- The world of cheese is vast, with a near-endless amount of varieties and styles.
- From fresh Chevre to aged Grana Padano, each cheese has its own personality due to how it’s made.
- Knowing what’s out there can help you discover new cheeses and hone your personal taste.
- Visit Insider’s Home & Kitchen Reference library for more stories.
Most Americans don’t grow up eating fancy cheese. The cheese you snacked on as a kid may have been orange and shredded. Brie was probably a later discovery, and you may still be unsure whether you can or should eat the rind.
But if you simply love cheese, you have more in common with cheese experts than you think, even if you can’t tell a Parmigiano from a Pecorino.
If you’re ready to expand your horizons, below are the most common categories cheesemongers use and which cheese families fall under these categories. Knowing these styles will help you shop for cheese more efficiently, help you understand your preferences, and give you confidence in conversations with even the stuffiest cheesemonger.
Cheeses are most simply categorized as soft, semi-soft, or hard. But industry pros often break these categories down further, grouping them more according to how they’re made.
How cheese is made
Curds are pressed into molds where they then ripen.
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Before we get into the various families, it’s useful to talk a bit about how cheese is made. Cheese is a beautiful, historic product with an immense amount of cultural and anthropological value. It’s also kind of just milk jerky — dehydrated milk fat and protein.
The process of making cheese harnesses the spoilage process, like when old milk in your fridge becomes chunky, but in a way that’s tasty, practical, and safe. Because this relies on natural processes, cheese folk like to say that cheese was discovered, not invented.
Milk is 80 to 90% water. The rest is fat, protein, minerals, and sugar (known as lactose). The primary ingredient in cheese is milk, plus three other important ones: cultures, rennet, and salt. The addition of each of these ingredients kickstarts a different step in the cheesemaking process:
- Culture: The cheese-making process begins when a culture called lactobacillus, known as lactic acid bacteria, is added to milk. It ferments lactose into lactic acid (this is why most cheese is very low in lactose or even lactose-free).
- Rennet: An enzyme called rennet separates the solid curds from the liquid whey, a process called coagulation.
- Salt: After the whey is drained off, salt is added. Salt is important for flavor, of course, but it also helps regulate the bacterial changes that continue until the cheese makes its way to your plate.
From here, the curd is manipulated in one way or another to make the cheeses we know and love. If it’s meant to become a hard, dry cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano, the curds are cut into teeny tiny pieces the size of a grain of rice to remove the liquid. For a Brie-style cheese, the curd is kept in large pieces, and gently scooped or even hand-ladled into large molds, so the curd maintains its moisture.
Most cheeses spend at least a little bit of time ripening or “aging.” Cheese pros prefer the term “ripening” because most cheese doesn’t age very long; it’s rare that it’ll be aged for longer than two years.
As a cheese ripens, the cultures added at the beginning of the process work on the fat and protein in different ways to give the cheese its personality. The end result, depending on how it’s processed and ripened, will fall into one of the following categories:
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The hallmark of this category is its high moisture content — generally 50 to 60%. Even though soft cheeses can feel decadent, that’s generally due to their water content and not to exorbitant amounts of fat. These cheeses may be squishy, creamy, oozy, fluffy, spreadable — or a combination of these.
Cheesemongers break “soft cheeses” into:
Mozzarella and other fresh cheeses have a creamy, milky taste.
These are the youngest cheeses you can find. They generally don’t spend any time ripening, meaning they’re the closest in flavor to milk.
Fresh cheeses you should know:
- Mozzarella: This and its cousin burrata are made in the “pasta filata” style, meaning the curd is heated, stretched, and shaped. In Italy, mozzarella is traditionally made with water buffalo milk, but in the US, you’ll mostly find cow’s milk versions. The cow’s milk version is light and fresh, with a mildly salty finish.
