Cheese Basics

Cheese should be fun!  But we know that for many people it’s intimidating.  So many strange and hard to pronounce names.  We have a strict “no food snob” policy at our shop.  Our staff treat you like guests and take pride in helping you explore new products and tastes.

But if you do want a little more knowledge, these cheese basics will give you extra confidence the next time you come to our cheese counter.

The Seven Basic Styles of Cheese

All cheeses fall into one of these categories. However, a cheese can fit into more than one category as well!

  1. Fresh: These unaged cheeses are the ones without a rind. They are moist and soft with a creamy texture and mild taste. Examples include many goat cheeses, mozzarella, feta, ricotta and queso fresco.
  2. Semi Soft: These beauties are your best choice for grilled cheese sandwiches, fondues, and other recipes, as they tend to melt very well. They have thin rinds and springy pastes. They can range from mild to pungent because they can also belong to other categories as well such as Bloomy Rinds, Washed Rinds or Blues. Examples are young Goudas, and most blues.
  3. Bloomy Rinds/Soft-Ripened/Surface-Ripened: You know these cheeses by their white, almost fuzzy rind and creamy (sometimes very creamy) insides. The rind is formed by exposing the cheese to mold spores, which breaks down the protein and fats in the cheese to make it soft and yummy. Examples include Brie, Camembert, Humboldt Fog, and Brillat-Savarin.
  4. Semi Hard: These cheeses are made by pressing the curds into molds and aging them for several months. They can have natural, waxed or cloth rinds, and they can have a wide range of textures, from semi-firm to very firm. They have less moisture than semi-soft cheeses. Think Cheddars, and aged sheep’s milk cheeses and Goudas.
  5. Hard: These are the firmest cheeses and generally the most complex. They are aged anywhere from several months to several years. They generally have grainy textures and salty, nutty flavors. Some have an elastic texture when melted, such as Emmenthal or Gruyere. Other are hard cheeses suitable for grating, such as Asiago or Parmigiano-Reggiano.
  6. Washed Rind: You know these when you smell them, but despite their strong aromas, many are mild tasting. These cheeses are washed repeatedly with a salty brine, or with wine, beer, brandy or other interesting liquid during ripening to encourage the growth of the Brevibacterium linens (B. linens) bacteria, which lends a pungent aroma, full, beefy flavor, and a reddish-orange rind. Examples include Epoisses (Cheesemonger Steve’s favorite cheese), Pont L’Eveque, Stinking Bishop and Taleggio.
  7. Blue: Their distinctive blue or green streaks make blues hard to miss. Those streaks are created by adding any number of different penicillium mold strains to the milk and then piercing the aging cheeses so oxygen is allowed in and the mold can thrive and give the cheese its unique flavor. Examples include Gorganzola (Italy), Roquefort (France) and Stilton (Britan), Rogue River Blue or Blue Mont.

Types of Milk

Most cheeses are made from cow’s milk, goat’s milk or sheep’s milk. The differences in these milks give particular cheeses very distinct flavor profiles:

  • Cow’s milk tends to create sweet, creamy and buttery cheeses. Cow’s milk has more fat than goat’s milk, but less than sheep, and is more likely to showcase the cheesemaker’s abilities instead of asserting its own inherent traits.
  • Goat’s milk has less fat and tastes lighter. Goat’s milk cheese tends to have a fresh, tangy taste and is easier to digest because it has less lactose.
  • Sheep’s milk has the most butterfat and it creates rich, fatty, nutty tasting cheeses.

Want to learn more about why the three milks taste different? Check out this article from Culture magazine.

Cheese can be made from raw milk or pasteurized milk. Most cheese lovers believe that raw milk makes the most flavorful cheese, but there are also some really good pasteurized cheeses out there too.

By U.S. law, all raw milk cheeses have to be aged at least 60 days, which unfortunately means we can’t import many of the truly great soft raw milk cheeses made in Europe, because they are ready to eat before 60 days, and would be far past their edible stage by the time they were held for the FDA-required 60 days.

Terroir

In addition to the type of milk used, a cheese’s flavor is also affected by its “terroir”. “Terroir” is a French word that literally means territory, but is used to mean all the other environmental factors that go into giving the cheese it’s specific taste.

