The Cheese Lover’s Guide: Everything You Need to Know

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Cheese is truly one of the best simple pleasures. It can lift a sour mood, bring friends around the table, and accentuate the flavor of almost any dish. But when you walk up to the cheese counter and stare at the options until invariably, a bespoke employee comes to your rescue, don’t you feel just a little cheated? Sure, you’re grateful they steered you away from the cheddar and towards the chèvre, but you wish you arrived at that conclusion on your own. I’m here for you.

Let’s carve a path from ignorant to informed, together. Because it’s not about showing up the cheese counter guy/gal (okay, it’s a little bit about that), it’s about gaining dominion over your tastes. First, we’ll learn a little history (great for trivia night), then move on to how it’s made, take a tour through its categories and flavor profiles, and end with an education on how to pair your cheese so you can enjoy it, like the cultured person you are.

The Origin of Cheese

The first compelling evidence of cheesemaking dates back to 7,500 years ago, at a Neolithic era site in modern-day Poland. Archaeologists found clay pots resembling cheese strainers and further testing revealed high concentrations of milk fats within their pores.

How Did Humans First Make Cheese?

As with much of human history, cheese was likely a “happy accident”. Neolithic peoples used animal stomachs as pouches. Within the lining of a young ruminant’s stomach is a naturally occurring enzyme called rennet, which serves to coagulate their mother’s milk and slow its digestion. Serendipitously, it also has everything to do with how we separate the whey and the curd in milk to make cheese!

What Did the First Cheese Taste Like?

The cheese from days of yore didn’t bear much resemblance to your favorite stilton or camembert. With limited access to salt and an unsophisticated knowledge of aging processes, the end product was probably similar to cottage cheese. Our ancestors really took a hit for us on that one, huh?

Cheese Gets an Upgrade

Luckily we didn’t accept this lumpy, mild-tasting cheese for long. No, we continued to test and tinker, developing hundreds of varieties by the time of the Roman Empire. The warmer climates produced cheeses that were salty and dry, permitting them to keep better in the heat. The cheeses from cooler climates could be preserved more easily, fostering the microbes and molds that produce such unique flavors.

Cheese Goes Global

Just as effuse as the mottled mold on a good blue, cheese found its way to every corner of the world. As Europeans colonized the Americas, they brought their religion, firearms, disease, and cheese. In fact, the Columbian exchange is responsible for many of the cheeses that are considered staples in Latin American cuisine today. Consider the Mexican cheese “cotija”, which resembles the hard crumbly nature of parmesan, or “queso fresco” and “queso blanco” which are commonly seen in dishes like Colombian arepas or Venezuelan tequeños.

How is Cheese Made Today?

Nowadays, we’ve largely eschewed the cheesemaking methods from centuries ago, favoring industrial processes to keep up with the demand. But the basic steps remain intact: curdling, texturizing, and aging.

Curdling

Curdling is the first step to cheesemaking, involving separating the milk into its constituent parts: whey and casein. Certain cheeses like paneer or queso fresco are curdled using an acid like vinegar, but more often an enzyme is stirred into the milk. Using rennet is still the most effective method, but it’s often created through a recombinant process today. There are also vegetarian options for those who don’t find using something from a calf’s stomach appetizing.

Texturizing

After the whey has been extracted from the curds, the focus shifts to refining the texture of the curds. For harder cheeses, a thermophilic bacteria is stirred-in to extract additional whey, while for stretched or string cheeses, the curds are heated in water and kneaded like a dough.

Aging

From here, things get funky – tasting and smelling, that is. How a cheese is aged is integral to what variety it’s destined to become. One trick to knowing how your cheese was aged? Take a peek at its rind.

Bloomy Rind Cheeses

Bloomy rind cheeses are the soft cheeses that we know and love so much. Also referred to as surface-ripened or soft-ripened cheeses, they’re the brick-of-Brie that you perennially bring to holiday meals and the smear of Humboldt Fog that you pair with your baguette. What gives them this ooey-gooey goodness? Mold!

How a Bloomy Rind Cheese Begins

During the Middle Ages, molds critical for making bloomy rind cheeses, such as Penicillium candidum, were simply present in the air of cheese cellars. But today, we cut-to-the-quick and inoculate those cheeses destined to be bloomy with mold either before, during, or after the curdling process.

How a Bloomy Rind Cheese Ages

As the cheese ages, it blossoms – literally. Little white tufts on its surface proliferate and are faithfully pressed down until they form a mat of mold, or rind. The rind is technically edible, a fact that you may deem as completely irrelevant to whether you want to eat it. The mold doesn’t just service to create the rind, however. It also breaks down the proteins and the fats in the cheese, lending bloomy rind varieties their trademark texture.

Washed Rind Cheeses

Washed rind cheeses may be a little more difficult to love than bloomy rind cheeses, depending on your palate. These cheeses are the Limburger on your Bratwurst sandwich and the Epoisses in your ham and apple tarte. What grants these cheeses their pleasurable pungence? Brine! Alcohol! Sometimes both!

How a Washed Rind Cheese Begins

Apart from being easy to smell, washed rind cheeses are easy to spot! – Their exterior is typically a burnished orange. The brine that’s applied to them allows certain bacteria to thrive, most famously brevibacterium linens, or b. Linens.

