Jean-Antheleme Brillat-Savarin called cheese “milk’s leap toward immortality” and I couldn’t agree more. If cheese is something you like sandwiched between two sheets of plastic, than you will not appreciate this post. But if you’ve had the real live thing – you are passionate about what cheese is and can appreciate its diversity and subtle nuances. In San Francisco, my adopted town, people are opinionated about their cheeses – for which I am very grateful. They even have a cheese school to expose you to new and interesting possibilities. The teachers there are passionate about the fact that good cheese is a living breathing thing, my lovely, French instructor impressed upon us this fact, that a good, artisanal cheese must be treated with respect, if poorly handled it would not provide us the otherworldly experience we were seeking. We spent a section of one class learning the proper way to wrap and store cheese to ensure freshness. If your cheese does not come in the special cheese paper, but wrapped in plastic, remove the plastic. If you have parchment or wax paper, wrap the cheese in that, and then cover it with some plastic wrap – this allows the cheese a bit of breathing room which it needs.
Another feature of this city that I love is that most neighborhoods have their own cheese shop, and like the wine shops they have their own specialties that only if you’re a regular can you appreciate. They represent some of my favorite types of shopping, they are small, and the purveyor seeks to educated his or her customer and I always come away feeling I gained knowledge along with my tasty treats.
Cheese is primarily made from the milk of cow, sheep or goat. Mozzarella is an exception that comes to mind, being made from the milk of the water buffalo, and I’ve heard of camel milk, and some other exotic (to the US) cheeses, but the first three types certainly lead in terms of volume and popularity.
The ability to categorize the cheeses, has served me well. I liken it to dividing wine into red and white and then further sorting by varietal, here its the same grape or method. and it aides the sampler (me) in appreciating the nuances that exist between cheeses or wines in the same categories. Its like taking two Pinot Noir wines and sampling them side by side.
In cheese school we were taught that cheese could be catagorized into the twelve categories listed below. Some of the categories I had not seen defined this way before, and other experts differ on the categories – focusing on how the cheese is made, type of milk, texture, appearance of the rind, with no single method of categorization topping the heap. I compared the list to two cheese experts and have identified the overlaps and where they diverge.
Laura Werlin, a renowned Bay Area cheese expert, only allows for 8 categories and with this method, where she agrees with the school, I’ve bolded the categories that she shares with the school. In addition, she also lists: surface ripened, semi-hard, and hard in her book, Cheese Essentials.
Steven Jenkins in his cheese bible, The Cheese Primer also has 8 categories but again he differs in his breakdown. Where his categories aligned with the cheese school, I added an asterisk, and in a few cases he used different names for the same category, so I added his title at the end. His other categories are uncooked/pressed, cooked/pressed and processed cheese.
Sheep milk and goat milk cheeses I’ve covered in previous posts so the links are included for your convenience, and as a result they’ll be getting short shrift here. To make it even more complicated, or fun, cheeses can fall into multiple categories, jumping around almost at will; a Gratte-Paille is a triple crème that is also considered a bloomy rind.
- Fresh *
- Mild & Buttery
- Cheddar (uncooked/pressed*)
- Triple Crème
- Bloomy Rind *
- Goat’s Milk, aka Chèvre
- Sheep’s Milk
- Washed Rind *
- Blue *
Fresh cheese is not ripened or cooked curds that may or may not have been drained of its whey. The cheese school declares this cheese to contain no rennet. Ricotta is an example of undrained while cream cheese is an example of drained. Fresh cheeses have the least amount of flavor of all the types of cheese. They also should not have any association with mold; these cheeses are meant to be consumed immediately, not aged so no mold is inserted in to the making of these cheeses. If you find mold on these cheeses, what you have is not a fresh cheese. Examples of fresh cheeses include créme fraise, mozzarella, crescenza, and fromage blanc. They smell fresh, not like soured milk. Within the catagory of soft cheeses, many subgroups exist:
- soft cheese can include fromage blanc
- pasta filata or “stretched curd” is a method of “pulling cheese” to achieve a desired consisteny, mozzarella is an example of this type of cheese.
