Cheese Basics

Cheese should be fun!  But we know that for many people it’s intimidating.  So many strange and hard to pronounce names.  We have a strict “no food snob” policy at our shop.  Our staff treat you like guests and take pride in helping you explore new products and tastes.

But if you do want a little more knowledge, these cheese basics will give you extra confidence the next time you come to our cheese counter.

The Seven Basic Styles of Cheese

All cheeses fall into one of these categories. However, a cheese can fit into more than one category as well!

  1. Fresh: These unaged cheeses are the ones without a rind. They are moist and soft with a creamy texture and mild taste. Examples include many goat cheeses, mozzarella, feta, ricotta and queso fresco.
  2. Semi Soft: These beauties are your best choice for grilled cheese sandwiches, fondues, and other recipes, as they tend to melt very well. They have thin rinds and springy pastes. They can range from mild to pungent because they can also belong to other categories as well such as Bloomy Rinds, Washed Rinds or Blues. Examples are young Goudas, and most blues.
  3. Bloomy Rinds/Soft-Ripened/Surface-Ripened: You know these cheeses by their white, almost fuzzy rind and creamy (sometimes very creamy) insides. The rind is formed by exposing the cheese to mold spores, which breaks down the protein and fats in the cheese to make it soft and yummy. Examples include Brie, Camembert, Humboldt Fog, and Brillat-Savarin.
  4. Semi Hard: These cheeses are made by pressing the curds into molds and aging them for several months. They can have natural, waxed or cloth rinds, and they can have a wide range of textures, from semi-firm to very firm. They have less moisture than semi-soft cheeses. Think Cheddars, and aged sheep’s milk cheeses and Goudas.
  5. Hard: These are the firmest cheeses and generally the most complex. They are aged anywhere from several months to several years. They generally have grainy textures and salty, nutty flavors. Some have an elastic texture when melted, such as Emmenthal or Gruyere. Other are hard cheeses suitable for grating, such as Asiago or Parmigiano-Reggiano.
  6. Washed Rind: You know these when you smell them, but despite their strong aromas, many are mild tasting. These cheeses are washed repeatedly with a salty brine, or with wine, beer, brandy or other interesting liquid during ripening to encourage the growth of the Brevibacterium linens (B. linens) bacteria, which lends a pungent aroma, full, beefy flavor, and a reddish-orange rind. Examples include Epoisses (Cheesemonger Steve’s favorite cheese), Pont L’Eveque, Stinking Bishop and Taleggio.
  7. Blue: Their distinctive blue or green streaks make blues hard to miss. Those streaks are created by adding any number of different penicillium mold strains to the milk and then piercing the aging cheeses so oxygen is allowed in and the mold can thrive and give the cheese its unique flavor. Examples include Gorganzola (Italy), Roquefort (France) and Stilton (Britan), Rogue River Blue or Blue Mont.

Types of Milk

Most cheeses are made from cow’s milk, goat’s milk or sheep’s milk. The differences in these milks give particular cheeses very distinct flavor profiles:

  • Cow’s milk tends to create sweet, creamy and buttery cheeses. Cow’s milk has more fat than goat’s milk, but less than sheep, and is more likely to showcase the cheesemaker’s abilities instead of asserting its own inherent traits.
  • Goat’s milk has less fat and tastes lighter. Goat’s milk cheese tends to have a fresh, tangy taste and is easier to digest because it has less lactose.
  • Sheep’s milk has the most butterfat and it creates rich, fatty, nutty tasting cheeses.

Want to learn more about why the three milks taste different? Check out this article from Culture magazine.

Cheese can be made from raw milk or pasteurized milk. Most cheese lovers believe that raw milk makes the most flavorful cheese, but there are also some really good pasteurized cheeses out there too.

By U.S. law, all raw milk cheeses have to be aged at least 60 days, which unfortunately means we can’t import many of the truly great soft raw milk cheeses made in Europe, because they are ready to eat before 60 days, and would be far past their edible stage by the time they were held for the FDA-required 60 days.

Terroir

In addition to the type of milk used, a cheese’s flavor is also affected by its “terroir”. “Terroir” is a French word that literally means territory, but is used to mean all the other environmental factors that go into giving the cheese it’s specific taste.

These environmental factors include the region of the country the animals live in, the local climate, the altitude, the soil composition, the types of grass the animal eats, and more. All of these elements affect the flavor of the milk and therefore the ultimate flavor of the cheese. The same animal grazing in different locations will produce different a milk and a different cheese.

Seasonality

Yes, cheeses have a season. It goes back to terroir. Cheese made from winter milk, when the animal is eating hay, is going to taste a lot different than one from an animal who has been grazing in alpine pastures during the summer. For that reason, a lot of cheeses are only available during certain times of the year, depending on how long it ages.

Also, the animals are not able to give milk year-round, so there may be times when the milk is simply not available to make the cheese. Larger industrial cheeses do not suffer from this, because they are made from milks from many different herds, and each herd is at a different point in its lactation cycle. So if you come into the store looking for a particular cheese, and we tell you it’s not available due to seasonality, pat yourself on the back for being discerning enough to have selected an artisan cheese rather than a factory one

That’s why our inventory is always changing – so we can make sure we have the best cheeses to sell to you all year long!