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How Cheese Works

Types of Cheese

There are lots of different types of cheese and no standard way of classifying them. Some cheeses also fall into more than one category. They can be classified by age, country of origin, fat content, dairy content, manufacturing methods, texture and special characteristics. Steven Jenkins, a renowned American cheese expert and member of the Confrérie des chevaliers du Taste Fromage (an elite society of cheese connoisseurs), suggests the following categories [source: Jenkins]:

  • Fresh
  • Soft-ripened
  • Washed-rind
  • Natural-rind
  • Blue-veined
  • Uncooked, pressed
  • Cooked, pressed
  • Processed

Fresh cheeses are the most basic. They're uncooked, unaged and sometimes still contain whey (the liquid part of milk). They don't keep very long and therefore need to be eaten soon after they're made. This cheese category includes mozzarella, cottage cheese, ricotta, cream cheese, farmer cheese, mascarpone and queso fresco. Fresh cheese is characterized by its soft, creamy texture and mild taste.

parmesan cheese
Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images
Parmesan cheese

Soft-ripened cheeses are semisoft in texture and sometimes have a white, or "bloomy," rind. This is created with the application of molds (more on this later). Soft-ripened cheeses are usually a little more flavorful and buttery than fresh cheeses, but they're still very mild. Camembert and Brie are examples of this type of cheese.

Most varieties of "stinky" cheese, like Limburger, are washed-rind, or monastery cheese. These cheeses have reddish-orange rinds. The "stink" comes from being washed in a liquid, such as salted water, wine or beer, during the ripening phase. The washing encourages the growth of bacteria and mold, which gives the cheese a very strong smell and taste.

Some cheeses have rinds that form naturally, without the introduction of molds or bacteria. These natural-rind cheeses are usually aged and are heavier than other types of cheeses. Many of them are made from raw milk, and they include English Stilton and the French fromage de chèvre.

English Stilton is a blue-veined cheese. These cheeses resemble marble, with bluish-green veins crossing through the pale cheese. The veins are mold cultures, introduced during the cheesemaking process. Depending on the type of cheese, the mold may give it a very strong flavor. Maytag Blue, Gorgonzola and Roquefort are other examples of blue-veined cheese.

Cheddar, one of the most well-known cheeses, is an uncooked, pressed cheese. This means that the curds have not been heated and the cheese has been pressed to give it a very compact, dense texture. Cooked, pressed cheese has its curds heated before being pressed. Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gruyère and Emmental are all cooked, pressed cheeses. Within this category are pasta filata, cheeses like provolone in which the curds are stretched.

But What's a Tuffet?

­"Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider, who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away."

Many children are familiar with this nursery rhyme, which first appeared in print in the early 1800s. Miss Muffet's "curds and whey" were probably either cottage cheese or junket, a dessert made with milk, sugar and rennet. As for the tuffet, it was likely a diminutive form of the word "tuft" and came to mean "a low stool."

Processed cheese isn't technically a cheese but a byproduct of the cheesemaking process. It may be made with scraps of cheese, but processed cheese can also include whey, cream, water, dyes, gums and other ingredients. It has a long shelf life, melts easily and can be made in spreadable varieties. This type of cheese includes American cheese (although this name is also used for some American-made cheddars) as well as products like Cheez Whiz, Velveeta and spray cheese. However, not all processed cheese is American-made -- the French La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) is also processed.

Cheese (with the exception of processed cheese) can be made with milk from mammals other than cows. Roquefort, a blue-veined cheese, and Pecorino Romano, a cooked, pressed cheese, are both made with sheep's milk. Many varieties of cheese, including soft-ripened and blue-veined, can be made with goat's milk.

Regardless of the source, milk is the main component in cheesemaking. In the next section, we'll look at how all of these cheeses are made.