- Burrata: Think of it as a mozzarella dumpling — a thin layer of mozzarella as a shell, with shredded bits of mozz and cream (called “Stracciatella”) inside as the filling. Creamy, dreamy, and wonderful with summer tomatoes or grilled stone fruit.
- Chevre: This is generally the term Americans use for fresh goat’s milk cheese. In French, this word just means “goat.” Chevre is characterized by its lemony tang and chalky mouthfeel.
- Ricotta: Ricotta, meaning “recooked,” was traditionally made from whey, which was reheated to tease out any last bits of protein into a fresh, fluffy cheese. Whole milk ricotta is not whey-based, but both versions are fresh and milky.
Best uses: In salads or on bread with a sweet or savory condiment.
Bloomy rind cheese
Bloomy rind cheeses like Camembert are creamy with slightly earthy flavors.
Cheeses made in this style have a culture added called penicillium candidum or penicillium camemberti. The baby cheese, which looks like a little wheel of queso fresco, starts to sprout what looks like dandelion fuzz on the outside. Because it looks like the fuzz is blooming, cheese folks call this style “bloomy rind.”
The cheese ager or “affineur” pats that fuzz down into what becomes the cheese’s rind. The rind is what breaks down the fat and protein of the curd into the pudgy texture and mushroomy flavors that we associate with this style of cheese.
You may see these cheeses labeled as “double cream” or “triple cream.” That means that cream has been added to the whole milk. Triple creams have more cream added than double creams.
Bloomy rind cheeses you should know:
- Brie: Brie is traditionally a large, 6.5-pound wheel of cheese from northern France. If a cheese looks like Brie but is not labeled “Brie,” instead call it a “bloomy rind” or “brie-style.” In the US, Brie is generally mild and mushroomy. In France, the flavors can be much more pungent and vegetal.
- Camembert: The small wheel size we tend to associate with Brie is actually more typical of Camembert, which hails from the Normandy region of France. In the US, we associate Camembert with more vegetal flavors.
- Humboldt Fog: A bloomy rind goat milk cheese from California cheesemaker Cypress Grove with a line of vegetable ash running down the middle crosswise. It has notes of buttermilk, citrus, and light floral flavors.
- Fromager D’Affinois: A luscious double cream cheese from France with rich notes of cream, white button mushrooms, and bread dough.
Best uses: Pour yourself a glass of sparkling wine and go to town.
Washed rind cheese
For a seriously stinky cheese, opt for a washed rind like Munster.
Washed rind cheeses are the “stinky cheeses” of the cheese world. Most start their lives as bloomy rinds, then during the ripening process, are gently scrubbed down with brine, a culture solution, or sometimes diluted wine or beer.
This invites a host of funky, meaty bacteria that makes the cheese smell like feet but taste like bacon custard. Depending on their ripeness, cheese pros classify some of these as soft and some as semi-soft. This style was created/discovered by monks in the middle ages.
Washed rind cheeses you should know:
- Époisses: A serious stinker hailing from the Burgundy region of France. So stinky that cheesemongers started a (false) rumor that it’s banned on the Parisian metro. Oozy, luscious, and its yeasty custardy flavors are perfect with a hunk of baguette.
- Munster: Not the slices or the cheese with the neon orange rind around it. Traditional Munster hails from Alsace, and has big barnyard aromas and notes of alfalfa and seaweed.
- Taleggio: A great entry-level Italian washed rind, which has flavors of egg yolk and yeasty bread dough. It’s great on a grilled cheese and the least stinky on this list. (Also could be considered semi-soft.)
- Meadow Creek Grayson: Made in Virginia by the Feete family since the early 2000s, Grayson is a seasonal cheese, only made when cows can graze on fresh pasture. It has flavors of beef broth and freshly rained on soil. (Also could be considered semi-soft.)
Best uses: Serve with cured meat, pickles, and a Trappist beer.
