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Humans have been making cheese for more than 7,000 years. Cultures around the world have different ways of making cheese and creative culinary uses for the cheeses they make, and one of the beautiful things about cheese is that it is the result of a simple process with a small number of key ingredients. Minor tweaks in the cheesemaking process allow cheesemakers to develop complex and nuanced flavors.
And as cheese platters and charcuterie boards boom in popularity in restaurants across the country, from fine dining to fast casual, it’s a great time to get to know the nuances of the various cheeses you can serve to delight your guests.
Cheese 101: What is Cheese?
Cheese is made of milk, salt, an enzyme called rennet, and a bacteria culture that determines some of the flavor characteristics of the product. Traditionally, cheese is made from the milk of an animal, but there are new compounds and recipes for plant-based, dairy-free cheeses coming out every day — many made from nuts.
How is Cheese Made?
Two kinds of bacteria are used in cheesemaking – mesophilic and thermophilic bacteria. The bacteria thrive in different temperature ranges and result in different kinds of cheese. Lactose, the sugar present in some kinds of milk, ferments in reaction with the bacteria to form lactic acid.
The lactic acid lowers the pH of the milk, allowing the casein proteins in the milk to collect and coagulate the protein, fats, and calcium into the semisolid product that we recognize as cheese. The chemical process that turns dairy milk into cheese makes it possible for the cheese to be made on a large scale and sold as a commercial product.
The cheesemaking process starts with milk — and a lot of it. The milk must be heated to a precise temperature so that it will react with the starter culture and rennet to coagulate.
When heating milk, it’s important to stir it often so that the compounds in the milk don’t separate. It takes a few hours at the correct temperature for most cheeses to form.
Once the cheese curds are formed, many kinds of cheese are drained, pressed, shaped, and then aged to allow moisture to escape and flavor to develop. During the aging process, exposure to oxygen causes the cheese to create a rind, which is a hard outer layer.
Rennet is required to make aged cheeses because it contains long protein chains that break down slowly, which allows lactic acid to develop smoky, floral, fruity, and nutty flavors. In cheesemaking, the term “terroir” refers to the process of adding mold cultures, like in bleu cheese, for more variety of flavor.
Different Kinds of Cheese
After 7,000 years of cheesemaking, there are innumerable different cheesemaking processes and kinds of cheese. Cheeses are categorized by the animal’s milk (or the non-dairy product) that it is made from, as well as its firmness.
Animal Milk Cheeses
Cow’s milk is used to make most kinds of cheeses. It has a relatively neutral starting flavor and can be developed into a wide range of flavor profiles.
Goat’s milk cheeses are usually soft because goat’s milk can’t be heated to temperatures as high as cow’s milk. Goat’s cheese has a particular tart, tangy, and earthy flavor profile.
Sheep’s milk is more versatile than goat’s milk when it comes to cheesemaking but is generally rarer. Sheep’s cheese can be hard or soft and has a buttery and rich flavor profile.
Natural Cheeses & Processed Cheeses
Natural cheeses are made through the basic process of cheese making – coagulating, draining, and aging.
Processed cheeses, also known as process cheeses, are any cheeses that are put through extra steps between the production of the cheese and the consumer product. Those processes might include blending, cleaning, melting, or adding ingredients.
Most individually wrapped, sliced cheese products are processed cheese, as are canned cheese, cheese dips and sauces, and string cheese. Processed cheeses are not necessarily bad or unhealthy, though some contain higher added salt and fat.
Soft cheeses coagulate slowly, using only bacteria cultures, not rennet. Soft cheese is sometimes popularly equated with raw cheese, which is a cheese that hasn’t been pasteurized for impurities. They’re soft enough to spread and won’t hold their shape when cut.
Some flavor notes common of soft cheeses are acidic, tangy, tart, creamy, and earthy. Soft cheeses are natural, except cheese dips or other creamy cheese products. Many soft kinds of cheese aren’t aged and do not have a rind. Brie is a notable exception.
Types of soft cheese:
- Cottage cheese
- Cream cheese
- Goat cheese
Semi-soft cheeses have less moisture and a firmer texture than soft cheeses. They coagulate more quickly with the use of rennet, and are aged and treated to develop a rind. Most semi-soft cheeses are natural. Semi-soft cheeses will hold their shape when cut, but are not hard enough for slicing or grating.
