guide to types of cheese

A Beginner’s Guide to Cheese

Artisanal cheese is a culinary wonder—any way you slice it.

By Deborah Williams

Share this Post

Old and in The Whey
Freshly pressed or aged to perfection, artisanal cheese is a culinary wonder—any way you slice it.


It is the trifecta, the perfect union, the holy trinity—for caseophiles, at least. It is the recipe from which every cheese, Abbaye de Belloc to Zamorano, is born. In America, we love our mozzarella, cheddar and Parmesan—the most popular varieties consumed in the states by far, according to the Foodservice Research Institute—with ricotta, feta and, yes, even nacho, rounding out the rest. But there’s a whole world of cheese represented in that remaining sliver—unique blends like those carried in your grocer’s specialty cheese department and at artisan fromageries—where things really get interesting.

Texture, Rinds and Mold
There isn’t a universal system for categorizing cheeses, but most fromageries group theirs by texture or type or a combination of the two.

Cheesemaking always begins with the same step: coagulation or separating the milk’s curd (solid) from its whey (liquid). This is done by the age-old method of adding rennet, an enzyme found in the stomach of the source animal, to the milk.

Next, the curd is cut and the whey is drained. The smaller the curds are cut, the more whey is released and the drier and denser the resulting cheese. Larger curds retain more whey, so they are softer. Some cheeses are then heated or cooked to release even more moisture (longer cooking times and higher temperatures produce firmer cheese).

Salting, molding and ripening are the final steps, each of which can take a few days or many years depending on the type of cheese being produced. During the ripening stage, many cheeses form a natural protective crust or rind. Artificial rinds, such as the wax coating on gouda, can also be applied to promote ripening. A s part of the ripening process, some cheeses are allowed—encouraged, actually—to grow mold, which adds extra bite to the flavor.

Hard (grate/crumble)
hard cheeseAs a general rule, the older and drier a cheese—the longer it’s allowed to ripen and the more whey that’s drained off—the harder and more expensive it is. Hard cheeses tend to have sharper flavors and more pungent aromas. “Hard and semihard cheeses should be grated before being used in cooking,” says Sharon Tyler Herbst, author of The Cheese Lover’s Companion (Harpers Collins, 2010).  “And they grate more easily at room temperature,” she adds. Popular varieties include Asiago, Edam, Gruyère, Jack and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Slice, and serve hard cheeses with crackers or bread for tasting.


After the curds and whey are separated, some semihard cheeses such as Emmental are cooked; others, such as semi-hard cheeseLimburger, are not. They are pressed and molded, usually into wheels or blocks. One of the most common varieties is Red Wax Gouda

These cheeses are periodically bathed in or brushed with brine or another solution, including beer and wine, which can create mold to ripen the cheese from the outside in. This imparts strong, pungent flavors on the rinds of cheeses like Limburger and Appenzeller that make them the stars of cheese boards paired with full-bodied wines or beers. “For the utmost in flavor, aroma, and texture, cheeses should always be served at room temperature,” says Herbst. “Take them out of the refrigerator about an hour before serving.”

Blue or Bleu Cheese
Injecting bacteria into the curds before they’re pressed and leaving the cheese exposed to air as it ages allows blue veins of mold to ripen these cheeses from the inside out. “If a blue cheese contains too much blue veining or has a pink hue to it, it may be bad,” says Natasha Ciccolella, the division cheese specialist for King Soopers stores. Gorgonzola and Stilton are popular blue cheeses. Toss crumbles over green salads or pasta dishes, or melt a pile of it on top of a beef fillet or burger.

Cheddar Cheese
Originally named for the English town where it was first made, cheddar now refers to any cheese made using the cheddaring process in which blocks of curd are stacked to expel moisture, and then ground and pressed into molds. The longer it’s allowed to age, the “sharper” it becomes.

Originating in the Netherlands, Gouda is best known for its red wax coating; however, green and orange waxes are sometimes applied to signify the addition of herbs or cumin, respectively.

Any type or texture of cheese can be flavored with added ingredients such as dill, berries, beer and
spices. Dill Havarti or Stilton with berries are common combos.

Soft-Ripened or Bloomy Exposing
the surface of soft cheese to bacteria creates a downy, almost fuzzy mold that speeds ripening from the outside in. “All soft-ripened cheese should feel like the web between your fingers,” says Ciccolella. “The rind separating from the paste is a sign of spoilage. There should be no mold on the cut surface of cheese.” Camembert and Brie are the most popular: They melt well and are great served alongside sliced apples and pears or topped with berry compotes.

During heating/cooking, proteins in the curds of these cheeses knit together in a way that makes them melt easily and uniformly. Think: fondue. Gruyère, Muenster, Jarlsberg, Jack and Havarti are classified as melting cheeses.

A Few Words on Low-Fat and Vegetarian Cheese 
Strict vegetarians and vegans needn’t miss out on the wonder that is cheese. Plant-based milks and rennets are used to make everything from sandwich slices to spreadable cheese, and they’re becoming more prevalent in traditional grocery stores. A boon for the seriously lactose-intolerant and veg-heads, vegan cheeses are often gluten-, antibiotic and hormone-free.

milk cansMilk from any mammal that produces it can, conceivably, be turned into cheese. That includes horses, camels, yaks and even reindeer. But the most common sources worldwide are cow, sheep, goat and buffalo, thanks largely to the ease with which their milk can be obtained as well as their proportions of fat, protein and lactose (milk sugar), which contribute to their respective flavors.

