It took a lot of restraint, and editing, to keep this from becoming a trilogy. There is just an endless supply of cheese! As badly as I want to get all Bill Nye on you guys, I am going to keep it simple and succinct. Sort of.
- Fresh (Fresh Chevre, Feta, Burrata, Mozzarella)
These high-moisture, light cheeses should be eaten right away. They have no aging, and no rind which means they are pretty much naked. If you are into fresh cheese: Burrata, in case you are unfamiliar, is the holy grail of fresh cheeses. Complete with a delicate layer of mozz-like encasing, and filled with fresh thick cream and bits of ritagli (small bits of mozzerella left in the pot after cheese-making) this cheese will leave you speechless. A little salt & high-quality extra virgin olive oil drizzle will turn it into something ethereal.
- Soft-Ripened / Bloomy (Brie, Camembert, Humboldt Fog)
The word “bloomy” refers to that delicate, gossamer rind. These cheeses should yield to a lil’ squeeze in the center and the rind should be white with no traces of pink. Ask the cheese shop staff if the rind is edible so you don’t possibly miss out on the best part! The flavors can range from a sweet cream butter to earthy/mushroomy and occasionally even go so far as peppery and surprisingly sharp on the finish. I think this is a good time to tell you that Brie and Camembert share the same recipe! The thing that sets the two apart is terroir as they are made in two different regions of France (Ile de France for Brie and Normandy for Camambert). If you are still being shy about Brie-style cheeses, try Fromage d’Affinois. It the perfect mild-mannered yet decadent, buttery, gateway cheese for you.
- Washed Rind (Taleggio, Raclette, Tome, Epoisses)
These cheeses, are the gnarly ones. The rinds have been washed with brine or wine and now these cheeses are drunk and happy. As with most things that you have hosed down with wine, they smell peculiar. In some cases, the smell is definitely indicative of what’s inside but for the most part the bark is worse than the bite. If you are new to the next-level cheese world, I would start with Taleggio. This is a great place to answer the question:
How do I tell a good-bad smell from a bad-bad smell?
Think Windex. If your cheese smells even remotely like Windex, its a goner. The smell of ammonia indicates your cheese has gone from funky-fresh to funky-dead. In the case of washed rind cheeses, if there is a small tear in the rind and cheese is starting to escape, this means EAT ME! QUICK! NOW!
- Semi-Soft (Fontina, Morbier) and Firm (Cheddar, Manchego, Swiss)
These are the best melters. These can range from a whipped custard-like texture to almost firm with a little pliability. The flavor profiles can range anywhere from mild and salty to sharp as a tack and spicy on the finish. Combining any three cheeses in this category in a grilled cheese sandwich will melt your face off. You will never look at a Kraft single again.
- Hard/Grating (Parmesan, Aged Goudas, Pecorino)
These have the lowest moisture, and the aging process has escorted these cheeses to the next level when it comes to texture. Some 3+ yr aged Goudas have little protein crystals that crackle in your mouth, and if that wasn’t enough fun for you…here comes butterscotch notes! These cheeses can be very complex, which is why I FULLY discourage purchasing pre-grated cheeses. For several reasons:
Cost: You are paying more per pound because someone grated it for you. This is where your new microplane comes in and saves the day.
Air: Once you grate the cheese, you increase its surface area by, like, a billion percent. Which means air, which means drying out your cheese way more than was intended.
Quality: The stuff that comes in a mainstream-brand plastic shaker container is usually of crappy-to-mediocre quality. Nobody’s grandma was involved, and the terroir is mostly New Jersey Turnpike and sorrow. Avoid.
Buy your own amazing Parmesan, hand-selected by you, and grate it with love and serve it on a lovely little plate with a spoon at dinner. Think of it less of a topping, and more of an integral flavor you are adding to your meal.
For those of you who have been shy about trying cheeses outside of your comfort zone, I totally get it. Cheese is a pretty odd thing when you think about what it IS. In order to remove the fear from cheese bacteria and mold, I will be writing a special feature on cheese-making in the near future. I am working with a local cheesemaker to help explain that the bacteria and mold that are used to produce delicious cheese are as harmless as the ones that are already living inside all of us at any given moment.
For now, eat the best of what you love. Support your local cheese shop, and don’t forget to tip!