The perfect cheese plate should include a mix of fresh, aged, soft and hard cheeses, arranged in the order in which they should be tasted: from the lightest and freshest to the ripest and most intense. Here, cheese expert Laura Werlin lists cheeses by style, starting with fresh cheeses and ending with washed-rind cheeses.
Fresh cheeses are ready to eat as soon as they are made—no aging required. They generally have the mild, minerally flavors of their primary ingredients: milk and salt.
Basket-Molded Chèvre: Pure Luck Grade A Goat Dairy, Dripping Springs, TX
To create this silky chèvre, the cheesemakers hand-ladle curds made from the farm’s goat milk into basket molds to drain (purelucktexas.com).
Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes Station, CA
Crème fraîche gives this cottage cheese its tang and richness (cowgirlcreamery.com).
Fresh Mozzarella: Crave Brothers Dairy Farm, Waterloo, WI
The Crave brothers milk their own herd of 600 cows for their buttery mozzarella (cravecheese.com).
Mt. Vikos Feta Salty and crumbly, the sheep’s-and-goat’s-milk feta is a natural for salads and egg dishes.
Unspun mozzarella curds and cream give this fresh cheese a soft center that oozes when it is cut open. It’s perfect with tomatoes and olive oil and decadent enough to eat on its own.
Mild semisoft cheeses are most often aged from a few days to a few months. They melt beautifully under the slightest heat.
Crescenza: Bellwether Farms, Petaluma, CA
This handmade cheese has the perfect semisoft texture: creamy yet firm (bellwetherfarms.com).
San Luis Obispo, CA
Franklin Peluso’s masterful cheese, dusted with rice flour on the outside, is oozy-soft within (cowgirlcreamery.com).
Farmstead Creamy Havarti: Willamette Valley Cheese Company, Salem, OR
This American take on the Danish cheese is great in a grilled cheese sandwich (wvcheeseco.com).
Beneath its firm (inedible) rind, this citrusy raw cow’s-milk cheese, which was first produced in the Welsh town of Gorwydd, changes in texture from firm on the outside to soft at the center.
France: Brin d’Amour
This Corsican cheese, traditionally made with sheep’s milk, is fragrant with a coating of rosemary, juniper berries and other herbs. Its texture evolves from creamy to semihard as it ages over three months.
Distinguished by their white "bloomy" rinds and creamy interiors, soft-ripened cheeses get softer instead of harder as they age. The best-known are Brie and Camembert.
Green Hill: Sweet Grass Dairy, Thomasville, GA
This cheese produced near the Georgia-Florida border gets its sweet, grassy flavors from the pasture that feeds the herd of Jersey cows at nearby Green Hill Dairy (sweetgrassdairy.com).
Pee Wee Pyramid: Cypress Grove Chèvre, Arcata, CA
A light, lemony goat cheese from the makers of perennial favorite Humboldt Fog (cypressgrovechevre.com).
Seastack: Mt. Townsend Creamery, Port Townsend, WA
Launched in May 2006, Mt. Townsend has been garnering praise for its complex cheeses, like the creamy, citrusy, cow’s-milk Seastack (mttownsendcreamery.com).
France: St. Simeon
Noted for its rich, buttery flavor, this double-créme cow’s-milk cheese isn’t a Brie but has been produced in France’s Brie-making region since 1929.
Italy: Robiola Bosina
This silky cheese from Piedmont is a blend of sheep’s and cow’s milk. Its mild flavor makes it versatile enough to serve with sweet dried cherries and figs or with savory mushrooms.
Surface-ripened cheeses are sometimes firm and sometimes molten, but they all have similarly wrinkly rinds and intensely flavored interiors. Special molds ensure that their exteriors ripen first.
Bijou: Vermont Butter & Cheese Company, Websterville, VT
This unctuous two-ounce goat’s-milk round was introduced in 2006. Unwrap it and store it in the fridge, and it firms up to become a fantastic grating cheese; keep it covered and it just gets creamier (vtbutterandcheeseco.com).
Fleur-de-Lis: Bittersweet Plantation Dairy, Gonzales, LA
Famed Louisiana chef John Folse’s superrich Guernsey cow’s-milk cheese evolves over time from firm to pure liquid (jfolse.com).
Pyramid Juniper: Grove Farm, Redmond, OR
Pierre Kolisch makes this earthy, slightly chalky, pyramid-shaped cheese from raw goat’s milk (junipergrovefarm.com).
Often called the “Eiffel Tower” because of its pyramid-like shape, this Loire valley goat cheese is tangy, herbaceous and earthy.
Italy: La Tur
This irresistibly creamy cheese gets its delicate flavors from cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk. It is so deliciously soft it can be eaten with a spoon.
