To begin setting up a cheeseboard, it is important to know what cheese is and the differences between the varieties. Cheese is a milk product produced by the coagulation of milk proteins. The milk can come from cows, buffalo, goats, or sheep. There are three basic steps to making cheese: curdling, curd processing, and ripening. During these steps, the milk is separated into curds (solid portions) and whey (liquid part), which is done through acidification using vinegar or another acid, rennet, or a starter bacteria. After the separation, salt is stirred inside, or it is salted from the outside via dry salts or brines.
Each style of cheese will have its own unique flavor and texture due to stretching the solids, cutting and mixing, and washing which lowers the cheese acidity, or by placing it in a mold or press. It is then ripened or matured (aged). Cheesemakers will often add additional bacteria during the ripening process for flavor and texture.
Aged cheeses are typically stronger, firmer, with a more pronounced aroma than fresh cheeses. Firmer cheese can be kept for longer periods of time, too.
Descriptions of Basic Cheese Textures
- Hard Grating – This cheese is very hard, and can be finely grated to a powder. It is cut more finely during processing to remove as much whey as possible. Parmesan is an example of a hard grating cheese.
- Firm or Hard – Firm cheese can be cut, shredded easily, and sliced. It has a lower moisture content than semisoft, but cannot be grated into a powder like the hard grating styles and can be aged. Cheddar cheese is a hard cheese.
- Semisoft – Semisoft cheese is firm, but not so hard. It is cut easily, and can be shredded, and has an elastic texture to it. The more semisoft is aged, the more the flavors will be pronounced. Edam is a semisoft cheese.
- Soft – There is still some whey in these cheeses which keeps them softer, and these can be aged as well. Brie is a soft cheese.
- Fresh – Fresh cheeses have no rinds, and they are not aged. They are all high in moisture and once the whey and curds are separated, the cheese is typically ready to be served after salting. These cheese can differ greatly depending on how they are handled: mozzarella is a fresh cheese where the curds are stretched, and cottage cheese is served as is.
Types of Rinds and Outside Coverings
- Natural Rinds – The rinds are firm, natural (just the cheese), and change with color as the cheese ages.
- Waxed Rinds – These cheeses are typically pressed to remove moisture, and the waxed allows a longer maturity. Gouda cheese has a waxed rind.
- Washed Rinds – Washed rind cheeses have been soaked or allowed to ripen in saltwater baths (or liquid baths made of alcohol). These cheeses typically have sticky rinds that become an important part of the cheese’s flavor – they are eaten with the cheese interior rather than being cut off and discarded.
- Bloomy Rinds – These cheeses have a soft, downy rind that typically softens with age. Brie cheese has a soft downy or bloomy rind.
Blue cheese is made by introducing a strain of penicillium bacteria into the milk. The blue coloring develops after air is added to let the cheese breath, typically by piercing the cheese through the center to allow the bacteria to grow. Blue cheese is often sold in foil to keep moisture in, and the rind is typically cut before serving.
Cheeseboards and Serving Cheese
Cheese is best served at room temperature, unless it is a fresh cheese which should be chilled. A selection of different cheeses are put together for a cheeseboard. Pair stronger cheeses with more mild ones, and softer cheese with firmer ones. Take the color, shape, and the rind of the cheese into consideration as well. The shapes of the cheese should differ, so look for different cheeses in log shapes, cylinder shapes, and wheels, and cut accordingly to give the cheeseboard some dimension and interest. Fresh fruits and vegetables are typically served with but on the same plate as the cheeses.
What to Serve with Cheese
Here are suggestions of things to add to the cheeseboard, or what to serve with cheese.
White, rustic, soft, or crumbly: any bread will typically be fine. It is best though, to refrain from serving quick breads with heavy ingredients, like raisins or nut breads, to allow the flavor of the cheese to shine.
Serve nuts in their shell with nutcrackers to preserve their fresh taste.
Dried or fresh fruit are both great accompaniments, but stay away from highly acidic fruits such as citrus fruits. Look for different textures when selecting fruit. Figs and peaches are softer fruits while fresh apples and pears have a bit of crunch to them.
Preserves and Pickled Items
These can be a good choice with cheese when they don’t overpower the cheese itself. They are best paired with hard cheeses.
Crisp veggies are good with some cheeses, giving a more savory than sweet touch to the cheese. Try green onions, celery, young fresh carrots, and longer more firm baby lettuces.