more than just fancy--they make cheese tastier.
Cheese wheels are more than just fancy--they make cheese tastier. / lorenna512/iStock via Getty Images

For some people, cheese is thought of as nothing more than the individually wrapped slices found in grocery stores. This type of processed cheese is usually half real cheese and half additives, like preservatives and other ingredients to maximize its gooey melting potential.

But real cheese connoisseurs know the good stuff is elsewhere in the store—blocks or wheels of fancy cheese aged to perfection. But why wheels? What’s so special about a circular block of cheddar?

Cheese is made when bacteria convert the lactose in milk to lactic acid. An enzyme, rennet, is used to curdle the milk; the leftover curds are processed to leave clumps of casein, which is then pressed into a mold.

The aging and ripening of cheese happens when cheese is left to absorb salt as well as molds like P. camemberti and P. candidum, which act to break down the milk proteins in the cheese and release flavor. Here's where shapes come in: If the cheese is in the shape of a wheel, the molds tend to distribute more evenly than if the cheese had edges for it to collect around. The mold moves over the surface and then downward.

A cheese wheel also provides a better structure for a rind to form, which helps protect the cheese from insects, undesirable bacteria, or other contaminants. When molds (the stainless steel kind) are used, a round shape tends to hold up better to pressure than rectangles.

Historically, European food markets used to prefer cheese wheels because it was far easier to roll a giant wheel than try to find transportation for it. Customers would then have the seller slice off the chunks they wanted.

So why is cheese sold in block form at all? Retail needs. Block cheese is easier to transport, stock on shelves, and may be less prone to damage during transit.

[h/t Today I Found Out]

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.