With so many cheeses available today, there are several categories by which they can be referenced. Milk type, country of origin, region, handling, aging and texture are some of the various classification strategies that have been used. Although most experts agree that none of these classifications is completely adequate, so far, no one has been able to come up with one that really covers all the variables. Even when two experts agree on which method to use, they do not necessarily agree on which cheeses fall into which categories.
For the sake of discussion, the cheese classification listed below presents several broad groups of cheese that have been loosely categorized, according to texture.
Soft Fresh Cheeses
Soft fresh cheeses are those cheeses that are unripened and generally have a fresh, clean, creamy flavor. These cheeses are typically the most perishable and are sometimes held in brines. Examples of soft fresh cheeses are cottage cheese, pot cheese, queso blanco and cream cheese.
Ricotta cheese, made from recooking whey, actually began in Italy as a byproduct of the cheese-making industry. (The name literally means “recook.”) When whey is heated, the proteins fuse and create a new curd that, when drained, becomes a snowy white ricotta, high in moisture and naturally low in fat. It is commonly used in Italian cooking as a filling for pastas or as a base for cheesecakes. Today, some ricottas are made with added part-skim or whole milk for a richer flavor.
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 and adapts to both sweet and savory preparations. One of the most famous uses of mascarpone is in the dessert tiramisu, in which the rich cheese is layered with sponge cake or ladyfingers that have been dipped in espresso and Marsala wine. Savory mascarpone dishes, such as dips and spreads, may also include herbs and spices.
In the U.S., fresh goat’s milk cheeses have become very popular of late and are being produced in many parts of the country. They can be found in a variety of shapes and may be coated in herbs or edible ash.
Soft-ripened cheeses are those that have typically been sprayed or dusted with a mold and allowed to ripen. The two most popular varieties are probably Brie and Camembert. Neither name is protected by law, so both have been counterfeited in many places, with vast differences in quality. Soft-ripened cheeses are available in varying degrees of richness. For example, single-, double- and triple-cream cheeses have 50, 60 and 70% butterfat, respectively.
Soft-ripened cheeses should be eaten only when properly ripened. An underripe cheese is firm and chalky; an overripe cheese will run when cut. A cheese ready for eating will “bulge” when cut and barely hold its shape. Soft-ripened cheeses will ripen only until they are cut. After that, they will begin to dry and deteriorate. To check for ripeness before cutting, press firmly, but gently, in the middle of the cheese. It should have some feel of softness to the center. An overripe cheese can be identified by an ammonia-like odor.
Soft-ripened cheeses can be served at room temperature as a dessert cheese or as an appetizer. For those who are not purists, these cheeses can also be served warm, by baking them in a crust of flaky dough or toasted almonds. It remains a matter of taste as to whether soft-ripened cheeses should be eaten with the rind. Even the “experts” do not agree on that age-old discussion, so it should be left up to the individual.
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 be ripened from the outside in. Popular examples of this type of cheese include Limburger and its famous 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 allowed to form a natural rind during ripening. Gouda and Edam are semi-soft cheeses sealed in wax prior to the aging process. These cheeses, which get their names from towns in Holland, have been made for 800 years. Gouda is made from whole milk and tends to be softer and richer than Edam, which is made from part-skim milk and is firmer in texture. These cheeses may be either flavored or smoked and are available in mild and aged varieties.
Blue or blue-veined cheeses are thought to have been among some of the first cheeses produced. Although there is no specific research to prove the theory, it is believed the mold was first introduced to cheese from moldy bread that had come in contact with the cheese.
In the modern production of blue cheeses, needles are used to form holes and introduce the mold to the cheese, as well as to allow the gases to escape and oxygen to enter to support mold growth within the cheese. This process explains why, when one cuts a wedge or cross-section of factory-made blue cheese, the bluing tends to follow those puncture lines vertically, with little even horizontal growth. The cheese is then salted or brined and allowed to ripen in caves or under “cave-like conditions.” Some of the most famous blue cheeses are French Roquefort, Italian Gorgonzola, English Stilton, Danish blue and American Maytag blue.
