We stuff it in sandwiches, sprinkle it on pasta, and most often eat it plain, with or without crackers. We’re speaking, of course, about a contender for favorite food group: cheese. Cheese is made when milk (sorry, non-dairy cheese need not apply), thickens, often with the addition of rennet or a different type of bacteria. The milk will will separate into liquid (whey), which is drained off, and semisolid (curds), or fresh cheese in its most unripe form. Depending on how long and in what technique it’s aged, there are myriad types of cheese. As Charles de Gaulle once said of France, “how can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” We’re betting there are far more than that today. Here, we introduce our Essential Cheese Guide, which includes some of our favorite cheeses across four categories: hard, semi-firm, semi-soft, and soft. So, get cheesin!
Hard cheeses are often sold in blocks or wheels, and are aged for much longer than their softer counterparts and are cooked and pressed before aging. Their hard texture makes them an excellent candidate for grating and slicing.
Golden hued, with a rich, nutty flavor, this Spanish cheese was originally made only from sheep’s milk of the La Mancha region. Though it is now produced throughout the country, the name stuck, and the cheese has become widely loved worldwide. The two versions most frequently exported are curado (aged 3–4 months), and viejo (aged 9–12 months). Manchego pairs deliciously with membrillo (quince paste), fig spread, and garlicky olives. Thinly sliced, the rich cheese is also very tasty in sandwiches.
We probably don’t need to tell you about the sharp, rich, flavor of this cow’s milk cheese, as it’s become ubiquitous all around the world. What you may not know, though, is that the only truly authentic version you can find is specifically labeled Parmigiano-Reggiano, and produced only in the Italian regions of Bologna, Mantua, Modena, or Parma. Unlike the American Parmesan cheeses, which are aged a minimum of 10 months, authentic Parmigiano-Reggianos are frequently aged at least 2 years, resulting in a melt-in-your-mouth texture that’s as fantastic shaved on salads, sprinkled on pasta, or just eaten in large chunks by itself (our preferred method).
This Italian cheese gets its name from a derivative of “pecora,” meaning sheep. Made, unsurprisingly, from sheep’s milk, DOC (Di Origine Controllata–truly “authentic”) pecorino comes in a number regional varieties including Pecorino Romano (the most well-known), Pecorino Sardo, and Pecorino Toscano. Hard and dry, pecorino is good for grating, and is often used in cooking, whether the more pungent, sharp aged variety or the soft, white un-aged version. We love to grate pecorino over pastas and pizzas or shave it thinly over a salad.
Like hard cheeses, these varieties have been cooked and pressed, but are aged for less time. They are firm, but do not crumble, and have more textural give than hard cheeses.
This popular cheese hails from England, where it was first made in the 16th century, though it’s globally produced. Its crowd pleasing signature flavor makes it no surprise that it’s stuck around so long. Made from cow’s milk, cheddar comes in several designations, according to how long it’s been ripened: mild (about 2–4 months), medium (4–8 months), sharp (9–12 months), and extra-sharp (over 1 year). Cheddar can stand up to many other flavors, making it a great addition to sandwiches and burgers, though it’s also a no-brainer on any cheese board. We also love it melted in macaroni and cheese.
Creamy and earthy, with a hit of pungent nuttiness, Gruyère is a Swiss cheese named for one of the country’s pastoral valleys. The requirements for official AOC Gruyère standards are very specific, “they can only be made from the raw milk of two milkings of cows fed only grass or hay…and must be prepared in copper pots”, according to The New Food Lover’s Companion. However, non-Swiss Gruyère is produced internationally with pasteurized milk, resulting in a less intense flavor than the original. Gruyère is a great cheese to melt, and we love to use it in grilled cheese sandwiches and, if we’re feeling really decadent, a hot pot of bubbling fondue.
Semi-soft cheeses can be cooked or uncooked, but are always pressed. Though they have a softer texture, they are still slice-able.
Holland’s most famous cheese, which can be considered Semi-Firm and Semi-Soft, depending on the variety, is commonly identified by its exterior wax coating, which is most frequently bright red. The cow’s milk cheese can be made from raw or pasteurized milk, and represents 60–65 percent of the cheese production in Holland. Gouda’s flavor depends significantly on its age, which can range from a ripening of 1–6 months, all the way up to a ripening of at least 12 months followed by aging for 5–6 years. While it is almost universally nutty, it can be delicate and mild or intense and rich, depending on its age. Gouda is served both hot and melty or plain, and we especially love it in sandwiches and baked pasta dishes.
This triple-cream (meaning it contains more than 75% butterfat) cow’s milk cheese was created in honor of famed eighteenth century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who famously said “dessert without cheese is like a beauty with only one eye.” While his statement may be somewhat debatable, his namesake cheese is unequivocally delightful; creamy, decadent, and sweet with a slight tanginess.
This Italian cow’s milk cheese is from Italy’s Lombardy region, and has been made in the country for centuries. Depending on the age, Taleggio can be creamy and light yellow, or dark golden and very runny. With this one, it’s bark is more intense than its bite, as the scent is pungent, while the flavor is milder with a hint of tanginess. Taleggio is excellent in pasta dishes, pizzas, and flatbreads, and makes for a seriously terrific grilled cheese sandwich.
Soft cheeses aren’t cooked or pressed, unlike their harder counterparts. They are spreadable, and are generally sprayed or coated with various bacteria for ripening purposes.
Named for its place of origin, Humboldt County, California, Humboldt Fog is, in our humble opinion, one of the best American goat’s cheeses out there. Its distinctive appearance, includes a thin grey line of ash through the creamy, white center. Initially mild and creamy, as it ages, Humboldt Fog becomes tangier and softer. It’s always the star of our cheese board, and makes a killer spread for a piece of hot, crusty toast.
Époisses de Bourgogne
Most commonly known just as “époisses,” pronounced “ay-pwass,” this French cheese is definitely not for the faint of heart. Strong and pungent, Époisses has a long history, and was first created by monks in the early 1500s. During the ripening process, the soft, cow’s milk cheese is regularly brushed with a mixture of water and marc (grape-pressing residue), making for an orange rind, unctuous texture, and very savory flavor. Époisses is best enjoyed spread thickly on bread, and served with a crisp, white wine to cut its richness slightly.
Sainte Maure de Touraine
This soft French goat’s cheese is one of our absolute favorites and hails from the region of Touraine. Any Sainte Maure de Touraine cheese should have a rye straw which passes through the center of the log, ensuring that it is authentically made. The outside is a blueish grey color, and the inside is a chalky white, with a slightly salty and nutty flavor. It’s soft and spreadable, and fantastic as part of a cheese board.
Leah Bhabha is a cookbook co-author, recipe tester, and food writer who has written for numerous publications including Food & Wine, Marie-Claire, The Guardian, and Food52. She chronicles her cooking and eating experiences on her blog, OneHungryPickle.com.
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