Almost everyone loves cheese, and it’s a rare meal that doesn’t contain this delectable dairy product in it. But how well do we really know our cheeses? More than 2,000 varieties are made around the world, and all have their place in our hearts, on our dishes and in our stomachs—some are great for melting, while others are best sliced thin and nibbled after dinner.
You don’t want to miss out on some of the superb offerings on the shelves just because you don’t recognize the strange names. And since finer cheeses can be costly, the trick is to know what to splurge on and how to serve it so you can enjoy every morsel.
Most cheese is made with the milk from one of three animals: cow, goat or sheep. From there, you can categorize cheeses by whether they are fresh or aged, creamy or dry, and finally how and even where they are made. All of these factors work together in hundreds of ways so that cheese, like wine, has a limitless variety of tastes and textures.
Cheese makers often devote their lives to creating the ideal cheese and building a following. And lucky us—we get to sample the fruits of their labors.
Become a “cheese whiz” with our quick guide to cheese, which includes both general categories below and specific recommendations for you to try.
Fresh cheeses: Fresh cheese can be made from any kind of milk and is simply one that has not been aged. Common examples include cream cheese, ricotta and cottage cheese. Usually very mild in flavor, these cheeses add velvety goodness to many recipes, as well as sandwiches and dips.
Recommendation: Mascarpone. Try this luscious Italian fresh cheese on French toast with apple chunks simmered with cinnamon. A little goes a long way.
Cheddar cheese: Typically made from cow’s milk, cheddar is one of the most popular cheeses on the planet due to its distinctive sharp flavor and endless versatility. The level of sharpness depends on how long the cheese is aged.
Recommendation: If you always get mild cheddar cheese, try stepping up to sharp or extra sharp. Try it with apple wedges or a nice glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Goat’s milk cheese: Because goats eat pretty much any kind of green, their milk produces a somewhat strong-flavored, tangy cheese. Many people are familiar with feta, the Greek-style crumbly cheese that is excellent in salads, as well as the many varieties of Gouda.
Recommendation: French chevre and Boucheron are other creamy and flavorful varieties to try.
Sheep’s milk cheese: Sheep’s milk cheese dates back to the 1st century and is a very popular product around the world. Most sheep’s milk cheeses are imported, although more American cheesemakers are starting to produce their own varieties. Taste can vary from very mild to very strong; these cheeses can be eaten on their own or used as an after-meal treat, paired with nuts, fruit and wine.
Recommendation: Try Manchego (preferably aged), a Spanish cheese with a very distinctive nutty flavor. It’s delicious alone or in appetizers such as toasts with fig jam, in crepes or on fresh arugula salad.
Italian cheese: Both mozzarella and Parmesan (or more precisely, Parmigiano Reggiano) star in some of America’s best-loved foods. Aged Parmesan (some age as long as 36 months) develops a crumbly, grainy texture, as its full, nutty, “burned butter” flavor comes to life. Mozzarella is known to most of us as the low-moisture mild cheese we melt on our pizzas. However, fresh or semi-dry “true” mozzarella is a treat with a creamy, tangy taste.
Recommendation: For low-moisture cooking mozzarella, whole milk options usually taste best. Look for original mozzarella at deli counters and try it with fresh tomato slices, basil leaves and a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. For a Parmesan upgrade, skip the can of powdered cheese and get the real deal. Parmigiano Reggiano is easy to grate for all your pasta needs, and is a delicious cheese for snacking and wine pairing, too.
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