We're not cheese snobs, which you can probably tell from our Staff Picks list of favorite cheeses. We confessed to loving a couple classic mozzarellas, a burrata, and a melty American cheese amongst other such pedestrian choices. That said, there's a time and a place for everything, and even though we might prefer a nice milky creamy ball of mozz on a day to day basis, where would our lives be if we couldn't indulge in the occasional stinky cheese from a well-curated cheese plate?
What's that you say? Cheese shops and carts intimidate you?
Totally understandable. It can be truly overwhelming to peer into a glass case lined with hundreds of cheese in various shapes, sizes, colors, and mold labels, particularly if you grew up in a strictly Blue Box Easy Mac and Kraft Singles family like a few of us did.
Where do you even begin when it comes to fancy cheeses? Which are mild, and which are stinky? Which will melt well on my burger and which is better appreciated off a cheeseboard with a smear of good honey? And when the heck did generic "blue cheese" expand into 38 different varieties*?
*Or, depending on where you're from, when the heck did all those amazing varieties of blue cheese get reduced to just the one generic type at the supermarket?
These are some of the questions cheese virgins might experience their first time in the shop, but never fear! Everyone has to start somewhere, and you've come to the right place.
In this slideshow, you'll find pictures and details from a completely biased and opinionated list of 13 cheeses that we think every food lover, cocktail-party-thrower, and cheese-eater should know. They run the gamut from completely inexpensive to fancy, from countries around the world, and from all three of the major types of milk:
- Monterey Jack
By focusing on basic styles of cheese, you'll quickly learn what you like and don't like (my mom, for instance, can't stand goat cheeses in any of their numerous forms), so the next time you step into that store, you can at least pretend you're a pro.
Special thanks to the folks at Murray's in New York for letting us shoot their beautiful cheese (there is, by the way, no finer, less judgmental place to learn the ropes).
For each cheese in this list, we'll talk a bit about the following features:
- Country of Origin: The country where the cheese was first developed. In some cases, the name of the cheese is protected, meaning that unless it is produced via strictly controlled methods in a specific region of the world, it cannot bear the name. Roquefort or Manchego are examples of cheeses like this. Other cheeses originate from a certain area but are now produced around the world. Gouda is an example of such a cheese. In general, the latter type of cheese will vary in quality far more than a protected cheese.
- Type of milk: Cheese always starts with milk, but the animal it comes from can make a profound difference on its final flavor. Cow's milk is the mildest, with a creamy, sweet flavor that translates into a more subtle base flavor in the cheese, so aging and ripening play a prominent role in the development of flavor in these cheeses. Sheep's milk has a mild grassy flavor with a tangier backbone and less buttery sweetness than cow's milk. Goat's milk is the gamiest of all, with a definite hay/barnyard funk to it.
- Aging: Most cheeses are aged for a period of time in a temperature-controlled environment. During this process, moisture evaporates leading to a denser paste and a more intense flavor. Bacteria get to work inside the cheese slowly digesting proteins and converting the texture of a cheese from grainy and crumbly to smooth and creamy (eventually, as enough moisture leaves, a cheese can become grainy and crumbly again, like in a good parmesan). Bacteria on the exterior also play a role in developing a rind and enhancing flavor.
- Tasting Notes: Here we'll discuss what to expect when you eat a bit of the cheese and any key characteristics you should be looking out for.
- Best Uses: Is the cheese best on its own? Cooked into a specific dish? Served with a specific drink? We'll tell you here.
There are literally thousands of cheeses in the world, and this list is... arbitrary, to say the least. I mean, how could we possibly leave off, say Tomme? Or Pecorino? Or fill-in-another-awesome-cheese here?
What are your can't-live-without cheeses?