There are several categories by which cheeses can be referenced. Here they are, along with storage tips.
Milk type, country of origin, region, handling, aging and texture are some of the classifications. Although most experts agree that none of these is completely adequate, so far no one has come up with one that really covers all the variables. The cheese classifications discussed here present several broad groups loosely categorized according to texture.
Soft fresh cheeses are unripened and generally have a fresh, clean, creamy flavor. Examples include queso blanco, cream cheese and ricotta cheese. Ricotta actually began in Italy as a byproduct of the cheese-making industry. (The name literally means “recook.”) Mascarpone is a fresh cheese made by curdling heavy cream with citric acid. The process releases excess moisture and yields a rich, creamy cheese that is mildly acidic. Many goat’s milk cheeses also fall into the soft, fresh category. They come in a variety of shapes and may be coated in herbs or edible ash.
Soft-ripened cheeses are those that have been sprayed or dusted with a mold and allowed to ripen. Brie and Camembert are in this category.
Soft-ripened cheeses are available in varying degrees of richness—single-, double- and triple-cream cheeses have 50, 60 and 70 percent butterfat, respectively. A soft-ripened cheese ready for eating will “bulge” when cut and barely hold its shape. These cheeses will ripen only until they are cut; after that they will begin to dry and deteriorate. To check for ripeness before cutting, press cheese firmly but gently; it should have softness in the center.
Rind-ripened cheeses: Washed-rind cheeses are periodically washed with brine, beer, cider, wine, brandy or oils during the ripening period. This remoistening encourages bacterial growth, sometimes known as a smear, which allows the cheese to ripen from the outside in. Popular examples include Limburger and its American counterpart, Liederkranz, both of which are intensely pungent, as well as Muenster, Saint Paulin and Port-Salut.
Semi-soft cheeses include a wide variety ranging from mild and buttery to very pungent and aromatic. They are allowed to ripen in several ways. Dry-rind cheeses are those that form a natural rind during ripening. Gouda and Edam are semi-soft cheeses that are sealed in wax prior to the aging process. These cheeses may be either flavored or smoked and are available in mild and aged varieties.
Blue-veined cheeses are believed to have been first created with mold introduced from moldy bread that had come into contact with the cheese. In modern production, needles inject mold into the cheese. The holes also permit gases to escape and oxygen to enter to support mold growth. The cheese is then salted or brined and allowed to ripen in caves or under “cavelike conditions.” Some examples are Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Stilton, Danish blue and Maytag blue.
Roquefort is unique in that the mold is not grown in a lab, as with many other blue cheeses. Instead, it is developed naturally from rye bread. Gorgonzola is another special blue. Unlike Roquefort, it is made from cow’s milk—a blend of evening milk and the following day’s morning milk. There are two Gorgonzola varieties available: sweet or “dolce,” which is aged three months, and “naturale” or mountain, which is aged further for a fuller flavor.
Hard cheeses: A variety of hard cheeses are produced throughout the world. Cheddars and Swiss-style cheeses are among the most well known. Cheddar cheese originated in England and the Pilgrims brought Cheddar formulas to the United States. The “cheddaring” process involves turning and stacking the slabs of young cheese to extract more whey and give the cheese its characteristic texture. The yellow color of some Cheddars is achieved through the addition of annatto seed paste and doesn’t affect flavor. Once the cheddaring process is complete, the cheeses are wrapped in cheesecloth that has been dipped in wax and allowed to ripen.
Cheddars are categorized by age. Current Cheddar is aged for 30 days, Mild for one to three months, Medium for three to six months, Sharp for six to nine months and Extra-Sharp for nine months to five years. Many cheeses that originated in the United States are produced using the cheddaring method, including Colby.
The family of cheeses generically referred to as Swiss are also hard cheeses. Swiss cheeses are often mellow in flavor and have excellent melting properties. Some of the more well-known variations include Gruyére, Emmentaler, Beaufort and Jarlsberg.
Very hard cheeses are known as the granas, or grainy cheeses, in Italy because of their granular texture. The most popular are Parmesan and Romano. Very hard cheeses are most often grated, shaved or broken off with a special knife into chunks.
True Parmigiano-Reggiano is often referred to as the “king of cheeses.” It is believed that its formula has not changed in more than 700 years and its origins date back even further. Strict guidelines require it to be aged a minimum of 14 months, although most are aged for 24 months. Stravecchio, or extra aged, is ripened as long as three years.
Romano cheeses—named for Rome—come in several varieties. Pecorino Romano, which is made with sheep’s milk, is probably the best known. Caprino Romano is a very sharp goat’s milk version, and Vacchino Romano is a mild version made from cow’s milk.
Pasta filata cheeses are a group of cheeses that are related by the process used in their manufacture, rather than by their textures. Pasta filata literally means “spun curds” or “spun paste.” During manufacture, the curds are dipped into hot water and then stretched or spun until the proper consistency and texture are achieved. The most common pasta filata is mozzarella.
Provolone is another popular cheese in this category. It is similarly handled but is made with a different culture. Once the curd is stretched and kneaded, it is rubbed with brine and tied into shapes. Provolone is then hung and left to dry; it is often smoked and/or aged to character and firmness.
Caring for cheeses: storage and handling
Because cheese is a living food with active biological attributes, it is critical to maintain the highest standards in sanitation during handling. Cheese can be a potentially hazardous food if handled improperly.
When handling cheese that is not going to be cooked, it is important to either use utensils or wear foodservice gloves to prevent the contamination of the cheese with bacteria from your hands (as well as preventing unsightly fingerprints on the cheese). All food-contact areas should be cleaned and sanitized properly with hot soapy water and sanitizing solution to prevent cross-contamination. All cheese-cutting equipment should be similarly sanitized.
If cheeses become unnaturally moldy, they may be trimmed by cutting 1⁄2 to 1 inch 1 to 2 cm. past the mold. Care should be taken not to transfer the mold to the good portion. Cheeses should never be allowed to sit out at room temperature for extended periods of time beyond that required to aromatize the cheeses. The exception to this rule, of course, is the time that they spend maturing when they are being made.
Always keep cheeses and cheese preparations covered and refrigerated properly. Cheese should not be wrapped in plastic for storing. Waxed paper and aluminum foil are preferable as they allow the cheese to breathe while not drying out. Wrapping cheese in plastic effectively “kills” it by not allowing the bacteria access to air. Most cheese purchased commercially will, unfortunately, be wrapped in plastic. When storing cheese, do not freeze it either, as that will certainly destroy its texture.