- brine cheese are soaked in a salt water solution – feta is the example here
- pressed cheeses run the gamut in texture from crumbly to smooth and silken. Examples of this cheese include cotija, and ricotta which also falls into the whey category as it is made from whey.
- whey cheese that is almost silky in texture, and made from whey which is usually considered a by-product to be thrown out (curd, the other half of the equation is what is usually used to make the cheese), or because it is nutrient rich fed to the farm animals. Ricotta salata, ricotta, and manouri are examples of this subgroup. Gjetost also falls in this group, but is unique in that it is also a semi-hard cheese.
- nonmelter does exactly what the name suggests, it does not readily melt, examples of these cheeses include Mexican queso fresco, Indian paneer, and Greek Halloumi. These cheeses are low acid cheeses, and as a result the calcium in the cheese “acts as a straight jacket” as Laura Werlin states, around the proteins because there is not enough calcium to dissolve the acid. The result is that the addition of heat does not cause the cheese to melt.
They all share a common color range varying from white to non-white depending on the milk, diet of the animal, and the time of year that the milk was acquired. Color is a good indicator of freshness; a darker color might be a sign of age. As goat and sheep do not process β-carotene like cows, their milk remains white.
Mild & Buttery (Semi-soft cheeses*) are the second youngest siblings, only a few weeks old. They are also generally free of mold. Some examples include Gouda, Havarti and Colby, and you might have notices that some of these fall under the classification of Mountain/Swiss. This cheese has mild, maybe tangy aromas, and still smells fresh. These cheeses are melters which makes them popular in cooking. To create the semi-sort texture, the cheese maker allows for larger curds, the better to retain moisture. The cheese is also drained rather than pressed, the better to retain moisture.
Mountain/Swiss is made from curd that was heated before pressing. Examples include Dutch Gouda, English Cheshire, French Cantal and Gruyère, Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, Swiss Appenzeller, and Emmental. Some of my favorite cheeses fall in this category, and I would never have suspected they were all made the same way. Non-pressed cheese that the Swiss are famous for, frequently have holes are eyes. The reason is that because the curds retain quite a bit of moisture, they due not “knit” and so gaps form between the curds. The high moisture content along with these eyes make identification of this cheese easy.
Grana/Aged (hard) are farmstead cheeses made only from April to November. They are hard, grating cheeses – Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano is a classic example.They might also be filed under the term grana cheeses which translates to grainy and refers to their texture. The fact that they are hard indicates that they have been aged for a long time, or in the case of some poor cheese that got hidden in the back of my refrigerator, for a very long time judging by its rigidity. The dominate tastes of these cheeses are salty and sweet, a little goes a long way. They make great cooking companions – can anyone consider Italian food without Parmesan? A secret I learned in cheese school is that many of these hard cheeses are actually lower in fat than their soft comrades, as the cream in the milk is skimmed off in the process of making cheeses as it improves the aging process. Another factor is that the curd is heated to higher temperatures to further remove the whey. Finally, many hard cheeses are brined for a period of time before they are deemed ready. This process allows salt to be added to the cheese, and it also creates a tough exterior so as to better improve the cheese. Given that the hardness of the cheese is gained through moisture loss, these cheeses are less likely to spoil, and need less refrigeration than their younger siblings. One of my favorite features of hard cheese are those little crystals that can be found lurking in the curd. I love finding them in an aged Gouda or a sliver of Parmesan. Cheese tasters love them and so cheese makers are reverting to letting these crystals appear in their cheeses, for a while they made every effort not to have them develop. They are simply the by-product of proteins in the cheese breaking down.
Cheddar and similar cheeses are made from a specifc process called cheddaring. In this case cheddar is used as a verb, not as a noun (cheddar cheese, or a town in England by the same name, Cheddar). Curds are separated from the whey and gathered to form sheets. The sheets are stacked on each other to further facilitate the drainage (the top layer presses on the bottom layers). As the stacks drain, the acidity rises which leads to its distinctive sharp and sometimes spicy flavor. Once the desired level of acid is reached, the curds are ground up and salted, thereby halting the rise in acidity. From this point on, the preparation follows other traditional cheese making techniques.