Roquefort is made strictly from raw sheep’s milk and has been produced since ancient times in the Rouergue area of southern France. It is made by introducing the mold while the cheese is still curds and before it has been molded or shaped. The mold Penicillium roqueforti is taken from moldy bread and grated into a powder, before it is mixed in with the curds. The Roquefort Association Inc. ensures quality standards and name integrity are protected. Today, the cheeses are still ripened in the caves of Cambalou for three months to develop their unique character. They may be eaten after the initial ripening, but are more typically stored for an additional 3-12 months, as the market allows.
One reason Roquefort is unique is the mold is not grown in a laboratory, as are molds for many other blue cheeses. Instead, Roquefort mold is developed naturally, from rye bread. Due to its unique quality, it is recommended the presence of Roquefort be highlighted (i.e., if used in dips and dressings).
Gorgonzola is another special blue cheese. Unlike Roquefort, Gorgonzola is made from cow’s milk, and its mold is from a completely different strain, which is now commercially produced. Gorgonzola is made with evening milk and the following day’s morning milk. There are two varieties available: sweet, or dolce, which is aged three months, and naturale, or mountain, which is aged further and has a fuller, more robust flavor.
A variety of hard cheeses are produced throughout the world. Cheddars and Swiss-style cheeses are among the most well-known. Originating in England, Cheddar has become one of the most popular hard cheeses in the U.S. The Pilgrims brought Cheddar formulas to the U.S., and by 1790, it was produced in such quantities that it was exported back to England. Cheddar derives its name from the process used in its manufacture. 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 Cheddar cheeses is achieved through the addition of annatto seed paste and has nothing to do with the 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 1-3 months, medium for 3-6 months, sharp for 6-9 months and extra-sharp for nine months to five years.
Many cheeses that originated in the U.S. are produced using the cheddaring method. American cheese is said to have gotten its name after the American Revolution, when the proud producers of Cheddar in the U.S. did not want their cheeses to be mistaken for anything that might have originated in England and aptly labeled them “American cheese.”
Colby is another truly American cheese that was invented in the town of Colby, Wisc., in 1874. When Colby slabs are cut in half, they are popularly known as “longhorns.” The family of cheese generically referred to as Swiss are also hard cheeses. These cheeses are sometimes characterized by holes, called eyes, which range in size from tiny to the size of a quarter. Swiss cheeses are often mellow in flavor and have excellent melting properties. Some of the more well-known varieties of Swiss cheese include Gruyère and Emmentaler. Beaufort is a French cheese made in the French Alps (since Roman times) that is similar to Swiss Gruyère. It is known as the Prince of Gruyères or King of the Mountain and has AOC status, also. Jarlsberg is another famous cheese that is Swiss-style; it comes from Norway.
Very Hard Cheeses
In Italy, these cheeses are known as the granas, or grainy cheeses, because of their granular texture. The most popular of these cheeses are Parmesan and Romano, which are now produced in the U.S. and South America, but are different from their predecessors. Very hard cheeses are most often grated or shaved, but they are also traditionally eaten in chunks.
True Parmigiano-Reggiano (called Parmesan in the U.S.) is often referred to as the “king of cheeses.” It is believed the formula for this cheese has not changed in more than 700 years, and its origins date back even further. This legendary cheese is made slowly and carefully, following strict guidelines that require it to be aged a minimum of 14 months, although most are aged for 24 months. Stravecchio, or extra-aged, is ripened for as long as three years.
Romano cheeses--named for the city of Rome--come in several different 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
Pasta filata cheeses are a group of cheeses that are related by the process used in their manufacture, rather than by their textures. In fact, the textures of pasta filata cheeses run the gamut from soft to hard, depending upon how they are aged, if at all. 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 is achieved. They are then kneaded and molded into the desired shapes.
The most common cheese of this category is mozzarella. Today, there are two types of mozzarella available: the traditional fresh style, which is available in a variety of shapes and sizes, and the newer American invention of low-moisture mozzarella, which has a longer shelflife than the fresh style. Both whole milk and part-skim varieties are available.
Provolone is another popular pasta filata cheese that is similarly handled, but it is made with a different culture. Once the curd is stretched and kneaded, it is rubbed with brine and tied into shape. It is then hung and left to dry, in sizes ranging from 250g-200lbs. Provolone is often smoked and/or aged for additional character and firmer texture. pf
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