These environmental factors include the region of the country the animals live in, the local climate, the altitude, the soil composition, the types of grass the animal eats, and more. All of these elements affect the flavor of the milk and therefore the ultimate flavor of the cheese. The same animal grazing in different locations will produce different a milk and a different cheese.

Seasonality

Yes, cheeses have a season. It goes back to terroir. Cheese made from winter milk, when the animal is eating hay, is going to taste a lot different than one from an animal who has been grazing in alpine pastures during the summer. For that reason, a lot of cheeses are only available during certain times of the year, depending on how long it ages.

Also, the animals are not able to give milk year-round, so there may be times when the milk is simply not available to make the cheese. Larger industrial cheeses do not suffer from this, because they are made from milks from many different herds, and each herd is at a different point in its lactation cycle. So if you come into the store looking for a particular cheese, and we tell you it’s not available due to seasonality, pat yourself on the back for being discerning enough to have selected an artisan cheese rather than a factory one

That’s why our inventory is always changing – so we can make sure we have the best cheeses to sell to you all year long! 


Six Basic Steps to All Cheesemaking

  1. While the milk is being very gently heated, starter cultures are added to milk to begin raising the acids in the milk. These cultures are also one of the main elements in determining the final taste of the cheese.
  2. Rennet is added, which curdles the milk and begins to release the whey, leaving behind the solids, or curds, which have the consistency of custard.
  3. The curds are cut with special knives, called harps. This further releases the whey.
  4. The whey is drained off. How much is drained will affect the consistency of the cheese; the more whey drained, the harder the finished cheese.
  5. The curds are placed into molds and further drained. To make hard cheeses, the curds are pressed under weights to press as much whey out as possible.
  6. Fresh cheese is ready for market. Other cheeses are now salted, which further draws out the whey, prevents the formation of bad bacteria, and adds taste.
  7. These cheeses now begin aging, anywhere from a few days to several years. During this time they are continuously flipped and brushed or washed to encourage the formation of a rind and to ensure they ripen evenly.

Ultimately, think of the cheesemaker as a chef. The decisions he or she makes throughout the recipe, from what kind of milk to use to what rennet to add to how to age it, results in the endless variety of cheeses available to us today. And new styles are continuously being developed, even as you read this!

So the next time we see you at Cheese+Provisions, let’s have a chat about the incredible world you’ve just learned about, and join us in celebrating these amazing craftspeople, and their equally amazing products!


How to Talk to a Cheesemonger 

It’s an understandable fact that for many people, a cheese counter is an intimidating place. Folks feel like they don’t know enough to ask questions, they don’t want to risk mispronouncing the cheese names, or they’re worried they’ll get something they don’t like, and may be too embarrassed to say anything about it.

That’s unfortunate, because there is SO much to explore beyond the pre-wrapped cheese section available in other stores. And here at Cheese+Provisions, we are eager to help you explore and learn all about the wonderful products we offer.

We have a strict “no food snobs” rule here at Cheese+Provisions, so don’t be afraid. We actually LOVE cheese neophytes eager to explore. (By the way, that’s how you know you’re in a good shop; the cheesemongers WANT to have that conversation with you no matter how busy they are).

Here are some tips on how to get the best results out of any cheesemonger.

1. Learn some basic cheese terms. If you want a boost of confidence before you come in, here are some basic cheese types and styles and a 101 on cheese.

2. No homework necessary. Don’t want to bone up on Cheese 101 before you come in, no problem. That’s what we are here for. Seriously!

3. Tell us a little bit about you. A little bit of information goes a long way. For example, you can start by telling us your favorite cheese—even if it’s not a “fancy” cheese. That gives us a great starting point to figure out where to take you next.

Don’t know the name or style? Just tell us you like aged, hard cheeses or soft runny cheeses. Tell me us if you like them stinky, or you don’t. Or do you have a specific use for this cheese? A recipe, a cheese plate, an awesome grilled cheese. That helps us narrow it down.

4. Ask what’s in season in the style you like. Everything in our case is ripe and ready for your taste buds, but cheeses are seasonal, especially small, farmstead cheeses. Many are only available at certain times of the year. Want to know what’s just come into season or what is about to go out? Just ask.

