Most of us learned to love cheese while growing up thanks to grilled cheese sandwiches or macaroni and cheese. As we grew up, we learned about Swiss, cheddar, mozzarella, Parmesan, goat cheese, and feta. For many of us, that’s where the learning stopped and it’s completely understandable. Those huge displays at the market and in specialty shops are confusing and often intimidating. So here is a simple guide to selecting the perfect cheese, and some thoughts about what it is best paired with.
Selecting the Cheese
The experts at Anoush, catering service in Glendale CA, have made a cheese list for your next event. Cheeses come in hard, soft, and semi-soft varieties, and in styles that are aged or fresh. Three defining characteristics of all cheeses are:
Type of milk: All cheese starts out as milk, but the animal it comes from makes a significant difference in its final flavor. Cow’s milk is the mildest, with an underlying sweet flavor that lends a subtle base to the cheese. Aging plays a prominent role in the development of flavor in cheeses made from cow’s milk. Sheep’s milk has a hint of grass, is tangier, and less sweet than cow’s milk. Goat’s milk has a gamy subtext, and can be downright funky.
Aging: Most cheeses are aged for varying amounts of time in temperature-controlled environments. Moisture evaporates during this process, leading to a denser cheese with more intense flavor. Depending upon how long it’s aged, cheese can be smooth and creamy like brie, or dry and crumbly, like Parmesan.
During the aging process, some cheeses are left alone to create their own rinds, some are bathed in brine or rubbed with salt, and others are given treatments that create soft white rinds. All cheese rinds are edible, but eating them depends upon whether you like the taste and texture or not. Of course, you don’t want to eat the red wax coating on Gouda and Edam cheeses, nor the cloth or paper some other cheeses are presented in.
Fresh cheeses are rarely or barely aged, have no rind, and are typically moist and mild. The exceptions are feta and goat cheese, both of which are tart and tangy. Other fresh cheeses include mozzarella, feta, queso fresco, halloumi, and paneer.
Country of origin: Some cheeses originally came from one country but are now made around the world. Others, like Roquefort, Manchego, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, are produced by strictly controlled methods in specific regions, and have names that are protected by law. Cheeses created in the style of protected brands may be produced elsewhere, but cannot carry the same name.
There are thousands of cheeses in the world, but the most popular in the United States is mozzarella, followed by cheddar, Parmesan, jack, Swiss, and blue. American cheese is lower on the list, but as much as you may like those single-wrapped slices labeled “processed cheese food,” it’s not real American cheese, nor is it even real cheese.
If you’re thinking of putting together a cheese platter, choose a variety of styles and intensity of flavors. Head to a specialty store and ask for guidance and taste samples. If you’re at the supermarket, read labels and see what cheeses are hard, semi-soft, creamy, or spreadable. Unless you have the opportunity to taste and smell them for yourself, avoid really stinky varieties like Pont l’Eveque, camembert, limburger, and Ėpoisses.
Fruit and cheese are a natural pairing because the sweetness of the fruit plays off the saltiness of the cheese. Place three to five kinds of cheese on your platter first, and then fill in the open spaces with fruit and other garnishes. Add a plate of crackers or thinly sliced baguettes, a bowl of roasted almonds, or walnuts, and make sure you’ve got appropriate knives and spreaders at hand.
Some excellent combinations with hard cheeses are grapes, sliced pears, apples, persimmons, or figs. Soft cheeses go well with apricots, strawberries, and other berries. Cantaloupe is delicious with Parmigiano-Reggiano, and watermelon is surprisingly good with feta.
Other great accompaniments to cheese are sweet and tangy chutney (try it with white cheddar), spicy mustard-flavored mostarda (try it with Gouda or pecorino), fig jam (especially good with soft goat cheese), and quince paste which is perfect with any hard cheese. You could also serve honey to drizzle over blue cheese or one of the fresh cheeses like ricotta.
If you’re preparing individual hors d’oeuvres instead of putting out a platter for guests to help themselves, go for cheese, fruit, and condiment combinations of hard and soft, sweet and savory, and don’t use crackers with strong flavors of their own.