A Cheese Primer
If the simple act of cooking food is a wonder, cheese is a miracle. The application of salt, enzymes, bacteria, heat, and time transforms ordinary milk into an enormous variety of forms.

From evanescent queso fresco and ricotta to more enduring varieties such as cheddar and Parmesan, cheese can be sweet or pungent, hard or spreadable, chalky or smooth, musky or bright—like wine and beer, it offers a seemingly infinite range of experiences.

“Right away, I fell in love with it,” recalls Gianni Toffolon, one of Wisconsin’s 43 active certified master cheesemakers. The art of cheesemaking captivated Toffolon during his childhood in Cremona, Italy. “It’s like a mason, you know, who takes simple bricks and makes beautiful things.”

There are hundreds of types of cheeses from around the world, and we’re not going to talk about all of them here. Our goal is to provide the basics about where cheese comes from, how it’s made, and how it breaks down into types. But because there are so many types of cheese, it can be hard to generalize about what goes into cheese and why. Consider this guide your introduction.


Most cheese is made from the milk of cows, goats, or sheep. But it’s worth noting that many cheeses regarded as cow’s milk cheeses (cheddar, for example) can be made with goat’s or sheep’s milk, and vice versa (you can, for instance, make a cow’s milk chèvre). In general, there’s a good reason—such as honoring a European domain designation, or not mucking up a delicately flavored cheese with a “goaty” aftertaste—to stick with a traditional type of milk, but not always.

Cow’s milk cheese makes up the overwhelming majority of cheese consumed in the United States. The relatively neutral flavor of cow’s milk, its ease of handling, and its durability make it the simplest milk to work with.

Goat’s milk is more difficult to work with. Its shorter protein strands can make for more delicate cheeses, but those strands also require gentler handling. Additionally, goat’s milk must be fresh in order to avoid goaty-tasting cheese.

Although rich in fat and protein, sheep’s milk is expensive to produce and can be temperamental to work with.

Cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milk are the biggest players in the cheese world, but other milks have cameo roles, including reindeer (used to make Juustoleipa of Finland) and water buffalo (mozzarella di bufala). Cheese can be made from yak’s milk (Nepal), pig’s milk (Mexico), and more.

See more articles