Knowing the different types of cheese can make your next meal or cheese and wine pairing a success. We’ll teach you the hard and soft of cheese types.
What’s your favorite cheese? For many of us, that may be a tough question to answer. It depends on what we’re cooking at the time, what we’re using it for, what we’re drinking with it…the list goes on. And just in case you think you’re tried them all, there are upwards of 1,000 types of cheese in the world, depending on the source you consult. (According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, there are 600 in Wisconsin alone.) So how does one keep them all straight?
The answer is, you don’t. There’s no quiz on this, and no right or wrong. It’s only cheese, and cheese is fun. But if you know the basic types of cheese and their general characteristics and applications, you will at least have an idea of what to expect from something new.
What are the different types of cheese?
Cheese can be classified by a number of factors:
Content. This refers to the type of milk used in the cheese: cow, goat, mixed milk, double crème, etc. While nearly all American mozzarella is made from cow’s milk, classic Mozzarella di Bufala from Italy is made from the milk of the domesticated Italian water buffalo. And in the case of double crème or triple crème, the milk has been fortified with cream to bring the fat content up to 60% (double) or 75% (triple). Brie cheese is often a double or triple crème.
Ripening methods. Many types of cheese are sold fresh (unaged), like cheese curds or bread cheese, while others (like Cheddar cheese) can be aged for many years. Still others use molds and bacteria to enhance the ripening process: blue cheeses contain various strains of Penicillium mold; soft-ripened cheeses like Brie and Camembert have a light mold (“bloom”) on their rinds, and washed-rind cheeses like Limburger use Brevibacterium linens to aid in ripening.
Flavor. Cheeses are sometimes categorized according to strength of flavor, which is certainly affected by the above two factors. Words like Mild, Medium, Strong and Intense are often used, as are more precise terms like Nutty, Earthy, or Creamy. There is no exact science; where a cheese falls is entirely subjective. Categorizing by flavor can be a big help for someone arranging a wine and cheese tasting, where guests should work their way up from mild to strong. But the most widely used and officially recognized method of classification is:
Texture. This is simply a rating of cheeses according to their firmness: Soft, Semi-Soft, Semi-Hard, and Hard. This is also a very inexact science; the line between any two categories can be pretty blurry, and some cheeses are made in softer or firmer versions. The main determining factor in firmness is moisture content, which can be affected by the pressure on the curds as they’re packed into blocks or wheels, and by the length of time a cheese is aged. And because aging time will definitely affect a cheese’s flavor, at least an indirect correlation can be made between texture and flavor.
Let’s look at the generally accepted cheese categories according to texture:
The softer side of cheese
“Soft” is not really as defined as the other three categories, and includes soft-ripened (as noted above), some blue cheeses, some pasta filata cheeses, and fresh cheeses.
Pasta filata (“spun paste” in Italian) cheeses include mozzarella and provolone. Mozzarella in the form we shred on pizza is semi-soft, as is provolone, which gets firmer with age. Fresh mozzarella, sold in water-packed balls that are sliced for Caprese salad, is decidedly soft and falls more in the Fresh cheese category.
Fresh cheeses include cream cheese and mascarpone (sweet, Italian-style cream cheese), ricotta, fresh mozzarella, Mexican cheeses queso blanco and queso fresco, and even crumblier, brined types like feta. Goat cheese (at least the white log generally known as chèvre) is also fresh and soft…but goat’s milk can be made into nearly any type of cheese.
Soft cheeses can often be spread on toast and may not be easily sliced. Despite their softness, many don’t melt or brown well, while others are frequently found incorporated into sauces or fillings or (in the case of feta) crumbled atop salads. Again, it is more a general description of texture than it is a true category.
What is a semi-soft cheese?
This category is a lot more uniform, and features cheeses that have a smooth, creamy interior and little to no rind. Generally high in moisture content, they can run the flavor gamut from mild to pungent. Havarti, Muenster and Butterkäse are typical mild examples. On the pungent side, many blue cheeses and washed-rind cheeses like Limburger have a semi-soft texture.
Semi-soft cheeses are popular for slicing and snacking, and are regulars on sandwiches and cheese platters. They also melt beautifully and make superb grilled cheese sandwiches. Because of their high moisture content and relative softness, they can be difficult to shred at room temperature.
Semi-hard means easy eating
The two most famous types of cheese in this category are Cheddar and Swiss…although Gouda and Edam also are considered semi-hard. These cheeses typically have a lower moisture content, and usually because they have been aged longer. Because this concentrates flavors, and the aging/ripening process known as affinage further develops flavors, these cheeses will often have a more assertive flavor that only intensifies through further aging.
Some types of cheese in this category may begin as semi-soft cheeses, while others are very near the line. For instance, Colby and Monterey Jack are two original American cheeses that are made in much the same fashion, but Colby is naturally colored with annatto as most Cheddars are. Colby is softer than Cheddar and has a higher moisture content, but is still classified as a semi-hard cheese; Monterey Jack can be classified as either semi-soft or semi-hard, depending on the source. Because the two share several characteristics (open texture, tangy flavor, excellent melting) and have contrasting colors, they are often blended together as a “calico” or “marble” cheese called Co-Jack.
Semi-hard cheeses slice and shred beautifully (with the exception of long-aged Cheddars, which become increasingly granular) and are favorites in recipes and on cheese platters. They also tend to pair better with assertive red wines, while the semi-soft cheeses are typically more at home with crisp whites. There are, of course, many exceptions.
Hard cheeses: the “gratest” of all
Anyone who’s ever grated Parmesan over a plate of pasta or slice of pizza knows this category. These cheeses are tightly packed into forms (usually wheels) and aged for months or years until their moisture content is quite low. Parmesan (especially Italy’s Parmigiano-Reggiano) is the most famous of these, but there are others, like Romano and Asiago. In Italy Romano is called pecorino Romano because it’s made with sheep’s milk (pecora is Italian for sheep). Asiago cheese is often classified as semi-hard, but is usually aged to a harder state similar to Parmesan. Its flavor is described as being a cross between Parmesan and aged Cheddar.
Hard cheeses—particularly those with a higher moisture content, like Asiago or BellaVitano®—may be sliced and enjoyed on a cheese plate much like a fine Cheddar, but the very longest-aged and hardest Parmesans and Romanos are mostly grated finely for sprinkling over pasta and pizza.
If you’re having friends or family over for a cheese tasting, be sure to offer a variety of types of cheese to keep it interesting.