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 quintessential American 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.
(1) 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).
Cottage Cheese: 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).
Mild semisoft cheeses are most often aged from a few days to a few months. They melt beautifully under the slightest heat.
(2) Crescenza: Bellwether Farms, Petaluma, CA This handmade cheese has the perfect semisoft texture: creamy yet firm (bellwetherfarms.com).
Franklin’s Teleme: San Luis Obispo, CA Franklin Peluso’s masterful cheese, dusted with rice flour on the outside, is oozy-soft within (franklinscheese.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).
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.
(3) 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 (mttownsend creamery.com).
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.
(4) 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 (junipergrove farm.com).
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.
(5) 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).
Hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano are defined by their firm, granular texture and salty-sharp taste.
(6) 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).
Blue cheeses get their color from rich veins of mold and range in texture from creamy to creamy-crumbly to hard.
(7) 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).
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.
(8) 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).
Laura Werlin is the author of four books on cheese. Her most recent is Laura Werlin’s Cheese Essentials.