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The easiest way to think about a semi-soft cheese is in relation to soft cheeses and hard cheeses. When you break most soft cheeses, they’ll either ooze or crumble into wet lumps. When you break most hard cheeses, they’ll give you some resistance.
When you break a semi-soft cheese, it breaks much more easily, but you don’t have to worry that it will ooze on you. Just a clean, simple break. These cheeses generally have a moisture content of 45 to 50%.
Cheesemongers break “semi-soft cheeses” into:
Uncooked and pressed
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After the curds are separated from the whey, curds are milled down and pressed directly into a form.
Uncooked and pressed cheeses you should know:
- Cheddar: You probably already know this one! Originally from Cheddar, England, this style is now very popular and spans a wide range of flavors and textures.
- Gouda: A traditional Dutch cheese, which is springy and mild when young and crystalline with butterscotchy flavors when old.
- Tommes: Marked by their green-gray rind called a “natural rind” and a smaller wheel size (generally not more than five pounds). Generally characterized by notes of wild mushrooms, herbs, and wildflowers.
- Manchego: This is an iconic Spanish sheep milk cheese from La Mancha, Spain. It often has notes of almond and sweet corn.
Best uses: Great with crackers and fruit as a midday snack
Blue cheese pairs well with honey.
Cultures called penicillium roqueforti or penicillium glaucum are responsible for the blue mold in blue cheese. After the wheels are formed, they’re pierced with stainless steel needles, so oxygen can activate the blue mold.
Having trained many new cheesemongers, I can tell you that most people don’t like blue cheese when they’re new to cheese. If you keep tasting it, though, especially with a sweet pairing like honey or caramel, you may find that it grows on you.
Blue cheeses you should know:
- Roquefort: An iconic, pungent French sheep’s milk blue. Yeasty, peppery, and barnyard.
- Stilton: An iconic British cow’s milk blue. Balanced, with a mineral tang.
- Gorgonzola: Made with cow’s milk and the more mild penicillium glaucum culture, Gorgonzola has more of a mushroomy, cavey flavor than the spice that you get with penicillium roqueforti. There are several types of Gorgonzola, all hailing from Italy.
- Cabrales: A punchy Spanish blue cheese, made with cow’s milk or a blend of sheep and goat’s milk with notes of uncleaned stable and white pepper. Not a beginner blue.
Best uses: Great over steak or a mushroom risotto. Lovely paired with honey.
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Hard cheeses generally have a 35 to 45% moisture content. Because the aging process generally leads to moisture evaporation, cheeses aged for a year or more are probably considered hard cheeses, even if they’re not in the list below. Some aged cheddars, goudas, and manchegos qualify as hard cheeses.
Cheesemongers break “hard cheeses” into:
Cooked and pressed
Cooked and pressed cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano have very low moisture content.
Curds are heated before pressing, which knits the curds tightly together. This style is generally broken into two styles: Grana (like Parmigiano) and Alpine (like Gruyere).
Cooked and pressed cheeses you should know:
- Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano: Grana means “grain,” referring to how the curds are milled down to the size of a grain of rice before being formed into a wheel. They’re hard, dry, and great for grating over pasta but also wonderful to snack on. Notes of chicken broth, toffee, and pineapple.
- Gruyère and Comté: Gruyère is made just off the French-Swiss border. Comté is made very nearby in France’s Jura region. Centuries ago, these were viewed as the same cheese but now are more like cousins due to the different rules governing the making of each. They’re both smooth and meltable, but Gruyère has more notes of beef broth and onion whereas Comté has more notes of hazelnut and scalded milk.
Best uses: Eat grana styles by the hunk with a big Italian red wine. Alpine styles are wonderful melted.
If you’re a little dizzy, I don’t blame you! The world of cheese is vast and broad and there’s always more to learn. If you want to continue learning about cheese, the most important thing is to keep tasting it. Go to cheese shops where there are patient, knowledgeable mongers who can help you find your new favorite cheese. Above all, have fun!
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