The styles of cheese can be classified in a number of ways, but grouping them into families is one of the simplest. Families we typically highlight are:
Fresh, unripened cheeses
These are essentially uncooked and often uncultured cheese curds that are usually very mild and moist, and taste like the type of dairy from which they were made. These are intended to be consumed soon after production. Some examples include ricotta, mozzarella, and mascarpone. A slightly more complex form of fresh cheeses involve placing the cut curd into a small mold and allowing just enough whey to drain out to hold its shape. This is the case with young goat milk cheese such as Cornilly or Selles sur Cher. Aged for a few days, but otherwise ready to eat, they are slightly moist with a slight chalky texture.
Also called bloomy-rind cheeses, these have been aged briefly to allow molds on the exterior to create a thin, edible rind.The rind is formed by the existence of certain bacteria – most often one called penicillium candidum or penicillium camemberti. These cheeses age from the outside to the center, and will usually be noted for their soft, creamy interior. Examples include Brie, Camembert, and triple-crème cheeses such as Brillat Savarin.
The washed-rind family of cheeses includes those whose exteriors are washed with brine, beer, wine or other (usually alcoholic) liquid during the aging process. This repeated washing encourages the growth of the Brevibacterium linens mold, also known as B. Linens, which imparts a peachy orange color to the rind and is responsible for the “stinky-feet” smell present on some of the cheeses from this style. Examples include Epoisses, Taleggio, and Charmoix.
The semi-hard cheeses are those that have been prepared or aged so that there is less moisture in the final product. There are recipe variations that might include using more salt to draw out a greater amount of moisture, using more pressure to push out the moisture, cooking the curd to evaporate more moisture or simply aging the cheese longer so that it loses moisture over time. These cheeses fall somewhere between the younger, pliable fresh, mold-ripened or washed rind cheeses cheeses and the harder, more aged cheeses described below. Examples in the category of semi-hard cheeses include Fontal, Pomerol, Twig Farm Goat Tomme, and Tomme de Savoie.
Hard cheeses are made using similar techniques used to produce the semi-hard cheese, just to a greater extent. Pressing, cooking and aging are the three factors most responsible for the harder interiors of these cheeses. It is common to come across cheeses in this category aged for more than a year for smaller wheels (10 – 20 lb) and up to four years for larger (70 – 80 lb) wheels. These include Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Gran Riserva, and Manchego.
Easily recognizable by the blue-green mold marbled throughout the wheels. During the cheese make process, a selected strain of bacteria is introduced into the milk that will later “bloom” to the blue-green veins that are the mark of the blue cheese category. In production, blue cheeses must be handled carefully to preserve moisture and a loosely knit texture in which the blue mold will eventually thrive. As the blue molds are aerobic in character, they lie dormant until the cheeses are “needled” while they age. In this process, the cheesemaker pierces the cheese with needles to introduce paths of oxygen which will activate the mold within the cheese. Specific molds such as Penicillium roqueforti or Penicillium glaucum are used to create the striking molds within the cheese. Examples of blue cheeses include Fourme d’Ambert, Gorgonzola Naturale, Colston Bassett Stilton, and Bayley Hazen Blue.
Flavored or Blended Cheeses
Any cheese that is flavored not only by the milk, but by some specific additive like herbs or truffles, falls into this category. Prized examples include Robiola d’Alba al Tartufo and Saveur du Maquis.
There are numerous other ways to categorize cheese including methods of production (blued, cooked, pressed etc…), aging characteristics (fresh vs. aged) and even geographic origin (French, Italian, Croatian, etc…). Every cheesemonger may have a different method, so keep asking questions and always approach cheese with an open mind – you never know what you may discover next!