Cheeseboards

Cheese Counter

Image of cheese counter courtesy of PDphoto.org.

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 Cheeses

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.

Bread

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.

Nuts

Serve nuts in their shell with nutcrackers to preserve their fresh taste.

Fruits

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.

Vegetables

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.

Burrata Cheese

What is Burrata Cheese?

Burrata cheese is a soft mozzarella with a creamy center – essentially, mozzarella stuffed with mozzarella. It is easily described as tasting both buttery and light. Burrata cheese has a rich texture that is spreadable but firm enough to cut or tear apart. This fresh cheese is best consumed and enjoyed not long after it is made.

Nancy Silverton’s book The Mozza Cookbook: Recipes From Los Angeles’s Favorite Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria describes it well as “a cream-filled mozzarella sack”. Burrata cheese is thought to have been invented as a way to use up mozzarella scraps during processing, and is made up of two parts: a thick, soft center made of cream and mozzarella, and an outside coating made of freshly made and stretched mozzarella which creates the skin.

Its flavor is memorable, but for some, burrata cheese is an acquired texture. And because the flavor is so buttery, it is a perfect accompaniment to crispy bread and cracked pepper.

Burrato Cheese Highlights

  • Burrata means ‘buttered’ in Italian.
  • It is a specialty of the Puglia region of Italy.
  • Made of buffalo or cow’s milk, burrata is categorized as an Artisanal cheese. It is almost always sold in a bag (it is so soft it doesn’t keep its shape), and sometimes comes wrapped in asphodel, and green stemmed Italian plant. See image below.
  • It is made by taking fresh mozzarella curds and mixing it with cream, then using this to fill inside a stretched piece of fresh mozzarella, creating a pouch. It is then sealed up in a bag and typically consumed within 48 hours.

Burrata Cheese Wrapped in Asphodel

Burrata cheese wrapped in asphodel leaves. Wikimedia Commons via CC License.

Burrata cheese wrapped in asphodel leaves. Wikimedia Commons via CC License.

Cheese Terminology and Classifications

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.

cheese-counter

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.