How to Talk About Cheese Like You Know What You’re Talking About
Cheese is basically just rotten milk. But anyone who has ever looked at a grocery store cheese shelf has seen how that simple process can create vastly different results.
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between an alpine-style cheese and cheddar? Or a washed rind versus a bloomy rind? I’m here to translate confusing cheese jargon into regular English. To help break it down, I spoke with Elizabeth Chubbuck, SVP of sales at Murray’s Cheese in New York City, and Antonia Horne, affineuse (i.e., professional cheese ager) for Caputo’s Market & Deli in Salt Lake City.
Let’s Start with Milk Type
Cows are big animals—the average mature dairy cow weighs over 1,000 pounds—and they produce a lot of milk. That milk is considered the most versatile for cheese, producing the greatest range of styles of all the animals. Cow’s milk also has the widest range of hues, which offer clues on how the animal is being raised.
Unlike goats and sheep, cows do not absorb the beta carotene in the grass they eat. It gets passed through their systems and straight into the milk. So, cows raised on fresh grass end up producing cheese with a golden butter-yellow hue. That rich color is often a good indication of quality: cows that are raised on grain do not have as much beta carotene going through their systems and into the milk.
“Anyone could go to the grocery store and pull the spectrum of white cows milk cheese to golden cows milk cheese,” Chubbuck says. “I would bet $50 if we researched the scale of production or commitment to artisanal practices they very white cow’s milk cheeses would be more industrial and the very yellow would be more artisanal—and probably more expensive.”
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Goat milk is lower in fat with a lighter feel than other cheeses. When it’s formed into fresh styles, like chevre, it takes on a tangy flavor, with bright lemon and citrus notes that turn more toward citrus pith with a bit of age. Goat cheese is more prone to “barnyard-y” flavors that resemble the animal—in a good way.
Unlike cows, which absorb no beta carotene, and sheep, which absorb a little, goats are great at absorbing beta carotene, which gets converted into Vitamin A in their milk, lending it a crisp, white hue. “Goat cheese is pretty much universally going to have a snowy white color,” Chubbuck says.
Read more: Our Favorite Goat Cheese Recipes
Sheep are smaller than cows and not as hardy as goats, and often require hand-milking and time-intensive grooming, which drives up the cost of their cheeses.
But there’s a reason buyers are willing to pay the price. Sheep’s milk cheese is high in fat with a richer, rounder, and heavier mouthfeel even after aging. Much of that is due to its lanoline qualities, a source of Vitamin E produced on their skin to keep the wool from getting overly brittle or wet. “Lanolin has a very particular aroma,” Chubbuck says. “It’s a little nutty in the sense of raw almonds, a little waxy like high-quality beeswax, and a hint of gaminess with a sheepy note to it.”
That wide range of flavor is present in all sheep’s cheese from rarer soft varieties, like ricotta salata, to hard and blue styles.
Right in between goat and cow in terms of beta carotene-absorption, all sheep’s cheeses boast a rich ivory hue.
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Most famously used in buffalo mozzarella, water buffalo has the highest fat of all the milk types. It’s hard to find in the states, but there are cheeses other than buffalo mozzarella made from their milk, including other fresh cheeses and some aged varieties.
Read more: 8 Ways to Use Mozzarella
Texture and Style
A cheese’s texture is impacted by a combination of factors such as the pH and acidity levels from the cheese making process, individual choices made by the cheesemaker and natural proteolysis, the breakdown of proteins into smaller polypeptides or amino acids, as it ages. “There's a spectrum of really soft spreadable cheese to really hard crumbly cheese and within that spectrum there's going to be a lot of nuance,” Chubbuck says. “I like to think about it in three different big picture textures.”
Made and intended to be consumed quickly, soft cheeses have a higher moisture content. It’s the kind you can easily cut with a spoon and smear onto a cracker or piece of bread.There is a broad range of textural variation in this category, ranging from buttery mascarpone and velvety fresh goat cheese to creamy surface-ripened brie and custardy washed-rind epoisse de bourgougne. “When I say soft these are things you’re going to have a hard time slicing,” says Chubbuck. “They typically tend to be smaller format, some are larger and you might slice a wedge, but you want to just carve into it and slather it onto things.”
