There are all kinds of categories that help differentiate the types of cheeses sold in stores. This list will help you speak the language of cheesemongers, so you can better navigate your way around a cheese shop.
Many types of cheese fall into more than one category. For example, Stilton is both a blue cheese and a natural rind cheese and Parmigiano-Reggiano is a natural rind cheese and also a cooked/pressed cheese.
In addition to the categories below, cheese is also differentiated by:
2. Soft-Ripened or Bloomy Rind Cheese
Think Brie and Camembert and luscious triple cremes. What do they all have in common? A thin, delicate rind that's either smooth or slightly fuzzy (also called "bloomy"). Soft-ripened cheeses are soft or semi-soft and can be mild or stinky.
A cheese that is soft-ripened has mold (Penicillium candidum, camemberti or glaucum) added to the milk or sprayed over the wheel of cheese. This mold creates the rind and also helps the cheese ripen from the outside in. Meaning, the cheese begins to ripen closest to the rind first, and the middle of the wheel of cheese is the last part to ripen.
3. Washed Rind Cheese
If a cheese is super-stinky, the odds are pretty good that it has a washed rind. Washed rind cheeses have been rubbed or washed/immersed in liquid during the ripening (ageing) process. The liquid is either brine or alcohol. This damp environment encourages edible molds, like B.linens, to grow and give the cheese a supple texture, pronounced flavor and reddish-orange colored rind.
A few examples of washed rind cheese:
4. Natural Rind Cheese
Natural rind cheeses aren't always as easy to identify as soft-ripened or washed rind cheeses. Their look is more subtle.
During the ripening process, natural rind cheeses are mostly left alone to create their own rind. This happens simply by letting air slowly harden the outer layer of the cheese. Some natural rind cheeses, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, are initially bathed in brine and/or rubbed down with salt to help the rind form.
A few examples of natural rind cheese:
Blue cheese is easy to identify, due to the bluish-green veins running through it. The unique look of blue cheese and bold flavor comes from a specific type of mold added during the cheesemaking process and an additional step in the aging process called “needling”.
"Cooking" cheese curds during the cheesemaking process is done to affect the texture of the cheese. This is not the same as pasteurizing the milk for the cheese, which occurs earlier in the cheesemaking process and at a higher temperature.
During the cheesemaking process, after the milk (raw or pasteurized) has been combined with starter and rennet to coagulate and the curds have been cut and the whey drained off, then the curds are handled in a few different ways, depending on the cheese. Typically the curds are heated, either a little bit (uncooked) or a lot (cooked).
The curds for cooked cheeses are heated to a higher temperature to help solidify the curds and expel as much whey as possible. The curds are then pressed to remove any remaining moisture. Firm, longer-aged cheeses are often cooked cheeses.
- Gruyere and many other Swiss cheeses
The curds for pasta filata cheeses, such as mozzarella and provolone, are also cooked and then the rubbery curds are stretched and pulled and cooled in water.
The curds for uncooked cheeses are heated as well, but gently, and then the curds are pressed to release moisture (whey). Uncooked cheese often has a dense texture.
Mountain cheeses, also called Alpine or alpage cheeses, are made from the milk of cows who graze in meadows and mountain sides during the summer. Some Alpine cheeses are produced in mountain chalets using very traditional methods. It is a style of cheese most often associated with the mountainous regions of Switzerland and France. There are also some artisanal American cheeses made in the style of mountain cheeses.
Mountain-style cheeses arrive at cheese shops in the form of really big, wide wheels that often weigh close to or more than 100 pounds. The wheels are big so that they can be aged for long periods of time, traditionally providing food throughout the winter.
Mountain cheeses are cooked and pressed and have a dense, firm (but not dry and crumbly) texture. They usually have the holes or "eyes" that are commonly associated with Swiss cheese.
A couple examples of mountain cheeses:
8. Processed Cheese
Ahh, processed cheese. The whole point of processed cheese is to mass produce cheese that has a predictable (some might say bland) flavor using inexpensive ingredients. Many types of cheese sold in grocery stores are processed cheeses.
Just because a type of cheese isn't handmade, however, doesn't mean it's processed. Some types of cheese are made in large quantities in factories, but the cheesemakers are using high-quality ingredients. They rely mostly on milk, starter cultures and rennet just like artisanal small-batch cheesemakers do.
The real indicator of processed cheese is what it's made out of. Check the ingredient label for hydrogenated oils, additives, preservatives and artificial flavors.