A broad category ranging from cheddar to Gouda, semihard cheeses can be aged anywhere from a few months to a few years, and sometimes longer.
Flagship Reserve: Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, Seattle, WA
A cheddarlike cow’s-milk cheese, Beecher’s Flagship Reserve develops its nutty, sharp flavors while it ages in cloth wrapping for at least a year (beechershandmadecheese.com).
Classico: Tumalo Farms, Bend, OR
This goat’s-milk cheese is sweet, like many Dutch Goudas, and nutty, like an aged Italian cheese (tumalofarms.com).
Pleasant Ridge Reserve: Uplands Cheese Company, Dodgeville, WI
An Alpine-style, golden, grassy cheese made from the milk of mixed-breed cows (uplandscheese.com).
England: Lincolnshire Poacher
Though often compared with cheddar, this English cow’s-milk cheese developed by dairy farmer Simon Jones has a creamier texture and tastes more mellow and sweet. It’s delicious with walnuts or apples (lincolnshirepoachercheese.com).
A firm Catalonian cheese with the signature tang of goat’s milk, Garrotxa has an earthy aroma and is a terrific choice for cooking. It adds flair to pasta and pairs well with serrano ham for a Spanish-inspired grilled cheese sandwich.
Recipe: Leeks Romesco with Crumbled Garrotxa Cheese
Hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano are defined by their firm, granular texture and salty-sharp taste.
Sarvecchio Parmesan: Sartori Foods, Plymouth, WI
SarVecchio is the closest thing to an American Parmigiano; moister and less assertive than its Italian cousin, it has a great balance of nutty, salty and caramelly flavors (sartorifoods.com).
Queso de Mano: Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, Niwot, CO
Loosely translated as "handmade cheese," sweet-tart Queso de Mano was this goat dairy’s first raw-milk cheese (haystackgoatcheese.com).
Super Aged Gouda: Winchester Cheese Company, Winchester, CA
This Gouda is made in the Dutch "Boere Kaas" (farm-made) fashion with unpasteurized cow’s milk (winchestercheese.com).
This caramelly, long-aged Dutch Gouda is crunchy with crystals (tiny protein clusters).
Italy: Piave Vecchio
Nutty and sweet, this aged cow’s-milk cheese is more mellow than classic hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it’s just as lovely grated on pasta or served in chunks as part of a cheese plate.
Blue cheeses get their color from rich veins of mold and range in texture from creamy to creamy-crumbly to hard.
Rogue River Blue: Rogue Creamery, Central Point, OR
Rogue Creamery’s herbaceous, salty-sweet raw cow’s-milk cheese is aged in Syrah-Merlot grape leaves that have been soaked in pear brandy (roguecreamery.com).
Big Woods Blue: Shepherd’s Way Farms, Nerstrand, MN
This bacony blue made with sheep’s milk is a perfect example of the crumbly style (shepherdswayfarms.com).
Cayuga Blue: Lively Run Goat Dairy, Interlaken, NY
Cayuga Blue gets its minty, lightly spicy flavors from the milk of this small dairy’s own goats (livelyrun.com).
Ireland: Cashel Blue
Ireland’s first farmstead blue cheese, first developed in 1984, is surprisingly sweet, with a crumbly yet creamy texture (cashelblue.com).
New Zealand: Windsor Blue by Whitestone Cheese Company
This excellent cow’s-milk double- (almost triple-) créme blue cheese was judged the best in New Zealand among 500 competitors in 2006 (whitestonecheese.co.nz).
These cheeses get their characteristic orange-pink rinds from being "washed" (rubbed, really) with a solution of salt water and beneficial bacteria. Often described as stinky (in a good way), washed-rind cheeses can smell stronger than they taste.
Grayson: Meadow Creek Dairy, Galax, VA
Made from the milk of Jersey cows, this soft, square-shaped cheese has earned a cult following for its beefy brown-butter flavors (meadowcreekdairy.com).
Hooligan: Cato Corner Farm, Colchester, CT
This mushroomy, yeasty cow’s-milk cheese comes from mother-son duo Elizabeth MacAlister and Mark Gillman (catocornerfarm.com).
Sarabande: Dancing Cow Farm, Bridport, VT
A pyramid-shaped raw cow’s-milk cheese, caramelly Sarabande is aged for 60 days (dancingcowcheese.com).
Belgium: Chimay Grand Cru
This cow’s-milk cheese, made by the same Trappist monks who produce Chimay beer, has a noticeable salty tang and a delicious crunchy exterior (chimay.com).
Made from cow’s milk, this golden-colored, semisoft cheese has a somewhat mushroomy flavor (gubbeen.com).
Laura Werlin is the author of four books on cheese. Her most recent is Laura Werlin’s Cheese Essentials.