A cheese’s terroir—or sense of place—is influenced by the grasses, soils, water, topography and geography of the land on which the source animal grazed. “Cheese definitely has a terroir similar to wine, and certain cheeses do have regional characteristics,” says Ciccolella. “For example, most Spanish cheeses are made of sheep’s milk because sheep are the only animals that can live and graze in that terrain. Many Colorado cheesemakers use goat’s milk, because goats do so well on our landscape. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine the country of origin of a cheese [by taste alone] because countries produce so many different types.”

Another critical factor in determining a cheese’s flavor is the fat content (called butterfat) of the source milk. It takes the form of cream that can either be left in (whole milk) or removed in part (low-fat milk) or in full (skim milk).

Finally, pasteurization affects milk’s flavor. All cheeses made or sold in the United States must come from pasteurized milk or be ripened for more than 60 days.

Spending Cheese
The most expensive cheese in the world is called Pule. It’s made in Serbia from donkey’s milk and is valued at as much as $2,900 per pound.

Due not only to its abundance but also its proportions of fat (3.75%), protein (3.5%) and lactose (4.8%), cow’s milk is the most common source for cheesemaking worldwide. Parmigiano-Reggiano, Asiago, Brie, Burrata, cottage cheese, cream cheese, Fontina, Gorgonzola, Gruyère, Provolone and Swiss are all made
with cow’s milk.

More precisely, water buffalo, it is best known for its use in buffalo mozzarella. Weighing in at nearly 10 percent, its fat content is the highest of the four common milk sources. It is also the rarest, used in only a handful of cheeses, including paneer—an Indian cheese—and Scamorza.

Also referred to as chèvre, it has a relatively low fat content (3.5%) and is the easiest cheese to digest because of the size of the fat globules. Drunken Goat, Adagio, Feta, Garrotxa and Pyramid are among its
cheese types.

“Goats and sheep do not milk as much as cows, so these milk types are a bit more expensive than cow’s
milk cheeses,” says Ciccolella. “Many European specialty cheeses are made from sheep’s milk.” It has the
highest percentage of fat (6.75%), which means less milk yields more cheese. Petit Basque, Pecorino
Romano, Roquefort and Vermont Shepherd are made with sheep’s milk.

A Few Words on Lactose
“Those who are lactose intolerant may actually have an allergy to cow’s milk,” says King Soopers cheese specialist Natasha Ciccolella. “They should try goat or sheep milk cheeses.” Although, when it comes to cheese, she adds, lactose intolerance isn’t usually a factor. “There’s little to no lactose in cheese, especially in the aged versions, because lactose disappears during the aging process.”

Smear campaigns are the business of the healthy eating industry that issues stringent warnings about the too-processed, cheese wedgetoo-fertilized, too-modified or simply too-bad for you culprits behind America’s horrible diet. And few foods are more maligned than cheese. But why? It has been a staple in nearly every cuisine from Mexican to Indian for thousands of years. It comes in more textures and flavors than virtually any other food on the planet. Can something that’s been enjoyed by so many cultures for so many years really be so bad? Is the criticism fair? Well, say experts, that depends on the cheese and the person eating it.

Although it is, by definition, just spoiled milk, cheese can go bad. So, as with so many other foods, scientists have found ways to improve the shelf life and stability of cheese and cheese products by adding preservatives and other ingredients such as sodium citrate, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate and artificial colors and dyes. Although “process cheese” is made from real cheese, it is heavily modified, so the criticism is understandable.

But, says Natasha Ciccolella, King Soopers’ division cheese specialist, artisan cheeses that come from smaller, farmstead producers use milk from free-range, grass-fed animals and forgo the additives and preservatives. “We carry between 150 and 300 types of cheese from 80 specialty shops,” says Ciccolella. Among them are several Colorado producers, including Boulder’s Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy and Basalt’s Avalanche Cheeses. Real cheese is made with only three ingredients, and consumers should avoid any that list sodium phosphate and apocarotenal on their labels, says Ciccolella.

When it comes to cheese’s nutritional merits, things aren’t so cut and dry. Given that it’s made of milk and salt, it is naturally high in saturated fat and sodium, two things most Americans eat too much of. But cheese isn’t the enemy, insists Suzanne Farrell, R.D., and owner of Cherry Creek Nutrition. The frequency with which some people eat it is the problem, she says. “I think people get the message not to eat red meat every day of the week, especially if they’re trying to control cholesterol,” says Farrell. “It’s easy to forget or underestimate how much cheese we eat because it’s added to a lot of otherwise healthy dishes, such as salads and sandwiches,” she says. “We eat it more than we even realize.”

But, says Farrell, anyone who eliminates cheese from his or her diet risks missing out on cheese’s inherent goodness. “Cheese offers a great source of protein and calcium which is important for our bones,” she says. She adds that real cheese keeps you satisfied for a long time, which means less between-meal snacking. Plus, the strong flavors of specialty cheeses mean a little goes a long way, so you can use less and get the same delicious effect. She adds that opting for low-fat versions of your favorite cheese is an easy way to get the benefits while limiting the fat and salt.

Cheese is the controlled spoilage of milk.
Rennet an enzyme found in the stomachs of the source animal, it’s added to milk and salt to kick-start the coagulation process—the first step in making cheese.
Rind is like the skin of the cheese, and paste is like the meat. Some rinds are edible; some are not.
Terroir—or sense of place—is influenced by the grasses, soils, water, topography and geography of the land
on which the source animal grazed.
Affinage is the art of aging cheese. An affineur learns exactly how to age different cheese.

Share this Post


Leave a Reply