Here’s a breakdown of soft cheese styles:
Fresh cheese: These unaged cheeses have no rind on the outside, so they have a shorter shelf life of about seven to 14 days. They should always be pure white and milky fresh with some citrusy tartness or subtle butteriness depending on the milk. This includes Mexican queso fresco, feta, chevre, Buffalo mozzarella, fresh mozzarella, fromage frais and other soft spreadable cheeses.
Bloomy rind: Identifiable by their white, velvery rind, bloomy rinded cheeses are creamy and soft. Brie and camembert are two of the more common varieties, but the style goes well beyond those ubiquitous rounds, highlighting all kinds of milk (including really delicious Casatica di Bufala from Water Buffalo) with flavors spanning from simple buttery notes to really intense Brussel sprouts, broccoli, and iodine aromas in traditional French brie fermier.
Ash ripened: There’s a subcategory of bloomy ripened cheeses that foregoes the usual Penicillin- or Geotrichum-covered rinds for black vegetable ash on the exterior. Appropriately dubbed ash-ripened cheese, goat, sheep and, sometimes cow’s milk are fermented with ash to balance the acidity, creating a velvety grey and wrinkly exterior. Some of the better known ash-ripened cheeses are French Valençay and Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog.
Washed rind: Washed rind cheese tends to be the stinkiest and most pungent. The exterior varies in color from orange to pink, with a tacky or grainy texture on the outside and moisture-rich doughy to runny texture within. Sheep’s and goat’s milk are occasionally transformed into washed rind cheese, but cow is far more common in well known versions like epoisse, taleggio and pont le veche, all known for their intense gamy aromas. “Washed rind’s bark is louder than the bite,” Chubbuck says. “The smell is really strong, the flavor is not usually as intense.”
Semi-Firm to Firm
This wide-ranging category encompasses cheeses that are able to hold their shape even when warm. Typically, they’d be sliced, but don’t require a sharp knife. You might shred it on top of enchiladas but you’re not going to grate it and watch it seamlessly melt into a pasta dish.
These cheeses have less moisture than soft cheeses and require additional steps in the fermentation and aging process. This includes springy cheeses like taleggio, tome and young havarti to sliceable provolone, gruyere and younger cheddars, styles that often cut easily and melt well for things like grilled cheese sandwiches. “These are very user-friendly,” says Chubbuck. “They’re good picnic cheeses if you’re not rolling out the whole spread.”
Most blue cheeses fall between the spectrum of semi-firm to firm. A couple other styles of cheese that fall under this texture category are:
Alpine: Made high up in the Alps, these visually firm, pressed cheeses are smooth in texture, sometimes with a little springiness and, oftentimes, a nice golden yellow color. They are designed to be melted—makes sense given the historically frigid temperatures in the region—with a caramelized and nutty aroma. Gruyére and comte are the most recognizable varieties of Alpine cheese, which run the gamut from mild hazelnut brown butter notes in some French Comtes to extremely intense rich butterscotch-flavored challerhocker and oniony, meaty Scharfe Maxx from Switzerland.
Alpine-style cheeses hail from across the European mountain chain with a small selection hailing from Germany and Italy. The vast majority are produced in France and Switzerland. “Swiss alpines get to be a little bolder as a general rule,” Chubbuck says. “The French tend to be a little more nuanced and subtle. I describe the difference like California Chardonnay versus a Burgundian Chardonnay.”
Cheddar: Cheddars are made in a variety of techniques, from block to more nuanced clothbound fermentation. The texture can range from slightly springy and somewhat moist to crumbly and dry. Colorwise, anything from cream to pumpkin orange goes. What all cheddars have in common is a specific production process—cheddaring the curds. Simply put, cheddaring is a method of shredding and stacking the curds before the blocks are formed.
The flavor spectrum of cheddar cheese can span from milky and sweet, with the butterscotch and caramel notes that are more common in American cheddar, to the acidic, fresh-cut grass and horseradish aromas in British clothbound varieties.
This texture has had most of the moisture removed, usually through cutting the curd and cooking and/or pressing out all of the whey. Typically, these cheeses have been aged at least a full year (sometimes less for smaller wheels). They tend to be the types of things you’d want to grate on pasta to infuse really concentrated flavors into every bite.