Despite some other differences between English and American cheddar, the obvious or visible distinction that people latch onto is that American cheddar is generally yellow. This color is entirely natural and is the addition of annatto or achiote to the milk. France’s Mimolette is another example of cheese containing annatto.
Triple Crème cheese is high in butter fat 75% for this cheese, versus 82% for butter. A double crème must contain a mere 60%
Bloomy rind (soft ripened cheeses*) have a semisoft consistency. The surface has been ripened by exposure to mold. They have very thin curst, that are white and velvety (bloomy). Examples of this type of cheese include Brie, Camembert, and some of the triple crèmes such as Gratte-Paille, and Italian Paglia and Toma cheese. If the cheese is lumpy or is lighter in the center than the cheese is too young, and not yet ready for consumption.
Goat’s Milk, aka chèvre (French) is simply cheese made from goat’s milk, also capra in Italian and cabra in Spanish.
Sheep’s Milk is cheese has the highest levels of protein and calcium. Pecorino is an example of sheep’s milk cheese. Known as brebis in French, pecora in Italian and oveja in Spanish.
Washed rind cheeses are generally encased in orange colored rinds which have been rubbed or immersed during the ripening process with some sort of brine, wine, beer or other liquor to promote a mold that creates the unique charateristics of the cheese. These cheeses have strong aromas that some may liken to smelly gym socks. If the smell verges on ammonia, this cheese is beyond its useful life. Examples of washed rind incude my beloved French Epoisses and Livarot, Italian Taleggio, Spanish Mahón and most monastery-style cheeses. The rinds of these cheeses can be consumed, despite the sometimes overwhelming smell that might hint otherwise.
NOTE: Most rinds can be consumed unless they are made of wax or still have cheese cloth attached. Of course if the flavor is too strong, or not pleasing, its certainly not a requirement.
Spiced cheese have additions that may enhance the flavor, consider Red Dragon from Wales that is a cow’s milk cheese with mustard seeds.
Blue cheese is marbled wit bluish-green mold, visible in the interior of the cheese. Mold is critical for blue cheese, because without it, well it would not be so blue. Examples of this cheese include: French Roquefort, Italian Gorgonzola, Spanish Cabrales, and good old American Maytag Blue. Blue cheese should not knock your socks off with its aroma, it may even have a sweet or tangy smell. If it smells like ammonia, than that cheese is not good for consumption, it probably will not make you sick, but the experience will not be pleasant.
The other categories, not identified by the cheese school include:
Natural rind cheese has self formed rind, no microflora of molds required, no washings to create the exterior. They have a denser texture than other cheeses and usually aged longer. Examples include English Stilton, Lancashire, French Cantal, Mimolette, Tomme de Savie.
Processed cheese as the name suggest is not your pure cheese, it may have some natural cheese elements, but expect some vegetable based gums, dyes, emulsifier, and stabilizers to be included. This cheese is bland, and the flavor is consistent if its anything. These cheeses have the advantage of a long shelf live and are generally smooth and spreadable.
Uncooked/Pressed cheese has not been heated or cooked to solidify it, and are pressed to drain the whey to achieve the desired texture. Examples include French Morbier and Tomme de Savoie, Italian Montasio and Spanish Manchego.
Cooked/Pressed cheese have been cooked or heated before pressing. Examples include Dutch Gouda, English Cheshire, French Cantal and Gruyère
Surfaced ripened cheese has a distinctive paper- thin, wrinkled rind. Soft ripened and washed rind also fall under this category. They also tend to be a cheese of extremes either firm or very creamy.
Semi-hard cheeses may smell a little musty or barnyard like but nothing like the intensity of a washed rind cheese, but instead remind the diligent sniffer of grass, nuts or hay – the stuff the goat, or lamb or cow ate.
I found this quote by Brad Kessler very applicable: “Every raw milk cheese is an artifact of the land. It carries the imprint of the earth from which it came. It’s a living piece of geography. A sense of place.” Good cheese does that, as my husband realized to his astonishment when I took him to a cheese-wine paring class. Prior to that experience, he did not understand why people justified spending more for cheeses, or simply what the fuss was all about. Now he forages the cheese counters with the best of them.