13 Cheeses Everyone Should Know

A Wheel of Camembert

[Photographs: Jessica Leibowitz]

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 drizzle 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 that 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.

Index: The 13 Cheeses

By focusing on basic styles of cheese, you'll quickly learn what you like and don't like, 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).

Important Cheese Criteria to Understand

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?

The Cheeses Every Cheese-Lover Should Know

Roquefort

[top]

A wedge of Roquefort cheese

Country of Origin: France

Type of milk: Sheep

Aging: At least five months.

Tasting Notes: The blue pockets of mold that dot a chunk of Roquefort are colonies of the mold Penicillium roquefort, found naturally in the caves of Roquefort, France. It has a moist, crumbly paste, and a sharp, sweet and nutty flavor from the yeast with distinct grassiness from the sheep's milk. It's best eaten in the fall, when cheese made from early spring milk is just coming to market.

Best Uses: Eaten as is, or with nuts and honey.

Camembert

[top]

A Wheel of Camembert Cheese

Country of Origin: France (Normandy)

Type of milk: Cow

Aging: At least three weeks

Tasting Notes: The outer rind is a layer of penicillium candidum. Take a look at this fungus under a microscope, and it resembles the tufted head of a dandelion. That's why you'll hear it referred to as a "bloomy rind" cheese occasionally. As one of the most widely produced French cheeses, its quality can vary significantly. Some Camemberts are handmade and name-protected (the raw-milk Camembert de Normandie, for example), while others are mass-produced from pasteurized milk (like "Le Châtelain" brand pictured). Because of their short aging period (just over three weeks), you will not find any raw milk Camembert in the U.S. Rich, buttery, and spreadable, Camembert has a mild, mushroomy aroma.

Best Uses: Eaten as is, on sandwiches, baked in a crust, breaded and deep-fried (giddy-up!)

Cotija

[top]

Cotija cheese on a taco

Country of Origin:Mexico

Type of milk: Cow

Aging: At least 3 months.

Tasting Notes: Younger cheeeses are mild and salty, somewhat like a young feta. As the cheese ages, it acquires nuttier, tangier flavors and a drier, coarser texture.

Best Uses: On tacos, salads, in soups, over rice, on casseroles, over beans, in guacamole, etc.

Chèvre

[top]

A crumbled log of Chèvre (fresh goat cheese)

Country of Origin: France

Type of milk: Goat

Aging: Varies

Tasting Notes: The French word chèvre literally translate to "goat," and is used to refer to any cheese made from goat's milk. Colloquially in America, however, chèvre refers exclusively to fresh goat's milk cheese, it is unaged and eaten almost immediately after it is made. Fresh chèvre tends to be moist, bright and acidic, with a lemony flavor and slightly chalky finish in the mouth. You'll find it sold in vacuum sealed logs, sometimes flavored with herbs, spices, or garlic.

Best Uses: Crumbled in salads, breaded and fried, in sandwiches, in macaroni and cheese.

Feta

[top]

A block of feta cheese

Country of Origin: Greece

Type of milk: Sheep and goat

Aging: About 3 months

Tasting Notes: Feta is one of the many cheese worldwide to be a protected designation of origin product, meaning that a cheese may only bear the label "feta" in the E.U. if it comes from either mainland Greece or Lesbos, and is made with at least 70% sheep's milk (the remainder must be goat's milk). A brined cheese, it is made by soaking freshly pressed curds in salt water. Tangy and moist, feta can range from completely crumbly to moderately creamy and pairs well with fresh summer fruit.

Best Uses: Broiled with olive oil. Crumbled in salads. Sandwiches. Use in place of Cotija in tacos and other Mexican dishes.

Mozzarella

[top]

A ball of fresh mozzarella

Country of Origin: Italy (Campania)

Type of milk: Cow or Water Buffalo

Aging: None

Tasting Notes: Mozzarella is a fresh, pulled-curd cheese made from the milk of water buffalo (for mozzarella di bufala) or cows (for mozzarella fior di latte). The curds are heated in warm water and stretched by hand before being rolled into moist balls. The balls of cheese can then either be sold fresh, or packed in a salty brine to add flavor. Fresh and dairy rich, mozzarella is prized for its texture and mild creamy flavor.

Best Uses: Fresh with a drizzle of olive oil, coarse salt and pepper. With tomatoes in a sandwich. Pizza!

