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Cheese 101: All About Fresh Milk Cheese

[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

Editor's Note: The world of cheese can be overwhelming. Over the next few months, Liz Thorpe, author and founder of The People's Cheese, will guide us through everything from the foundations of the cheese family tree to the intricacies of some curd-nerd buzzwords. She'll tell us what to expect with different cheeses and how to maximize deliciousness in every one. Take it away, Liz!

"Age only matters if you're a cheese."

There's something initially distressing about the phrase "fresh cheeses." The wording suggests the alternative can only be un-fresh — old, compromised, dried out, maybe spoiled cheese. But in Cheeseland, age matters. The passage of time is one of the defining influences on a cheese's final flavor and texture, so for a cheese to be called "fresh" merely refers to its lack of age.

And like the dewy and youthful among us, fresh cheeses can be compared with their older cheese brethren in several ways:

  1. Their skin is better. In fact, they don't typically have a skin, or a rind. So new and moist are they, so made to be consumed immediately, there is no distinction between the interior and exterior.
  2. As a result of their youth they are more impressionable and prone to spoilage. With high moisture content and no barrier between themselves and the outside world, nearly all fresh cheeses spoil quickly and visibly, becoming prey to sticky red or brilliant blue bacteria and molds within five to seven days.
  3. They are delightful but not terribly complex, or, shall we say, fully formed. The flavor complexity that comes with multiple types of ripening bacteria and enzymes, combined with the passage of weeks, months or even years in other kinds of cheese aren't operative here. As a result, these cheeses tend to taste like the milk from which they're made, augmented most notably by salt.

Despite these generalizations there are quite a few kinds of fresh cheese, and the milk from which they're made, combined with the a few tweaks to the cheese making process, yield a wide array of cheeses — crumbly and creamy, stretchy and sliceable, milky and pickled. As such, you can do quite a lot with them and serve up enormous variety within this one group.

How Fresh Cheese is Made

The first step of cheese making is to curdle milk by adding acidifying bacteria. These "starters" convert the milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid. Then, a coagulant such as rennet is added to mesh the milk proteins, turning liquid milk into solid curd. Cheeses that undergo a long, slow acidification process (one that can take many hours, even as long as a day) are more fragile and delicate in texture than the rubbery curd created when milk is boiled and acidified or curdled with a larger dose of rennet. Hence you can wind up with gelatinous fresh goat cheese on the one hand, and sliceable paneer on the other. Both are "fresh."

Other cheese making choices turn out wildly differing mozzarella and feta. In the case of the first, rubbery curd is dipped into hot water and kneaded and stretched until smooth and elastic, while in feta, curd particles are immersed and brine and pickled, rendering a previously perishable cheese practically indestructible. Fresh cheeses arc in flavor from sweet and milky to satisfyingly cheese-y (if rather non-descript) to tart to seawatery.

Fresh Cheeses to Try

One of the best examples of a fresh milk cheese is the universally known and loved mozzarella. Cheese geeks argue that the only "real" mozzarella is mozzarella di bufala, made in southern Italy from the fat and protein-rich milk of the water buffalo. Even harder core curd nerds argue that this cheese is so perishable that it's not worth eating unless you eat it in Campagna within hours of production. When you find buffalo mozzarella here it tends to have a gamier flavors than firmer cow's milk options. For the bovine version, seek out "fresh" (i.e. water packed or recently pulled) mozzarella rather than cryovac'd blocks in the dairy case.

Paneer, a fresh cheese of northern India, is produced by acidifying milk heated to near boiling, then pressing the compact, relatively dry curd to further reduce moisture. The resulting cheese is firm and springy, and can be cut into slabs and included in stewy dishes without losing its shape or clean, tangy flavor.

Given that it's mere steps away from milk, fresh cheese is an ideal vehicle for differentiating the character and flavor of various animal milks. Fresh goat cheese at its best is moist yet crumbly, with a bright, lemony tartness and clean, milky finish. At its worst, goat cheese is an extruded glue with aggressive acidity or "goaty" flavor like the musk of a billy goat during mating season. A reliable and readily available line is Vermont Creamery, who make plain and flavored versions in logs, cups or crumbles.

The big, bad flavor driver of the freshies is good old feta. Real feta is Greek, and made from a mixture of high-fat sheep milk and tangy goat milk, which together create a complexity and mouthfeel that's briny and substantial. French and Balkan options take their cue from the original. Sadly, much of the "feta" you'll find in supermarkets is cow's milk, precrumbled, and tastes akin to salty dust. The extra money for authentic feta is well spent. You'll be buying a cheese, not a finishing seasoning. You can make your own brine (think: salinity of sea water) for leftover hunks and it will bob happily in your fridge for 3-4 weeks as long as remains submerged.

The Fresh Cheese Recap

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