Cheese can be roughly defined as a coagulated milk product. It is made by introducing bacteria or enzymes into milk to separate the actual curds (milk solids) from the whey (liquids). Cheese can come from whole or skimmed milk, cream, or any mixture of the two. The milk to make the cheese can come from cow, sheep, goat, or other animals, such as buffalo. Ripening is the technical term used to change the curds that have separated from the milk and/or cream by adding bacteria or mold to make the cheese the particular variety it is, and each cheese has a specific recipe.
Cheese can be highly processed or simply fermented. While high in proteins, cheese can be low or high in fat, and low or high in water content. The lower the percentage the water, the harder or firmer the cheese is. The higher the percentage the fat is, the higher the solids found inside. Double-crème and triple-crème cheeses are cheeses with a high fat content. They may be as much as 60% to 75% fat content, which means that the cheese has 60-75% fat if all the liquid or moisture inside is removed from it.
Aged cheese has more pronounced flavors, and in most cases has a depth of color, flavor, and aroma not found in the young cheeses of the same variety. Aged cheeses may also be softer or firmer than the younger counterparts. In most cases, the more aged a cheese is the longer the life: the longer you can keep the cheese. Fresh cheeses are typically stored for a shorter period of time and consumed quickly (cottage cheese has a short shelf life). Hard grating cheeses, if kept whole with the rind uncut, can keep for many months.
Cheese is one of the few culinary food items that can be served as an appetizer, dessert, topping, garnish, accompaniment, ingredient, or the main dish. Cheese served on its own (cheeseboard) is more often than not served at room temperature. Exceptions include fresh unripened cheese which is chilled, like cottage and cream cheeses. When cheese is used in cooking, the dish should not be brought to boiling temperatures on the stovetop, and is generally added at the end stages of the cooking process, as in the case of sauces. While cheese is best served at room temperature, cheese used for cooking is easier to grate or shred when cold, like Cheddar and Swiss cheeses.
Cheese Classifications: Texture, Covering, Ripening or Cooking Types
Knowing the classifications is incredibly helpful when purchasing and eating cheese and cooking with it. Think of these different situations. You can identify a cheese on a cheeseboard or platter by looking at the ripening. You can substitute one cheese for another when cooking by looking at the cooking properties of similar cheeses.
There are many ways culinarians classify cheese. Some classify cheese by the texture of it, (hard or soft), or by the ripening of it, (bacteria or mold). Here are the four main types of classification groups of cheese and the descriptions of each.
Classifications of Cheese by Texture:
- Hard Grating Cheeses (Parmesan, Sbrinz)
- Firm/Hard (Emmental, Cheddar, Provolone)
- Semisoft (Brick, Muenster, Roquefort, Talleggio)
- Soft (Camembert, Brie)
- Fresh (Ricotta, cottage)
- Processed (smooth cheeses made from mixing several cheeses or adding other ingredients: American, cheese spreads)
Renee’s Notes and Tips:
When choosing varieties for a cheeseboard, a selection of different textures is nice. By choosing a cheese by texture only, many different flavors can be represented for each type; for example Roquefort and Brick are both semisoft, but one is crumbly and pungent and the other is elastic and slightly sweet. This is a popular way to classify cheeses.
Classifications of Cheese by Covering:
- Hard/Leather/Waxed Rind (larger cheeses, longer maturity, pressed to remove moisture: Raclette, Gruyère, Gouda)
- Bloomy/Downy Rind (soft rinds, often ‘fuzzy’, usually softens with ages: Brie)
- Natural Rind (interior is soft to firm with a natural rind that has a soft gray/blue color or that often changes color with age: Sainte Maure, Pouligny St. Pierre)
- Saltwater Washed Rind (saltwater-bath as it ripens: Muenster, Feta)
- Blue Cheeses (blue/green veined, cheese is cultured with bacteria to give it its colors: Stilton, Roquefort, Gorgonzola)
- Fresh Cheese (no rind, high water content, unripened: fromage frais, Demi-sel, Ricotta, fresh goat cheese, mascarpone)
Renee’s Notes and Tips:
Cheese is often found with a rind or natural covering. When looking at a large cheeseboard with no labels, a quick look at the rind will give a clue as to what is underneath. For example, cheese with a white, soft, often downy or velvety rind usually holds a soft cheese becoming more smooth and runny as it ages, like Camembert, Brie and Toma Valcuvia.
Classifications of Cheese by Ripening:
- Bacteria ripened from outside (Cheddar, Parmesan)
- Bacteria ripened from inside (Limburger, Liederkranz)
- Mold ripened from outside (Stilton, Saga Bleu)
- Mold ripened from inside (St. André, Explorateur)
- Unripened (Cottage)
Classifications of Cheese by Cooking Types:
As far as cooking and baking cheese types go, there are seven basic types of cheese: Cheddar-style, Swiss-style, Parmesan-style, bleu cheese-style, ricotta-style, cream cheese-style, and mozzarella-style cheeses.
- Cheddar-Style (golden/white colored, firm, shreds nice, good melting qualities: Cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack, Gouda)
- Swiss-Style (white/cream colored, tangy, firm, shreds nice: Swiss, Jarlsburg, Gruyère, Emmentaler)
- Parmesan-Style (hard to very hard in texture, nutty in flavor, grates nice: Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino, Romano, Asiago)
- Bleu Cheese-Style (crumbly texture, sharp to smooth in flavor: Gorgonzola, Stilton, Bleu d’Avergne, Roquefort)
- Ricotta-Style (soft cheese, high in water, mild flavor: Ricotta, cottage cheeses)
- Cream Cheese-Style (soft, used for spreading or incorporating: cream cheese, Neufchâtel, some fresh goat cheeses)
- Mozzarella-Style (soft or stringy, used for pizzas, nachos, quesadillas : Mozzarella, Oaxaca, string cheeses)
Renee’s Notes and Tips:
Any cheese in the different styles can be interchanged as needed, for example, in the bleu cheese-style, a basic blue and Roquefort can be used interchangeably, although there will be some notable taste differences between the two. When grating a hard cheese for pasta dishes, Asiago and Parmesan can be used in place of the other if one is not available.