Americans have a love affair with cheese. Whether we’re eating it as an appetizer or experimenting with it as dessert, understanding the different varieties and types of cheese can help us discover the best ways to enjoy it. Each cheese falls into several different categories, such as age, texture, type of rind, and production method. Understanding these terms can help us categorize and keep track of what we like best. For instance, some people love a ripe “stinky” cheese; others cannot get far enough away. There is no right answer, but understanding the terminology can help you keep track of what you like.
Fresh cheese is the mildest, and it has no rind because it does not ripen or age in any way. Chevre, a distinctive goat cheese with mild flavor, is creamy and spreadable. Mozzarella is chewier, and has many uses; it’s a great melting cheese, and is also wonderful marinated in olive oil, fresh herbs and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Feta, the classic Greek sheep’s milk cheese, is now made in other countries – France, Bulgaria, and the US – with some variety of milk types. It tends to be either creamy or crumbly depending on its country of origin, with varying degrees of tanginess, but it is always salty. Cottage cheese, crème fraîche and ricotta are all mild fresh cheeses as well.
Italian or Danish fontina, French Morbier, Finnish Lappi and cream Havarti from Denmark, are all examples of semi-soft cheeses. In general, they tend to be buttery and mild, but flavorful, and not oozing but just firm. These are great for those who prefer mild flavors but still like some variety.
Soft ripened Cheeses
These tend to have a rind of some sort, and this is where the categories of texture and rind overlap. The type of rind often determines what happens “inside” as the cheese develops its flavor. Brie, Camembert, and the extremely rich Fromager d’Affinois all have a soft oozing texture inside an edible, bloomy white rind.
“As the cheese gets older, it gets gooey,” explains Janne Rasmussen of Cypress Grove Chevre on California’s north coast. “The rind is literally what holds the cheese in, and is 100 percent edible. Eating some or all of it is a matter of taste,” she assures.
During the aging process a rind will form on the cheese, and different aged cheeses form different kinds of rinds depending on their specific production method. As the rind develops, the magic happens inside.
Natural rinds, such as those found on Stilton, smoked mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano, are entirely edible but are sometimes stronger in flavor or tougher in texture than what is inside. Think of them as you do bread crust – a chewier and perhaps more flavorful version of the inside of the bread.
Other cheeses, such as dry Jack, New York and Vermont aged cheddar, and Dutch aged Gouda are coated with wax or cheesecloth. The cheese ages and develops inside this covering, which must be removed before eating.
Cheeses with a “washed rind” have natural rinds that are bathed with a salt brine or some sort of alcohol as they age. They are often a bit reddish or orange in color, such as Italian Taleggio and Pont l’Evêque from Normandy (both washed in wine), and Red Hawk, a domestic triple-crème cow’s milk cheese that is washed in brine. For some people, these “stinky cheeses” are the best; in any case they are often the most flavorful but for some they are too strong. Serve these cheeses when they are just starting to ooze when sliced. This means they are perfectly ripe.
Similarly, California’s Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam, and many European cheeses such as Port du Salut and Livarot are also are “smear-ripened.” This means that specific bacteria were applied to the exterior in order to help the rind develop a very particular mold, which in turn flavors the cheese. These cheeses successfully develop only in perfectly controlled environments, which is partly why they tend to be expensive.
Wax rinds are used all over the world to aid in the aging process. Spanish cheeses have become more popular recently. Hailing from La Mancha in Spain (“I’m Don Quixote, the man of La Mancha!”), Manchego is a sheep’s milk cheese that is aged for months. Gouda, a cow’s milk cheese from Holland (which in Dutch is pronounced as a soft guttural “How-da”) is a firm compact cheese with a natural rind that is washed, then covered with an inedible wax rind. The longer a cheese ages the sharper the taste. Young Gouda – aged a few months – is mild and buttery. The same cheese, when aged a year or 18 months, even up to seven years, has a very intense, strong flavor. In addition, the longer it ages, the harder the texture.
Cheddar is not only a kind of cheese, which can vary from mild to extra sharp, but the name of a process. During cheddaring, blocks of curds are stacked up on top of each other and pressed together to squeeze out the moisture. These pressed curds are then ground up in a mill, pressed into a mold, aged, and often sealed in wax. The finished cheese has a very dense texture. Aged cheddars can be crumbly and somewhat dry, or creamy and pungent.
Singin’ the Blues
Last, what more can be said of Roquefort, Stilton and Gorgonzola, other than that they are often considered the Big Three of blue cheeses, and obtain their flavor and appearance from the mold Penicillium, spores of which are added to the curds as they form. Different blue-veined cheeses have different flavors, and most would agree they are an acquired taste. Because several of these have a protected designation of origin, only a true cheese from that region can use the name. However, many other blue cheeses are also delicious, and have a range of flavors, such as Blue Castello, Maytag Blue, Saga and Italian Gorgonzola.
What Do You like?
After reviewing the different characteristics of cheese, try to see if there is a particular category you like. Many good cheese shops will let you sample cheese before you buy. You can expand your list of favorites by trying new categories, or by trying different varieties within your comfort zone. If you love cheddar, give English cheeses a try – the different varieties can have surprising subtleties. If you like Brie and Camembert, try more esoteric varieties like Epoisses, Livarot, Reblochon or Pont L’Eveque. And if you like cow’s milk cheeses from Northern Europe, Holland and Switzerland, try Jarlsberg, Emmenthaler, different ages of Gouda, and other firm waxed cheeses from the Alps and Scandinavia.
For additional information:
Cowgirl Creamery offers a library of cheese where you can look up almost any cheese and read about its qualities, flavor, texture and production. http://www.cowgirlcreamery.com/library.asp
Try these incredible recipes from two of our favorite California cheese producers, Cypress Grove Chevre and Laura Chenel’s Chevre:
Laura Chenel’s Chèvre & Potato Gratin
Laura Chenel’s Chèvre, Eggplant and Pesto Appetizers
Linguini with Bay Scallops, Chevre, and Red Peppers
Baked Goat Cheese