“You pick up a hard cheese and feel it: it’s totally dense,” Chubbuck says. ”You wouldn’t describe it as doughy or springy.”
Grana-style cheeses are some of the most common hard cheeses. These hard, grainy cheeses have the least amount of moisture, a bold flavor and, often, a lot of age. These craggy, crumbly wheels span from ivory to straw yellow with sweet, savory, and nutty aromas often with a deep umami-rich taste. Parmigiano-reggiano is the best known grana-style cheese, but this category also includes sheep’s milk pecorino-romano and Sardinian Calcagno.
If you’re trying to put together a solid cheese board, buying a mix of textures and colors should ensure there’s enough diversity of flavors to keep it interesting—even if you forget what “alpine-style” means.
How to Care for and Store Cheese
It’s easy to forget that cheese is a living organism. If you want to enjoy it in the same condition it was when you picked it out at the cheese counter, it’s important to buy small amounts of cheese frequently. “There’s no such thing as stasis for cheese,” sys Horne says. “What you buy will be different every subsequent day.”
As a general rule of thumb, the fresher the cheese, the faster you want to consume it. Fresh mozzarella, for example, will start to disintegrate within a week from production if uncut and should be used within the same day it’s been sliced. Queso fresco, ricotta salata, and other cheeses made without a protective rind hold up well in plastic but are very vulnerable to picking up molds and spores from other cheeses and foods. “Keep it as air tight as possible,” Horne says. “It can pick up a mold spore out of the air or from a knife and will immediately take the opportunity to grow a rind.”
Historically, soft cheeses with a rind were made with the intention to eat within a few weeks to a month at most. To keep bloomy or washed rind cheeses from changing too much, they need airflow—unless you intentionally want the aromas to get stronger (which you totally can do at home for fun).
While bloomy rinds are more prone to ammoniation (when cheese gives off a pungent ammonia odor), washed rinds can get ammoniated, as well. The more airflow they get, the less likely they are to start smelling like chemicals. To ensure your washed or bloomy rinded cheeses stay better, longer, wrap them in parchment paper or stick them in a tupperware in the fridge.
Horne recommends adding a wad of damp paper towel to the tupperware and burping the lid every day or so to make sure it's getting enough humidity and oxygen. “If you don’t allow it to breath and gas off, eventually it will start to rot,” Horne says. “You can develop the flavors with less danger of ammoniation if it has airflow.”
But here’s the thing: cheese is a lot heartier than many people think. Expiration dates are required by law, but they don’t actually mean that much in terms of whether the cheese is OK to eat. So, even if a cheese does get ammoniated—with that irritating chemical smell, snowy white or brownish discoloration, and spots where the rind had begun to flatten or warp—it can often be saved by setting it out on the countertop. “If it hasn’t penetrated too far, it’s often recuperable,” says Horne, who encourages her customers to use their noses to determine whether it's healthy enough to taste good. “It’s not going to make you sick, it’s not just not going to be pleasant.”
Mold, too, doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker, according to Horne. It’s better to keep different kinds of cheeses in separate containers, so they don’t cross-contaminate each other with different kinds of spores. White, green, brick red, grayish green, and blue molds are regular cheese molds that are safe to eat, says Horne, “Healthy cheese is cheese that’s growing stuff. The rind wants to heal where it was cut.”
Semi-firm to hard cheeses, from young goudas and cheddars to grana-style, have less moisture and tend to have a much longer shelf life than softer versions. Because you’re not trying to keep an active rind alive, you want to keep them tightly wrapped in plastic wrap or a Ziploc to prevent them from drying out or contracting other kinds of mold. But, again, even if they do grow a surface mold or, in the case, of hard cheeses that get that slimy beige film on the outside, Horne encourages people scrape it off and see how it tastes.
So, how do you know your cheese is off? Take a sniff. “If it doesn’t smell like a healthy living thing, it’s probably better to pass,” says Horne, who admits that while plenty of cheese have bouquets of feet, it’s about a healthy foot smell as opposed to like rotting foot odor. “There’s that smell, if you open a carton of badly spoiled milk that makes your stomach churn—that’s what you don’t want.”