A Cheese Primer

A Cheese Primer(cont.)


There isn’t one official way to divide cheeses into groups. As with most complicated foods, cheese breaks down into categories that blend and split in ways that are difficult to represent without making a mess. The categories below illustrate major differences in how the cheeses are made, as well as easily discernible variations in the final products’ texture or color.

Stretched Curd
Mozzarella and provolone are two of the best-known stretched-curd cheeses, which use a process called pasta filata (literally “spun paste”) to yield their distinctive texture. Heated curd is mixed and kneaded before being pulled, chopped, and shaped. (Here’s how to make your own mozzarella.)

Washed Rind
(Surface Ripened)

Deeply flavorful cheeses such as Limburger and Taleggio fit into this category. After being pressed into shape, they’re wiped down with a bacterial solution. Ripening takes place from the outside in: In the case of Limburger, the softening and ripening continue after you buy the cheese, and if you wait too long (six-plus months) the whole cheese will eventually slump into a thick puddle of pungent goo.

Fresh Soft
Cream cheese, queso fresco, farmer’s cheese (sometimes called fromage blanc), and cottage cheese are among the simplest cheeses to make. The proper starter culture and rennet are all that must be added to milk to turn it into one of these fresh soft cheeses, which require none of the curd-schlepping and aging of their more sophisticated peers. Rennet, in fact, isn’t even needed to make cottage cheese.

The pride of France and Quebec, these often-challenging, sometimes-musky, buttery cheeses include Camembert, Brillat-Savarin, and Brie. Ripening agents such as Penicillium candida are used to give them their distinctive fluffy, “blooming” white rinds. The blooming agent, a white ripening mold, is typically added to the milk along with the starter culture. These cheeses have a short shelf life and are most often consumed within weeks of being made.

Typically injected with mold to create distinctive veins of color and a tangy flavor, blue cheeses such as Roquefort and Gorgonzola tend to combine an earthy punch with a creamy texture.

Is processed cheese really cheese? This is a hotly contested issue, and the line is blurry. A good cheese spread such as Rondelé is often little more than a blend of decent-quality real cheeses, cream, and pasteurized milk. While Rondelé lacks the purity and elegance of its individual components, it still has a fine pedigree and is typically well above the 51 percent cheese content that differentiates real cheese from “cheese product.”

Many cheese products, like Velveeta, are significantly more adulterated: The addition of whey, protein concentrate, food coloring, and emulsifiers helps such products stand up to extended shelf storage. They often melt beautifully, making them ideal for numerous restaurant applications (and grilled cheese sandwiches). That said, the typical slice of so-called American cheese lacks any depth of flavor, and will stick to a television screen if thrown at the correct angle.

Hard cheeses such as Emmentaler (often known simply as Swiss), Gruyère, Asiago, and Parmesan require high pressure and high temperatures to expel the whey and make the cheese drier. (The holes characteristic of Swiss are created by bacteria that consume lactic acid and release carbon dioxide gas.)

Other Cheeses
The varieties of cheese addressed in this primer only scratch the surface. Dutch-style cheeses (Edam, Gouda, etc.) feature curds washed or submerged in water to remove calcium and acid. Delicate chèvre is typically made from goat’s milk, and, at its best, has a gentle, slightly acidic flavor. Ricotta and Gjetost are made from whey. Finnish Juustoleipa is broiled and can be reheated without melting.

Wisconsin master cheesemaker Tom Torkelson describes the potential of cheese: “I can take one cheese that I make and I can put a blooming rind on it, I can put a washed rind on it, I can cave-age it, I can brine it in wine, I can brine it in beer, I can put chipotle in it, I can add fennel, I can wax it. ... You can make lots of kinds of cheeses out of one vat of cheese, and they’re entirely different.”

James Norton writes the weekly À la Carte dining column for the Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages. He’s also the coauthor of an upcoming book on Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers. His Supertaster column appears on CHOW every Monday.

Still Feeling Cheesy?:
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» Approaching the Cheese Counter
» CHOW Pick: Catupiry Cheese from Brazil
» Chowhounds discuss the best cheese shops in New York, San Francisco, and Boston

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