One of the first steps in becoming more knowledgable about cheese and how to buy it is to learn how to identify the various cheeses you come across. At first it may seem very confusing but once you understand the different characteristics of a cheese like type of milk, processing, texture and so forth, it will help you discover what cheeses you prefer and why. Below are some important characteristics to help you make those decisions.
- Cow's milk
- Goats' milk
- Sheep's milk
- Fresh - usually unripened and packed into tubs or crocks
- Ripened but unpressed - quick-ripened (1 month) by surface molds; allowed to drain naturally
- Uncooked but Pressed - pressed and ripened from 2 to 18 months (Gouda)
- Cooked & Pressed - cooked, then molded, heavily pressed and then ripened for up to 4 years
- Very soft - fresh, spoonable (burrata, cottage cheese, mascarpone, cream cheese, ricotta)
- Soft - neither cooked nor pressed, spreadable (brie)
- Semi soft - pressed, can or cannot be pressed, firm but moist, sometime crumbly (cashel blue, chabichou du poitou, morbier)
- Semi hard - cooked and pressed, sliceable
- Hard - cooked and pressed, very firm, can be both sliced and grated (aged gouda, petit basque, cheddar, parmesan, pecorino)
- Cheese colors can range from white to yellow to chocolate brown in various shade degrees. Much depends on the length of ripening along with how much butter fat is present.
- Rule of thumb: the longer the ripening, and the more butter fat content, the darker the cheese.
- Dry Natural Rinds - are formed by the curds on the edge of the cheese as it dries out.
- Soft White Bloomy Rinds - have a thin or thick growth of white mold on surface.
- Washed Rinds - a smeary bacterial growth washed by water, wine, or brine.
(ah-zee-AH-goh) Although also made in the United States, this cow's milk cheese gets its name from from the village of Asiago in northern Italy. Of the two types, Asiago d'allevo and Asiago pressato, only the d'allevo is available in the United States.
The d'allevo is made from partially skimmed cows milk and is beige in color with distinctive tiny holes running throughout the cheese. When ripe, the cheese can be soft and makes for a great table cheese, but when aged for a year or longer, it is used as a grading cheese.
The flavor is rich, somewhat nutty, but mild. Often you will find Asiago served in restaurants as a substitute for Parmesan because it's cheaper. If you have a choice, ask for Parmesan. The milder, sweeter Asiago pressato is made from pasteurized whole milk and is aged only for a short time and is not exported to the US.
(gohr-guhn-ZOH-lah) Named for the Italian city where it is made, this cow's milk cheese is rich and creamy with a slightly pungent flavor. When aged over 6 months, both the flavor and the aroma become stronger....much stronger.
Some people think its stinky, but if you like strong cheese, you will love gorgonzola. It goes great with the pear in my salad, Seasonal French pears, mesclun, toasted pine nuts & gorgonzola.
(LEE-vah-roe) One of France's oldest, a wonderful cheese named after a village in Normandy and whose nickname is the Colonel because it is bound with five strips of paper that look like a Colonel's stripes. Originally, the stripes were made of natural rush harvested from the edge of ponds.
This is a strong cheese with lots of flavor (beefy, nutty) and a pungent aroma. (If it has a smell of ammonia, it is past its prime) Livarot is made from cow's milk but has only a 40% fat content. It is naturally white but colored orangy-red with a tincture from a South American tree called the roucou. It has a soft washed rind, is round with a 12 cm diameter and is 5 cm thick.
Livarot goes great with a big red wine as well as with apple cider. Try it with bread and/or fruit, especially apples and pears.
(mon-CHAY-goy) Spain's most famous cheese and most popular, is made from sheep's milk and has a mild salty nutty flavor. It has a characteristic crosshatch pattern on it's rind (inedible) that today comes from plastic molds, but is modeled after the traditional presses made from strands of the native grass esparto.
It has a firm texture and comes in wheels that are 4 - 5 inches high and 8 - 9 inches in diameter. Manchego is great to serve alone as an appetizer or with other cheeses and some cured olives. Some people grate it and serve it on vegetarian dishes.
It can be found in most cheese stores or gourmet markets but it is not cheap. I picked a small piece recently for about $15 per pound but it was a rare treat well worth it. Serve it in small pieces.
Originally created in Northern Italy nearly 400 years ago, mascarpone is a key ingredient in the famous Italian dessert Tiramisu.
Made from cow's cream, mascarpone is a buttery double to triple cream cheese. With an ivory color, smooth texture and cream-like flavor, it is often blended with other ingredients as in my Tiramisu recipe or just topped with fruit.
Mascarpone has a soft, sweet flavor almost like butter-cream cake frosting. It is used as a filling, frosting, dip or melted in sauces.
It's sold in 8 oz. and 1 pound containers. Use to be hard to find in this country, but now I'm seeing it in my local supermarkets.
Serve it with light and fruity wines, liqueurs and coffee.
(maht-suh-REHL-lah) is a soft white cheese with a mild flavor typically made from cow’s milk. It came from southern Italy where it was originally made from buffalo milk. If you are lucky enough to find real buffalo mozzarella in your local market, try it. Although expensive, it’s like eating ice cream compared to frozen yogurt.
Parmigiano - Reggiano
There are parmigiano cheeses made all over the world but there is only one Parmigiano-Reggiano. Although more expensive, this granular textured cheese whose processing method hasn't changed in the last 700 years is usually aged for 2 years. If labeled stravecchio - 3 years or stravecchiones - 4 years.
Two reasons why Parmigiano-Reggiano has better taste and consistency; (1) the flavor of the milk which comes from cows whose diets are strictly controlled, and (2) the strict production codes that have kept the cheese making the same for centuries. Only fresh milk, rennet, and salt are allowed in the dairy. However, in 1984 the laws changed to allow the entire years production be branded Parmigiano-Reggiano. Prior to 1984, only the cheese produced between April and November could be labeled such.
(roo-koo-LAWN), a cow's milk cheese from Franche-Comte, France. It's soft-ripened cheese that is very similar to Camembert or Brie. Did you know that although real Camembert and real Brie come from completely different regions in France, they are made from the same recipe and are identical in taste?
The problem is in the names; Camembert and Brie are not protected by law thus we get all sorts of cheeses that call themselves by those names that are not the real thing. Kind of like that California jug wine, Chablis, that has no resemblance to the wonderful Chardonnay that comes from Chablis, France.
What's great about rich and creamy Roucoulons? Although it is made from pasteurized cow's milk, it has a similar taste, smell, and appearance of a Camembert made from raw milk, impossible to find in the United States these days.
The first time I tried cutting into this cheese, I noticed a stick in the middle of it. It looked like a cheese popsicle. It turned out to be a straw and not a stick. This log-shaped goat cheese is from an area in France called the Touraine and the straw is used to reinforce the crumbly texture. It's made from goats milk (45% fat) and is soft with a natural rind. Our Sainte-Maure was coated with a wood ash and tasted smooth and rich. I've been eating it plain but have also added it to my mixed greens salads.