Emmental

[top]

Wedges of Emmental cheese

Country of Origin: Switzerland

Type of milk: Cow

Aging: at least 4 months

Tasting Notes: Emmental is what many people think of when they hear "Swiss cheese" (yes, holes and all). It's is considered an "Alpine-Style" or "Mountain" cheese, meaning it originated from the milk of cows that are led up the Alps to graze over multiple seasons, and its curds are cooked and pressed together firmly. The holes you find are bubbles of carbon dioxide gas created as the bacterium Propionibacterium freudenreichii consumes lactic acid. This cheese has a certain sweetness with a piquancy that hits the back of the tongue on the finish. What is more, like all Alpine cheeses, it is a great melter.

Best Uses: Fondue, grilled cheese, casseroles.

Cheddar

[top]

A wedge of Cheddar cheese

Country of Origin: England

Type of milk: Cow

Aging: No minimum, but good ones are generally aged at least one year

Tasting Notes: Cheddar is a cow's milk cheese that originated in Somerset, England. Cheddar is not only a noun, but it's also a verb; "to cheddar" refers to a cheesemaking process whereby the curds of the cow's milk are cooked and then milled into rice-size pieces. The pieces are then pressed into large blocks, and the blocks are stacked one on top of another to press out any remaining moisture. Cheddar cheese made in this traditional fashion are dry and crumbly in texture, with a deep, tangy, nutty flavor. A far cry from the smooth mild American-style cheddars you might find on top of a burger. Cheddar-style cheeses vary dramatically in quality, so it's a good idea to talk to your cheesemonger about them. The color ranges from ivory to straw to deep yellow in color, depending on the season and the feed of the cattle.

Best Uses: As is, in sandwiches, grilled cheese, casseroles.

Gouda

[top]

A half-wheel of Gouda cheese

Country of Origin: Netherlands

Type of milk: Cow

Aging: At least 4 weeks, but better ones are aged at least a year

Tasting Notes: Gouda is a semi-hard to hard cow's milk cheese from Holland. Like Cheddar, its quality and flavor can vary wildly from the mild, creamy wax-coated lunchbox versions of our youth to those specimens that are hard, crumbly, and deeply flavorful. Long-aged goudas will have a crunchy texture due to crystals of concentrated calcium lactate or and the amino acid tyrosine that form as the cheese loses moisture, just like a good parmesan.

Best Uses: Young they can be melted. Aged cheeses are best as-is or grated into salads or over casseroles.

Taleggio

[top]

A piece of Taleggio cheese

Country of Origin: Italy (Lombardy)

Type of milk: Cow

Aging: Six to ten weeks

Tasting Notes: At over a thousand years old, Taleggio is one of the world's oldest soft cheeses. The washed rind cheese is in a family of cheeses created by monks who made cheese from the milk of their grazing cows in order to eliminate waste. The story is that the monks repeatedly washed the wheels clean of any mold that began to grow on their surfaces. Little did they know, they were actually fostering the growth of a slew of new bacteria on the inside and outside of the cheeses, contributing to pungent flavors and even more pungent surface smells. Taleggio smells sort of like... feet. Rich, buttery, meaty, feet. Its soft rind is edible, though it acquires a grainy texture from its repeated wash with salty brine.

Best Uses: As is.

Parmigiano-Reggiano

[top]

Wedges of Parmigiano-Reggiano

Country of Origin: Italy

Type of milk: Cow

Aging: At least 12 months

Tasting Notes: There are a number of hard cheeses on the market that are sold under the name "parmesan." These are not to be confused with true Parmigiano-Reggiano, a protected cheese that can only be produced in Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia in Italy. Aged for a minimum of 12 months and a maximum of 36, it's a hard, dry, crumbly cheese that has great crunch and deep caramel-y, nutty flavors.

Best Uses: Grated on salads and pastas. The harder, saltier rinds are perfect for adding flavor to many Italian soups.

Manchego

[top]

Wedges of Manchego cheese

Country of Origin: Spain

Type of milk: Sheep

Aging: 60 days to 2 years

Tasting Notes: Made from the milk of Manchega sheep, it's a firm, compact cheese that ranges in color from ivory to straw yellow. Younger Manchegos have a buttery, rich texture that borders on creamy, while the aged version develops a deeply salty flavor and crunchy tyrosine crystals as it dehydrates.

Best Uses: As is. Spanish membrillo (quince paste) is the ideal accompaniment for it.

Monterey Jack

[top]

Melted Monterey Jack cheese

Country of Origin: United States of America (California)

Type of milk: Cow

Aging: About one month

Tasting Notes: Very mild and buttery in flavor with a bit of tang, Monterey Jack is one of the few all-American cheeses. Because of its young age and relatively high butterfat content, it's a great melter. It often comes mixed with hot pickled peppers to make Pepper Jack cheese.

Best Uses: Melted in casseroles, grilled cheese, over chili, cheese dip, any time you want a good melting cheese.