How a Washed Rind Cheese Ages

The type of bacteria culture present as well as the moisture content of the cheese determines the end product. As the bacteria do their job, moist cheeses become gooier and dry cheeses become harder. This means that washed rind cheeses, although generally fitting to a number of rules, can color wildly outside the predicted lines of taste and texture.

Wild Rind Cheeses

Wild rind cheeses are perhaps less intriguing in concept than both bloomy and washed rind cheeses, but they encompass a large proportion of those available today. These are the Montgomery Cheddar slices on your grilled cheese and your Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings on your arugula salad. But are wild rind cheeses any less finicky than your bloomy or washed rind varieties? Not even a little.

How a Wild Rind Cheese Begins

As with all cheeses, this variety begins with the milk curds, formed into a block. From here, its path diverges. Like a Montessori school for cheese, wild rinds are permitted to foster their own culture of bacteria and mold – provided of course, that no hostile organisms get behind enemy lines!

How a Wild Rind Cheese Ages

Cheesemakers tirelessly maintain the health of their wild rind cheeses by brushing them, binding them with cloth, rubbing them with lard, and even sealing them with a wax or oil. It all contributes to the end product, which can range from nutty and earthy, to rich and spicy.

Rindless Cheeses

These cheeses are defined by what they are not. No, this is not a Japanese Kōan but a confusing way to explain those cheeses we Americans hold so dear. These are the burrata balls soaked in olive oil that you mercilessly destroy on your date night and the chèvre you snuck one-too-many servings of during heure d’oeuvres. But how do they reach their beatific state without the guidance of a rind? I’ll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with divine intervention or miracles.

How a Rindless Cheese Begins

Chèvre, mozzarella, Havarti… where to start but from the beginning? As always, curds are first formed into a block. The fuss may end here, or additional steps may be taken to change the inherent flavor or texture of the curd.

How a Rindless Cheese Ages

Rindless cheese can be aged, though certainly not so long that it will ever lose its moisture content. For example, chèvre, or goat’s milk cheese, can be aged for up to 12 weeks to allow for a more tangy flavor to permeate and crumbly texture to develop.

How a Rindless Cheese Stretches

You could also harken back to the days you played with putty (and inevitably got it stuck in your hair) and see how mozzarella is made. Curds are placed in hot water, melting them. From there, the congealed bands of milk fat are stretched by hand until their luscious texture has been formed.

How to Enjoy Your Cheese

Now, are we beginning to feel the weight of the cheese counterman’s eyes lifting a smidge? I do hope so. Let’s learn how we can enjoy the cheese we eat, apart from just hoovering it into our faces (which depending on the context, is legit).

Eating Bloomy Rind Cheeses

It’s difficult to go wrong with a bloomy rind cheese, as many are mild and creamy. That said, it’s best to serve your bloomies’ at either room temp or warm, straight from the oven. This accentuates the nuanced flavors of your cheese and of course, enhances its oozy texture.

Pairing Food and Drink with Bloomy Rind Cheeses

This variety stands out on a cheese board, accompanied by fresh or dried fruits, honey, and crusty bread. You can also bake it, allowing the rind to crisp and crinkle. Or even more tempting, prepare a brie en croûte! For wine and beer, it’s best to stick to something light. Try a citrusy Chardonnay, dry rosé, or bubbly Saison.

Pairing Food and Drink with Washed Rind Cheeses

Washed rind cheeses may exhibit the most breadth of flavor and texture, so the trick is to tailor your food and drink to your specific cheese. For those riot-causing stinky cheeses, only a savory salty meat, slathered in spicy mustard can contend (or you know, something of that ilk). Honor Limburger heritage and pair it was a Belgian dark ale, or marry Epoisses with its contemporary, a dry red from Burgundy.

Pairing Food and Drink with Wild Rind Cheeses

Wild rind cheeses like Cabot Clothbound have a subtle tang that pair beautifully with a fruit that can meet its intensity. Try sliced apples or dried currants with a rich, dark honey. For drink, a quality Cabernet Sauvignon or an IPA is a wise choice.

Pairing Food and Wine with Rindless Cheeses

These cheeses truly are versatile, as the soft texture of a chèvre lends well to a bitter greens salad, while the readiness of mozzarellas to melt make for excellent pasta and pizza companions. As such, pairing your rindless cheeses with wine and beer is dependent on the flavors of the entire meal. Serving up a simmering red sauce, dotted with burrata? Try a medium-bodied red. How about a punchy Havarti canapé, topped with a sprinkle of dill? Wash it down with a Pilsner or Weisse.  

And for an Advanced Course…

You can even try to make your own cheese! Just please remember your food safety rules and you know, keep your expectations reasonable. Try a simple paneer, chevre, or farm-style cheese to start.

You are Now the Guru

Yes, you. Albeit not a spiritual one, but one of gustatorial sovereignty. Plus, being a cheese guru sounds way more fun (besides cleaning up the dried cheese bits from your couch). Now, schlep yourself to that hoity-toity cheese store around the corner and put your newfound knowledge to use!