There are many different types of cheese out there, in fact, the varieties are so numerous and diverse that it’s easy to get confused by them. Hundreds of classes of different cheeses are on the market, each boasting their own flavor profiles, textures, and aromatic qualities. From the high contrast to the subtly divergent, the classification of cheeses can quickly become overwhelming, and even the selection provided at your supermarket can be enough to make your eyes glaze over and your head swim.
With all cheese being made from the same base ingredient, milk, how can there be such a diverse range of tastes and textures? A complex food, there is a host of other variables that can influence the final flavor and texture of cheese, including aging times, methods of inoculation, milk types, even the region it comes from. This adds another layer of difficulty when trying to understand and classify cheese. Even when the method of production is almost identical, cheeses still develop their own distinctive ‘style.’ This is because, like wine, cheese has terroir, developing flavors and characteristics based on its environment.
And therein lies the beauty of cheese, while the choice and options are formidable to the uninitiated that same diversity is what keeps the creative chef curious and the gourmand’s appetite insatiable. For those of us who just want to understand what we’re looking at and to help prevent the inevitable overwhelming of the cheese counter, we’ve broken it down into eight easy to recognize classes of cheese.
Also known as unripened cheese, fresh cheese is not aged at all. This results in a finished product that is generally soft and creamy in texture and mild in flavor. Because the aging time is practically non-existent, the only factor that influences a fresh cheese’s taste is the amount of salt used. So while fresh cheeses each boast a set of singular characteristics, on the whole, they are subtly flavored.
The other variable in fresh cheeses comes from how much whey is used during the manufacturing process and how much moisture is drained from them before they are packaged and sold. This can result in a wide assortment of results ranging from creamy, spreadable cheese like the French classic, chevre to crumbly, and mild queso fresco!
Bloomy Rind (Soft-Ripened) Cheese
Soft-ripened cheeses are aged from the outside in, creating a soft and runny interior held in by a thin layer of bloomy rind just sturdy to keep everything together. Some of the most popular examples of these bloomy options are the buttery soft Brie and Camembert cheeses.
During their relatively short aging process, soft-ripened cheese is exposed to a very particular strain of mold (Penicillium camemberti). This mold works by converting the fats in the cheese into fragrant compounds known as ketones and imparts the characteristic nutty mushroomy tastes we associate with Brie and its ilk.
Too soft to easily slice or grate, semi-soft cheeses are excellent for melting into dishes. Where method of production is what defines the cheeses in most of our categories, moisture levels and final texture is what’s more important with a semi-soft cheese. To officially classify as ‘semi-soft’ a cheese must have a water content under 45% and above 36%. Generally aged only a few months, semi-soft cheeses have a subtle flavor and a moist and yielding texture.
Great for snacking and desserts this is a widely varied category making it one of the most diverse and delicious!
These cheeses are made in a similar fashion to bloomy-rind options in that they are ripened from the outside in. Rather than letting a white mold develop, the exterior is instead washed frequently. This can be with any liquid, from seawater or beer to wine and liquor! This process removes the mold while at the same time encouraging the growth of a sticky orange bacteria (Brevibacterium linens). These B.linens are responsible for the highly aromatic and pungent quality of these cheeses.
While infamous cheeses like Limburger and Taleggio live within the washed-rind genre, don’t be scared, in general, their taste is much milder than their scent!
By far the largest category of cheese on the market, semi-hard cheeses, get their flavor depending on which bacterias are used to create their starter culture. While Lactobacillus helveticus will give you Swiss, Lactococcus lactis ssp. cremoris will give you Cheddar.
The other factor that affects flavor in these semi-hard cheeses is how long they’re aged. There is a direct correlation between how long a cheese is aged and how “sharp” or intensely flavored it becomes. Because cheese continues to lose moisture as it cures, aging also increases the firmness of cheese.
While soft-ripened cheeses are treated with mold on their exterior, blue cheeses are injected with mold internally to create those distinctive veins ranging in color from blue-green to black. Curiously the only way these particular strains of mold will develop and prosper is if they are exposed to oxygen, making a process called 'needling' a necessity. Needling consists of puncturing the cheese rounds all over with small needles to introduce air to the cheese and encourage mold growth. This piercing also results in cheeses with a softer texture and more open structure, giving blue cheese its characteristic creamy, crumbly texture.
While the genre of semi-hard cheeses accounts for most varieties, there is a category reserved for those cheeses that are extremely low in moisture and have a texture so hard it borders on crumbly. These are the cheeses that have those delightful little chunks of hard, salty cheese, also known as cheese crystals, punctuating their interior. Aging for anywhere from two to three years, hard cheeses are rich in flavor and deeply savory. Their texture is so dense and firm that it can stand up well to a grater and is most often used to garnish dishes from pasta and soup to salad and casseroles.
Stretched-Curd Cheese or Pasta Filata
Pasta filata is a stretched curd cheese made famous in Italy. Meaning “spun paste” these cheeses are soaked in a hot water bath then stretched by hand until they achieve their characteristic fibrous bouncy texture. Spun and pulled, they are generally sold in various knots or braids. Since they aren’t aged, stretched-curd cheeses are technically a fresh cheese, but their method of preparation is so singularly unique we think they deserve a classification of their own. Mozzarella and Buratta are classic examples of a stretched-curd cheese.
Constantly changing and developing in flavor and complexity, it’s no wonder that cheese has captured and held the imagination of chefs and epicures around the world since its inception. Armed with a little more knowledge, and hopefully a deeper appreciation of what goes into making cheese. You should now feel equipped to order cheeses with much more confidence, and at the very least, prevent that feeling of uneasiness the next time you approach the deli counter.