5. Taste. The beauty of a ‘cut-to-wrap’ cheese shop like ours is that we want you to taste. As much as you like. And you don’t have to know what you are tasting. Don’t feel obliged to say, “yes, I taste the mushroomy forest floor elements you mentioned.”

Instead, take a bite and feel free to ask “what’s that I’m tasting.” A good cheesemonger will talk about the flavors he or she is getting on the front end or on the finish. After all, we’re here to help educate you, not test you.

6. Ask for pairing suggestions. The other benefit of Cheese+Provisions is that we are run by a professionally trained chef who spent time as a winemaker and who also has a brewing degree. Want to know what to do with your cheese or what to drink with your cheese? Just ask!

7. Take a risk. Ok, you don’t have to, but if you are game, let us help you find something that might not have immediately been on your radar. There are some great cheeses out there that might have a funky rind or a streak of ash but are surprisingly subtle in flavor.

8. Don’t be put off by the prices. We specialize in small farmstead cheeses, but their small scale means it’s more expensive for them to operate. No one goes into artisan cheesemaking (or cheese purveying) to get rich.

Here is a great article explaining why artisan cheese is more expensive than commodity cheese. That said, let us know your budget and we’ll figure out what make sense. And remember – with cheese, a little goes a long way.

9. Take notes. We know it’s hard to remember the name of that cheese you loved. You can either take notes in a cheese notebook, or ask us to put your purchases in our system so you can reference them later.

And if you want to just come in cold and start a conversation, that’s great too. Our job is to help you find what you like, and we love being able to share our knowledge. After all, cheese is fun!


Taste Like a Pro 

You can taste cheese or you can “taste” cheese. With just a few extra steps, you’ll be amazed at how much more flavor you get. Here are some tips.

  1. Let the cheese come up to room temperature. Cold kills flavor. Tasted cold, the basic tastes of milk, fat and salt will be there, but all nuance will be lost. And for subtle cheeses like artisan cheeses, nuance is what it’s all about.
  2. Smell the cheese. Take a big inhale because so much of taste is smell.
  3. Try the cheese naked. This one might be obvious, but just in case. No fig or nut-laden crackers or bread or chutney. Let it tell you what it needs first. You can sexy it up later if you want.
  4. Now for the fun…the tasting. Place the cheese against the roof of your mouth, push your tongue up against it and just stop. And wait. Let it start to dissolve. Resist the urge to chew. Let the cheese break down a bit and it will start to open up even more.
  5. Work it around your mouth. Once it’s softened, work it around the roof of your mouth with your tongue until it’s a loose paste. It will further blossom in your mouth.
  6. Now swallow. But no chaser, yet. No beer. No wine. Just sit back and concentrate. What’s the cheese telling you? What is its voice? Let it create a mental picture in your mind.
  7. Enjoy. Now you can drink. Or add that bread. Or even repeat the process if you’re so inclined, to either reaffirm what you just found out or to open even more flavor.

Do you have to do this every time? Of course not. But if you can remember to do it even 20 percent of the time you’re eating cheese (and hopefully 100% of the time you’re in a cheese shop looking for new finds), your cheese world will build itself from a hut into a country estate, if not a veritable mansion.

Want more? Read my “Advanced Cheese Tasting” blog post. Or watch this video.


The most important thing to know about storing cheese is this: Never wrap it in plastic!

Cheese is a living, breathing thing. Plastic suffocates cheese. Plastic wrap can also impart an off flavor to the cheese after a day or two.

So what should you do instead?

  1. Wrap it in paper.  The best alternative is cheese paper. But waxed or parchment paper will work. To be extra safe, put the cheese in a Tupperware to keep out refrigerator odors.

    If you don’t eat it all in one sitting, rewrap it in fresh paper.

    One of our favorite food websites, Food52, has a great how-to on wrapping cheese in paper.

  2. Separate the strong, pungent cheeses.  Don’t combine blue cheeses or washed rind cheeses in the same Tupperware as other cheese.   They’ll pick up each other’s flavors, as well as molds.

    It’s a cool experiment to see blue cheese molds growing on your brie, but if that’s not what you’re going for, store them separately.

  3. Store your cheese in the fruit bin. It has the most consistent temperature and humidity.  Want to go the extra mile? Move the bin’s regulator to ‘maximum humidity.’  Can’t do that? Store it in the warmest part of your refrigerator.   Better too warm, than too cool.