The combination of rennet, different bacteria cultures, and age allows semi-soft cheeses to produce less acidic and more complex flavor profiles. Semi-soft cheeses are often creamy, nutty, brothy, buttery, and can be sweet and floral.
Types of semi-soft cheese:
- Monterey Jack
- Bleu Cheese
Semi-firm cheeses coagulate quicker and have less moisture so that they can hold their shape. They’re not soft enough to spread but not hard enough to grate. Semi-firm cheeses are often natural but many of the process cheese products consumers use are considered semi-firm.
Given more time to dry and age, semi-firm cheeses lose most of their acidity and develop complex nutty, sweet, floral, earthy, rich, and buttery flavors. Some of the most popular and mass-produced cheeses are semi-firm.
Types of semi-firm cheese:
Hard cheeses are aged for long periods of time, and some of those aging processes are detailed and complex. They are perfect for grating or shaving and, while most hard cheeses are natural, they are sometimes blended into process cheese.
The long aging process of hard cheeses allows them time to develop rich, complex flavors. The flavor profiles of hard cheeses feature buttery, salty, umami, floral, nutty, and sometimes sweet notes.
Types of hard cheese:
- Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano
- Grana Padano
Plant-based cheese products are not technically cheese, but they still deserve a place on this list. There are some astoundingly cheese-like vegan products on the market that serve all the purposes of natural cheeses. They’re widely consumed by vegans and some vegetarians, but also cater to the needs of people with dairy sensitivities.
Plant-based shredded and sliced cheeses are versatile and come in a lot of flavors. Different kinds are made from nuts, soy, coconut, and root vegetables. They could easily replace the cheese in any sandwich shop, café, or home kitchen to provide vegan and dairy-free options.
Vegan parmesan is a great way to add saltiness and umami to vegetarian or vegan pasta, soups, salads, and other dishes.
Plant-based soft cheeses are tangy and spreadable dairy alternatives are made from coconut, cashews, or soy.
Cheese tasting has a few basic principles. The kind of dairy – cow, goat, sheep, non-dairy – that is used in cheesemaking defines the primary flavor profile. Aging and the kind of bacteria used result in more nuanced flavor profiles.
The texture of the cheese is another way to describe the experience of cheese tasting. The firmness and moisture level of a cheese determine the cheese’s mouthfeel.
Another way to describe cheese is by the intensity of its flavor. Goat cheese has an intense acidity, while the nuttiness in cheddar is mild.
Soft cheeses are often acidic, with a flavor we describe as tart or tangy. Soft cheeses that aren’t aged taste creamy and lactic, while aged soft cheeses like brie taste floral and nutty. The pungent umami flavors in bleu cheese come from a combination of the kind of bacteria culture used.
The longer cheese ages, the more those flavors will develop. Parmesans are salty, earthy, flavor bombs because of the aging process they endure.
Cheese Buying Guide
As a rule, natural cheese delivers more flavor. There’s nothing wrong with processed cheeses in certain applications – everyone loves a good queso dip or a mozzarella stick. But for sandwiches, pasta, salads, burgers, charcuterie, and everything else that features cheese, natural cheeses will provide extra flavor.
Local cheesemakers and farmers are a great option for restaurants that want to showcase local products or run on a farm-to-table model. Another great resource is the independent cheese shop in your area. The owners and employees in cheese shops are valuable fonts of lactic knowledge.
Independent shops are great for both home chefs and, if you run a restaurant, the shop might be able to help you get great cheese for wholesale prices.
There are lots of websites that sell cheese wholesale so you might shop around on the internet for the best prices on the kinds of cheeses you need. Wholesale retailers sell some natural cheeses and are a good way to get a lot of processed cheese at near-wholesale prices.
How Long Does Cheese Last?
Cheese is a stable dairy product and it is usually good to eat as long as there is no harmful mold growing on the surface or a sour smell — but that doesn’t mean they’re good forever.
Hard cheese can last six weeks to two months in the refrigerator once it is removed from the foil or plastic packaging you receive it in. Semi-soft cheeses won’t last quite as long but will be of good quality for a month or more if stored properly. Soft cheeses, once opened, will only last one to two weeks in the fridge and are best when consumed immediately after opening.
How to Store Cheese
Natural cheese will dry out and harden when exposed to oxygen. The best way to store cheese is to wrap it tightly in plastic wrap so that none of the surfaces are exposed to the air.
Processed cheese is more stable because of the preservatives, salt, and other additives and can be stored in plastic containers or bags.