The Beginner’s Guide to Cheese

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Most of us are familiar with the standard types of cheese we find at the supermarket — Swiss, Cheddar, Monterey or Pepper Jack. We even have a passing familiarity with the higher-status cheeses, such as Gruyere, Pecorino Romano, Gouda, Feta, Stilton, or Chèvre. But perhaps a bit more information is in order. Exploring all the wondrous possibilities that cheese can offer our dining and entertaining lives can be incredibly rewarding. However, we might balk at the higher price tag of some types of cheese, and avoid purchasing anything beyond the pale of our experience. No Fear of Cheese is the guiding principal of a full culinary life. This handy guide will offer useful information to help you to select the best cheese for each occasion.

Source and Flavour

First, all cheese—with the exception of vegetarian cheese—is made from milk, salt, and rennet. The curds or solids are separated from the liquid whey, and the enzymes in rennet aid in fermentation as the newly formed cheese continues to dry. You can have cheese made from the milk of goats, sheep, cows, water buffaloes, and even donkeys—although the latter comes with a significant price tag.

The flavour of your cheese comes from two sources. The age and method by which the cheese was produced, and the terroir are both factors in how it tastes. Much like wine, chocolate, and coffee, cheese takes its flavour from the air, earth, and water of the region. The terrain in which the animals live and move influences the taste and texture of cheese made from animal milk. Percentages of butter fat, lactose, and protein in the milk differ from species to species, which also gives each cheese a unique flavour.

While cows’ milk cheeses are among the most plentiful on the market, sheep and goat milk cheese may offer additional benefits to consumers. Some who believe they are lactose intolerant may simply be allergic to cows’ milk and cheese—since very little lactose is present in any cheese. Goat cheeses are among the most easily digestible, due to the size of the fat molecules. However, sheep’s milk cheeses are delicious and slightly higher in fat content, making them easy to enjoy and process.

Tips and Types

Processes for aging vary significantly after the curds have been separated from the whey. While this also influences the flavour of the cheese, knowing the ways in which cheeses are aged can help you prevent spoilage and detect it prior to eating. As well, the various flavours produced by the aging process lend themselves naturally to certain pairing elements of food and drink.

You may see Cheddar in a cheese shop window. This refers to any cheese where the blocks of curd are stacked to drain then ground and pressed into moulds to age. The longer a Cheddar ages, the sharper it becomes. Cheddars are excellent melting cheeses, but also pair well with sweet fruits, wine, and spiced, nutty dishes. Generally, cheddars will present green or white mould spots on the surfaces, which can be cut away and the cheese safely enjoyed.

Gouda bears a wax rind. Traditionally red, the addition of herbs or cumin is signified by a green or orange rind. This cheese melts nicely and pairs well with savoury menu items, such as meat, onions, vinegar, and salads.

Blue cheeses—of which there are many—pair well with meat, savoury dishes, and even fruits such as berries. It’s not uncommon to see a Stilton that has been mixed with blueberries prior to aging. Blue cheeses are produced by injecting special mould into the cheese curd and allowing it to ripen unsealed. The best way to tell if your blue is off is if there is too much blue veining within the cheese. A pink tinge may also indicate that it has gone bad. You can serve blue cheese hot or cold—melted over a perfectly grilled steak or crumbled over a salad full of delicious fruits and vegetables.

The soft-ripening cheeses, such as Brie or Camembert, are aged by introducing a special mould to the outside of the cheese. This process helps to intensify flavour from the outside in, and the inner part of the cheese is often called the paste, due to its soft, spreadable texture. These types of cheese are excellent served with fruit or biscuits as part of a cocktail party menu. However, try toasting them in a tureen and serving with plenty of fresh fruit for a delicious change. Spoilage presents in mould on the cut faces of the cheese or in separation of the denser rind from the soft inner paste.

Incorporating artisan or farmstead cheeses—those sourced from small dairies and farms—into your daily menu can add a new dimension to the act of eating. You may enjoy preparing different dishes, pairing novel ingredients, and exploring all the possibilities at your disposal. If you’re a bit shy about purchasing more the more expensive, additive free cheeses, make friends with a knowledgeable cheese monger or manager at the cheese counter of your local supermarket. They will help you select the best cheeses for your particular needs, even offering you samples. This will save you time and money until you form your own opinions.

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