  4. Except for fresh cheeses.  Forget all of this if you are storing fresh cheeses like goat cheese or ricotta.  Just store them like milk or yogurt.

  5. Don’t forget your cheese.  Check it to make sure it’s not getting too wet or too dry.  If it’s too wet, it needs more air.  If it’s drying out, wrap it with a damp (not wet), clean paper towel and place it back in its plastic container.

  6. Don’t be afraid, just scrape.   Mold is natural on cheese.  If you find some new mold when you unwrap it, just cut or scrape it off.  The rest of the cheese is fine.

    (Again, unless it’s fresh/soft cheese with black hairy mold – that’s probably better in the compost pile.)

  7. Most importantly, eat it at room temperature! Refrigeration not only dries out cheese, it also kills its flavor.  A lot of people will tell you 30-40 minutes.  Trust us, it’s 1-2 hours before serving for peak flavor.

But, hey, isn’t the cheese in your own case wrapped in plastic?
Yeah, but don’t blame us. The Health Department requires it. We HATE doing that to our cheese. Also, it would be hard for you to pick a cheese if we wrapped them in paper since you wouldn’t be able to see them.

Don’t worry though. We order just enough cheese for our demand so it’s never spending too much time in plastic.

And you should see us doing what we call ‘facing’ when you ask to taste or buy some cheese: we unwrap the cheese, and take a paring knife and lightly scrape the surface of the cheese. This gets rid of that plastic taste.

And we’ll never sell you something that is past its prime. We’ll eat it ourselves before that happens!!!!!

 

Cheese Terms

Affinage: The art of maturing and aging cheeses. Affinage is an expertise separate from cheesemaking that takes years of study to learn.

Affineur: The person who cares for cheeses during the aging process. This individual will be an expert in the composition of different milks, the lifecycle of specific cheeses, and the effects of time, temperature, and humidity on cheese. In the cheese world, it is perhaps the most respected position of all.

Alpine Cheese: A range of cheeses traditionally produced in the Swiss and French Alps, but that are now being made in the US as well. These “mountain cheeses” are only produced in the summer months, using milk from cows that graze the summers away on mountain pasture full of wildflowers, which give them their floral overtones and tastes. This style includes Appenzeller, Gruyère, Raclette and Vacherin Mont-d’Or, and their corresponding American styles, among others. Artisanal cheese: There are many definitions for artisan. For us, it means cheese produced in small batches, with as little mechanization as possible.

Farmstead Cheese: A cheese produced only with milk from the farm where it’s made. “Artisan” refers to the manner in which the cheese is made, i.e. using traditional techniques, while “farmstead” refers to the source of the milk and where the cheese is made.

Natural Rind Cheeses: These are cheeses that develop a natural rind during the aging process without the addition of molds or washing of the rind. Because they age over several months, many of these cheeses are made using raw milk. The rind is usually edible but not always tasty.

Raw Milk Cheeses: Cheese made from unpasteurized milk. Unpasteurized milk retains the natural enzymes and good bacteria in the milk witch can create deeper and more complex flavors in cheese. The good bacteria growth also stops and/or kills the growth of harmful bacteria. U.S. laws require raw milk cheeses to age at least 60 days.

Rennet: An enzyme traditionally isolated from the stomach lining of a young animal, either calf, kid, or lamb. It causes the milk to curdle, which releases the whey, and turns the milk into cheese. These days rennet can be made from either animals or vegetables.

Tomme: A French term for a small or medium-size round of cheese. It’s also a generic name given to a class of cheese traditionally produced mainly in the French Alps from the skimmed milk left over after the cream has been removed to produce butter and richer cheeses.

Triple Cremes: A soft-ripened cheese made by adding extra cream to whole milk to brings its butterfat content up to at least 75%. Double cremes have a fat content of 60-75%, but these cheeses generally do not constitute their own ‘class’.

Turophile: French for a connoisseur of cheese.

Tyrosine: These are the small, crunchy white crystals often found in aged cheeses like Gouda, Gruyère, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. They are a crystallization of the amino acid tyrosine which is created by the breakdown of casein (the main protein in milk) as the cheese ripens. They’re both good for you and give the cheese a nice crunchy texture.