The Culture Cheese Style Guide
The world of cheese is vast and diverse. Generally that's something to celebrate, but it also makes for a little head scratching as we try to learn about the hundreds of cheeses available to us. Like wine, the details often download slowly into our mental files, if at all. Of course, some folks enjoy just eating cheese without studying its names and nuances, but for those who want to know the subject, we offer this page as a primer on the most basic cheese categories. Start thinking in terms of these seven fundamental styles and you'll be better able to explore cheese and ask pertinent questions, arranging your cognitive discoveries in a useful way. And you may even find, as we do at culture, that playing cheese sleuth is delicious work.
First off, know that most cheeses are made from cow's, sheep, or goat's milk, or a mixture of these milks. Water buffalo milk is also used in cheesemaking, though not as commonly–mozzarella di bufala being the big exception. The type of milk does not determine the style of cheese, as various milks are found in each of the following categories:
As its name implies, this category includes cheeses that leave the creamery young, usually within one to 14 days of production. With little or no aging, they have smooth, creamy textures, milky flavor, and a moderate to low salt content. Fresh cheeses made with sheep or goat's milk have a distinct tang; those made with cow's milk tend to be mildly sweet. Examples of fresh cheese include cottage cheese, ricotta, cream cheese, chèvre, and fromage blanc.
A white bloomy rind is the distinguishing trademark of these ripened cheeses, which get softer, not harder, as they age. They ripen from the outside in, as do so-called surface-ripened cheeses, but the latter category can have a wrinkly rind and texture ranging from runny to hard, depending on aging. Brie, Camembert, and triple-cremes are classic examples of bloomy cheese.
Good melting cheeses because of their moisture, semi-soft varieties are pliable with earthy mellow flavors. Think of grass and hay, caramelized milk, and hint of acidity. Theses cheeses tend to be chewy and smooth in texture. Examples include Fontina, Tomme de Savoie, and Garrotxa.
The largest category of cheese, also known as "semi-hard," firm types are typically buttery and nutty, with an overall balance of flavor and salt (although there are some pungent characters in this grouping). With a range of aging, firm cheeses have a fairly dense texture and concentrated consistency as well as a little springiness. Well known firm cheeses include Cheddars and Edam,
Drier and more crumbly than other types, hard cheeses have generally been aged for several months or more. They can have a biting sharpness, or, as in the case of the most famous hard cheese–Parmigiano Reggiano–their stiff golden paste can be nutty and brown-butter like in taste. Many are good grating cheeses, such as Grana Padano, Provolone, and Vella Dry Jack.
The distinctive ingredient that creates the recognizable blue, green, or grayish veins and ripples in most of these cheeses is Penicillium roqueforti–bacteria that thrive in cultured milk, especially if air is present. Blue cheeses are pierced with needles after they're shaped and salted to facilitate this kind of "breathing" in the cheese during aging. Notable old-world blue cheeses include Stilton, Gorgonzola, and Roquefort, but there are many newer members of the blues club worth discovering.
During maturation, these cheeses are washed repeatedly with brine, beer, wine, or spirits to create a moist surface that is inhospitable to mold but friendly to flavor-enhancing bacteria. This is the category of cheese filled with notoriously "stinky" types. The taste of washed rind cheese aims to be meaty and intense, within a wide range of textures. Examples include Epoisses, Red Hawk, and Langres.