To best understand a cheese counter, expert Laura Werlin likes to group cheeses into eight categories, each of which can be made from all three milk sources (cow, goat or sheep). “So if you’re in a Paris cheese shop, where the names won’t be familiar, the idea is to go beyond the labels and look at the cheese. And if you see a cheese with an orange rind, you can say, ‘OK, I know that’s a surface-ripened cheese and I like those; I’ll try one,’ or ‘I don’t like washed-rind cheeses; I’ll stay away from those.’ It’s a little bit of a leap of faith, and it’s not exact at all. But this was my thinking.”
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1. Fresh cheese does not mean the opposite of spoiled—it just means it hasn’t been aged. Fresh cheeses like chèvre or goat cheese, ricotta, queso blanco, cottage cheese and fromage blanc are meant to be eaten soon after they’re made, generally a couple of weeks or, in the case of fresh mozzarella, a couple of days. One important exception is feta, which can last in a barrel of salt brine for months. Texturally, fresh cheeses are usually soft because they haven’t had time to harden. They’re most often used in cooking or in a salad, not on a cheese board.
2. Semisoft cheese is a cheese that’s mild in flavor and melts well. Some examples are most Colby cheeses, teleme, some of the younger Goudas, Havarti and Monterey Jack (though not dry Jack or aged Jack). Generally speaking, they have a higher moisture content than semihard cheeses, and they don’t have rinds. These are the cheeses you think of when you’re going to make a grilled cheese sandwich or mac and cheese. They’re also good starter cheeses for people who aren’t that enthusiastic about the more assertive varieties, like blue cheese.
3. Soft-ripened cheese is distinguished by a white, so-called bloomy rind. The best-known are Brie and Camembert. They’re usually intended to be somewhat creamy—sometimes very creamy. Unlike most cheeses, they ripen from the outside in, not the inside out. With most cheese, the part that’s exposed to oxygen, the exterior, tends to harden first. But with soft-ripened cheese, the mold on their surface, usually penicillum candiddum, breaks down proteins to create a creamy texture.
4. Surface-ripened cheeses sometimes share the white mold of soft-ripened cheeses, but they look more wrinkly and have what I call a “brainy” rind. This is caused by a yeastlike fungus called geotrichum, which imparts a mushroomy, sometimes goaty flavor. These are almost exclusively goat cheeses, like the Loire cheese selles-sur-cher, the Italian cheese La Tur, as well as several varieties made by the Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery: Bonne Bouche, Bijou and Coupole. They’re usually small, no more than four to six ounces. They’re usually cylindrical, sometimes pyramid-shaped. Sometimes they’re a little creamy at the center, sometimes chalky. If you don’t wrap them but leave them out in the refrigerator or even a cool cupboard, they’ll dry out and you can grate them. Often their rinds have a coral color; sometimes they have a vegetable ash that makes them look grayish. To some they might look like a scary science experiment they’d never injest. But to those of us in the know, they’re delicious.
5. Semihard cheese is the largest category, and includes almost anything made in the mountains: Appenzeller, Emmentaler, manchego, many Goudas, provolones and cheddars. Sliceable as well as meltable, they are more pliable than hard cheeses, but firmer and more assertive than semisoft. Their flavors vary depending on the bacterial cocktail the cheesemaker adds to the milk: Some cocktails produce cheddar flavors, while others produce swiss cheese flavors, and so on. Like hard cheeses, they often have natural rinds, sometimes waxed or cloth rinds. Some also have crystals inside the cheese to give it a subtle crunch, formed by either calcium or an amino acid called tyrosine.
6. Hard cheeses are the firmest cheeses and generally the most complex. These cheeses are saltier, partly because of moisture loss, partly because they are salted more heavily when they’re made to help preserve them as they age. They are aged anywhere from a few months to a few years. They don’t slice neatly, but chunk away like a sculptor’s pieces of stone. They’re often both savory and sweet—aged Gouda, for instance, can taste like salted caramel, while a fresh wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano will smell a little like pineapple (the ester has actually been isolated in lab tests).
7. Blue cheeses all have blue mold strains running through them, which tend to give them a pungent taste. Texturally they run the gamut from ultracreamy (like young gorgonzola and cambazola, a hybrid of Camembert and gorgonzola) to crumbly (Roquefort and Maytag blue). Blue mold strains cannot form without oxygen, so cheesemakers usually cut the curds into larger pieces, pack them more lightly and even run metal skewers through them as they age, so you’ll often see vertical lines of blue mold along with the random veining.
8. Washed rind cheeses have an orange or pinkish rind from being washed with a brine solution of salt water and a bacteria called b. linens. They are generally soft, and some can get pretty stinky. Classic examples are gruyère, fontina, raclette and epoisse. Most taste milder than they smell, even milder toward their centers than close to the rinds. Their rinds are edible, but not always desirable.
What factors distinguish an extraordinary cheese from a mediocre one?
Complexity: Even in a fresh cheese, you want a cheese that continues to surprise you as you eat it—in a good way. A cheese shouldn’t be a one-note affair. It needs a full range of flavors, from a base note of savory and umami and higher notes like floral tastes or tang.
Balance: You don’t want a cheese that’s so sharp it creates a burning sensation in your mouth. Nor do you want one that’s too salty. A good cheese should finish as powerfully as it began. As Americans we like to be hit in the face with flavor. But sometimes a more delicate cheese can be better than a sharper one, because the flavors will last longer. Sometimes with a spectacular cheese, even a subtle one, five minutes after you swallow it, you can still taste it.
Quintessential for its category: A fresh goat cheese shouldn’t be clunky or goaty; it should be delicate and creamy. A hard cheese like pecorino romano is supposed to be supersalty, while a semihard cheese like pecorino Toscana should be less salty and less firm.