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Our early ancestors probably discovered cheese when they first used animal stomachs to carry milk.  An enzyme in the stomachs called rennet would have caused the milk to curdle and separate into cheese and a watery liquid called whey.  

People have been tinkering with that basic recipe ever since then, and there are now hundreds of different kinds of cheeses.  Cheese-makers impart different flavors and textures into their cheeses by using different milks, adding various bacteria and molds, aging for different lengths of time, and so forth.  

The pâte, or inner portion, of a cheese is normally encased in a rind.  Natural rinds can be covered or mottled with mold, and they're often edible, though many people find them bitter and salty.  Waxy rinds shouldn't be eaten.


  • Always bring a table cheese to room temperature before serving it--the flavor is much better.
  • Younger cheeses tend to be mild, soft, and moist.  As cheeses age, they become more pungent, hard, and crumbly.
  • Many cheeses become rubbery when cooked too long or at too high a temperature.  If you plan to cook with a cheese,  select a heat-tolerant one like mozzarella or Emmental.
  • It's usually best to keep cheese in its original packaging.  If the cheese has been cut, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap to hold in the moisture.  If it hasn't been cut, wrap it first with waxed paper and then with plastic wrap--this allows the cheese to breathe.  
  • Store cheese near the bottom of the refrigerator, where temperature fluctuations are minimal.  
  • Harder cheeses have a longer shelf life than soft, moist ones.
  • Don't freeze cheese--it ruins the flavor.  
  • Just as you'd ask your fishmonger "What's fresh today?" ask your cheesemonger "What's ripe today?"
  • Under-ripe cheeses haven't fully developed their flavor, while overripe cheeses become acidic and unpleasantly pungent.  Some overripe cheeses develop a strong ammonia smell.
  • If a small amount of mold forms on the surface of the cheese, cut it off along with a half an inch of cheese on all sides of it.  If there's a lot of mold, throw the cheese out.
  • Many lactose-intolerant people find that they can tolerate low-lactose cheeses like cream cheese, cottage cheese, Mozzarella, and Provolone.
  • Don't serve cheese with citrus or tropical fruits.  
  • Cheese is usually made with pasteurized milk, which has been heated to remove harmful bacteria.  Unfortunately, pasteurization also destroys friendly bacteria and enzymes, though some of these can be added back artificially once the milk is pasteurized.  Some producers insist on making cheese with raw (unpasteurized) milk, believing that this gives their cheese richer microflora and better flavor and textures.  

Substitutes:  cheese alternatives OR nutritional yeast OR tofu OR white miso   Complements:  baguette OR crackers OR wine OR olives OR fruits OR nuts 




Classified by consistency:


soft cheese

semi-soft cheese

semi-firm cheese = semi-hard cheese

firm cheese = hard cheese = grating cheese


Classified by production method:


blue cheese


fresh cheese = unripened cheese

pressed cheese  Notes:   These are cheeses which are pressed to remove moisture during their production, and then soaked in a salt bath and aged.  This broad category includes most semi-firm and firm cheeses.   

During the production of some pressed cheeses, the curds are cooked to expel even more moisture.  These firmer cheeses usually have hard rinds, which are sometimes coated with wax.  Cooked pressed cheeses include Gruyère, Emmental, Gouda, and Parmesan.  

Uncooked pressed cheeses aren't as firm.  They're often sweet and fruity when young, and they develop a more earthy and grassy flavor as they age.  Examples include Cantal, Tommes de Savoie, and Morbier.


soft-ripened cheese = bloomy rind cheese = soft paste cheese =  surface-ripened with mold cheese = soft rind cheese   The rinds of these cheeses are exposed to mold, which moves into the pâte as they ripen.  As they do, they become softer and maybe even slightly runny.  

It's important to eat soft-ripened cheeses when they're perfectly ripe--if under-ripe, they're pasty and bland, if overripe, they become runny and ammoniated. 

To fully appreciate their subtle and complex flavors, be sure to bring them to room temperature before serving them.  

These are great table cheeses, and they're often served with bread, crackers, or fruit.  They're not usually cooked.  Most are covered with a felt-like white mold which is edible, but not to everyone's taste.  This category includes Brie, Camembert, Toma, Coulommiers, Chaource, and Brillat-Savarin.    See also:  soft cheese


washed-rind cheese = washed rind cheese = monastery cheese = stinky cheese   As they ripen, these cheeses are washed with a liquid.  The moisture encourages the growth of bacteria, giving the cheese a strong odor and flavor.  Many of these cheeses are soft or semi-soft and have sticky, reddish-orange rinds, which most people consider too pungent to eat.  It takes a strong wine like a Burgundy or Pinot Gris to stand up to most of the cheeses in this category.  Beer works, too.  

This category includes Limburger, Muenster, Maroilles, Langres, Epoisses, Tallegio, Abondance, Urgelia, Epoisses, Pont l'Evêque, Mahon, Reblochon, Port Salut, and Livarot.  


Classified by source of milk:


cow's milk cheese   Cow's milk cheeses are creamier than goat or sheep's milk cheeses.


sheep's milk cheese = ewe's milk cheese   Sheep's milk is higher in fat than cow's milk, so these cheeses are rich and creamy.  Like goat cheeses, they're also a bit tangy.  Examples include Pecorino Romano (pecora is the Italian word for sheep), Roquefort, Manchego, Idiazábal, and Manouri. 

goat cheese = goat's milk cheese  Notes:  Goat's milk lends cheese a tangy, earthy, and sometimes barnyard flavor.  Varieties include chèvre, Montrachet, Mizithra, Chaubier, Humboldt Fog, Chabichou, Banon, and Bucheron.


Other classifications:


cheese substitutes



double-crème cheese = double-cream cheese   These soft and semi-soft cheeses contain 60-74% butterfat, making them rich and creamy.  They're not quite as decadent as tripe-crème cheeses, which have at least 75% butterfat.


processed cheese = process cheese
reduced-fat cheese = low-fat cheese   Notes:  These can be gummy and insipid, and they usually have a shorter shelf life than their fattier counterparts.  Reduced-fat cheeses become rubbery if they're allowed to dry out during cooking, so keep the cheese moist by adding extra liquid or by sealing in the dish's moisture with a pot lid or aluminum foil.


triple-crème cheese = triple-cream cheese  Notes:   These cheeses are the gelatos of the cheese word--incredibly creamy and decadent, thanks to a high butterfat content that comes from tripling the cream.  They have roughly twice the fat as a typical Brie or Camembert, but they're much more buttery and rich.  Some triple-crèmes are fresh, like mascarpone.  Others are soft-ripened, like Boursault, Castello Blue, Brillat Savarin, and Explorateur.


vegetarian cheese  When making cheese, milk is curdled with the help of rennet, an enzyme that occurs naturally in the stomach of animals.  Many vegetarians object to eating cheese made with natural rennet, since its production involves the slaughter of animals.  Fortunately, a lot of fine cheese is now made with vegetable rennet, which is derived from fungi, bacteria, or plants.  Unfortunately, the type of rennet used isn't always marked on the cheese label.  Some stores help out by adding their own labels.  




Visit the excellent CheeseNet for more information--especially their excellent page on Cheese Types.  If lactose intolerant or allergic to milk, visit the No Milk Page.

Copyright © 1996-2005  Lori Alden