Cheese – we think it’s one of the world’s greatest foods, and we’re not alone. Cheese has been a food staple all over the globe for centuries – from the fjords of Norway to the Russian steppes to the Sahara Desert. It was in use from well before the Roman Empire to 10th Century European abbeys to the Mayflower. In the New World cheese was originally made on farms, but by the mid 19th century cheese factories started springing up. From upstate New York to Wisconsin the industry boomed. Today, over one third of all U.S. milk production is devoted to manufacturing cheese, and Americans are able to buy over 300 varieties. The two most popular cheeses in the U.S. are mozzarella and cheddar, but artisan and gourmet cheese are also made domestically.
Categories of Cheese
Cheese can be categorized in several different ways, including fresh vs. aged, creamy vs. dry, type of rind, and texture. The latter is where the terms hard, soft and semi-soft come in. Some categories overlap, which is to say that a cheese can be aged, firm, and dry, or aged, semi-soft and creamy, etc. Knowing the terms helps you remember which kinds of cheese you like best, and might also help you be more adventurous with ones you have not tried. Here are some examples of cheese categories:
- Fresh (ricotta, mozzarella, feta, chevre, fromage blanc, mascarpone) vs. aged (aged cheddar, aged Gouda, Parmesan, Asiago, Gorgonzola)
- Creamy (chevre, Boursin, Brie, young Lancashire, Bel Paese) vs. dry (crumbly feta, Cheshire, ricotta salata, Vermont cheddar, dry Jack)
Type of Rind
- Natural and edible, (Parmesan, Cantal, Brie, Brillat-Savarin)
- Washed and edible, but can be quite strong (Teleggio, Epoisses, Appenzeller, and the famously stinky Limburger)
- Wax rind/inedible (Jarlsberg, Blarney Castle, Herkimer aged New York cheddar, Edam)
- Soft (Camembert, Livarot, Reblochon)
- Semi-soft (cream Havarti, Tilsit, Blarney Castle, fontina, Gouda, Muenster, Monterey Jack, Port-Salut, Reblochon, Stilton)
- Firm (Emmenthaler, Edam, Gloucester, Gruyère, Queso Manchego)
In a sense, cheese is alive, and its flavor continues to develop as it ages. All cheese other than fresh cheese needs to ripen, and this can take anywhere from several weeks up to one or two years. As cheese ripens it develops its distinctive flavor, becoming harder and more intense. Even a very specific kind of cheese – such as Gouda or cheddar or even Jack – can have a mild version which is somewhat softer, and an aged version with a much stronger flavor and harder texture.
Cheese should be stored in the refrigerator. True cheese aficionados would say that wrapping in layers of parchment and butcher paper is necessary, but see what works for you. Cheese gives off some gases so tightly wrapping it in plastic wrap creates such a closed environment that some people argue they can detect a taste of plastic on the cheese. Decide for yourself if this is true. Your best bet might be to wrap the cheese in wax paper or parchment, and then store this in a plastic baggie that is loosely folded over. The cheese can breathe through the wax paper and there is room inside the baggie for the gases to have some space.
If you buy cheese wrapped in double-layered French cheese paper, which has a thin layer of plastic with tiny holes, just keep closing it up in that same wrapper. Just don’t let the cheese dry out in your refrigerator; if it does, trim the dried out parts and discard, or feed small scraps to the dog.
Cheese breathes, so make sure to keep it separate from other foods – like onions and garlic! – or it can absorb their flavors. Similarly, keep blue cheeses well away from other foods, or the bacteria that make it so delicious can spread.
Aged cheese keeps well; and the longer it has aged, the longer it will keep. Italian Parmigiano Reggiano is aged for 24 months and is best known as a grating cheese because it is so hard; it can last for months in your fridge. If you notice a bit of mold on a well-aged cheese, simply trim it off with a good margin and taste the remainder. It may well be fine.
Fresh cheeses such as ricotta, cream cheese, feta and chevre (simply the French word for “goat”) should be treated the same as milk, and consumed fairly quickly. They will last in the refrigerator up to a couple of weeks. Check packaging expiration dates when buying fresh cheese, and definitely discard any fresh cheese that has developed mold.
Eating cheese is easy; you can eat it plain, with condiments, in combination with bread, crackers or fruit, or add it to cooked foods. Getting to know less typical cheeses can be a culinary adventure, and cheese can enhance almost any meal.
Try a couple of our favorite recipes with cheese: