6 Popular Types of Cheese and How to Serve Them

types-of-cheese: a cutting board filled with different blocks of cheese.
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Cheese, how we love thee…in salads, pastas, sandwiches and even as the main event on a swoon-worthy cheese board. If you feel the same way, you may have also experienced how the local cheese counter can titillate and overwhelm you and possibly take up hours of your day. Avoid this scenario by arming yourself with some knowledge. Here, a complete guide to the many types of cheese and how they’re best enjoyed, courtesy of a fromager who knows his dairy like nobody’s business.

Meet the Expert

Joey Wells is the Global Senior Principal Product Development & Innovation Expert for Whole Foods Market, where he seeks out innovative cheesemongers and brings their products to market. He’s also an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP) who has been inducted into Guilde Internationale des Fromagers, the leading organization for professionals in the dairy and cheese industry.

What Are the Main Types of Cheese?

1. Fresh Cheese

A fresh cheese is fairly easy to spot—namely because this category is characterized by “young, unripened cheeses that are high in moisture, rindless, generally white throughout and soft to spreadable in texture,” says Wells. According to the expert, they also tend to have a milder, more lactic flavor with a hint of acidity. Fresh cheeses can come from any of the major animal sources (i.e., goat, sheep, cow or bufala). Some examples include feta, ricotta, mascarpone, creme fraiche, chevre and fresh mozzarella. Try them with sweet or savory accompaniments, including fresh herbs, tomatoes, onions, beans, balsamic vinegar or even watermelon and stone fruits.

2. Soft Cheese

Brie and Camembert, a couple of French faves, fit the soft cheese profile—a type that, per Wells, is set apart by a “blooming, edible rind and a rich paste that becomes runny at room temperature.” The expert also notes that soft-ripened cheeses can “range in flavor from mild and buttery to savory and earthy [think: mushrooms].” Most, however, fall into the former category and pair wonderfully with a wide variety of foods, particularly fruits, jams and honeys. (They’re also excellent when generously slathered on fresh baguette, just saying.)

3. Semi-Soft Cheese

This category is a little loosey-goosey, since “a large variety of cheeses fall under it, some of which will also show up in other categories, including more aged, low-moisture versions of mozzarella, colby jack and havarti, and washed-rind cheeses such as Taleggio,” explains Wells. Most of them come from cows, but that’s not a hard and fast rule; the most important thing to remember is that Wells says these cheeses are typically great for melting on sandwiches or any other recipe that calls for such a thing (mac and cheese, anyone?) and also add a nice touch to a cheese board alongside nuts and grapes. When it comes to semi-soft cheeses, Wells is a fan of Taleggio—an Italian classic that boasts a dreamy, almost spreadable texture at room temperature and a particularly meaty, umami taste that fits the bill when you’re looking for something a little bolder than colby jack.

4. Semi-Firm Cheese

Semi-firm cheeses are those that have been aged, such that they “develop more complexity in their flavors and a firmer paste,” says Wells. Manchego and Asiago fall into this category, along with Alpine cheeses like Gruyère and Emmentaler, and two widely-recognized favorites, cheddar and Gouda. As for cheddar, Wells tells us that it can either be semi-soft or semi-firm, depending on whether it’s young or aged, and its flavor profile can run the gamut from bold umami to nutty and sweet, depending on its place of origin. Gouda, on the other hand, is reliably rich with a brown butter taste and crystalline texture. In general, though, the expert says that semi-firm cheeses are extremely versatile and known to pair well with a very wide variety of foods and beverages, so feel free to play around.

5. Hard Cheese

Hard cheeses—like Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano and the lesser-known French cheese, mimolette—are aged until they can be either shaved, grated or eaten in chunks. “They are intensely flavorful, extremely versatile and excellent on cheese and charcuterie boards,” says Wells, adding that “classic pairings include prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, nuts, tomatoes, pasta, pears and quince.” Roger that.

6. Blue Cheese

Blue cheeses are, as the name suggests, rather blue…and while you wouldn’t want to eat most things in your fridge that have started turning strange colors, blue cheese is the exception to the rule. Wells explains: “Blue cheeses are created by introducing desired mold growth. This is usually done by “needling” or injecting a penicillium culture into the cheese or lightly packing curds to promote safe mold growth.” So yes, it’s mold, and yes, it’s totally safe to eat (and quite delicious in fact). The most common types of blue cheese are Gorgonzola, Roquefort and Stilton. Each one has its own unique taste, but in general blue cheeses tend to be robustly flavored. As for food pairings, Wells recommends serving Gorgonzola and Roquefort as dessert cheeses alongside jams, honeys, chutneys and fruit, like figs, pears and apples. Stilton, on the other hand, has an earthy, mushroomy flavor profile that plays nicely with all of the above, as well as more savory, meat and potato dishes.

What Are the Most Popular Types of Cheeses?

Per Wells, the most popular selling cheeses in his experience are cheddar, Parmigiano Reggiano, mozzarella, Brie, feta and Gruyère. (Although when it comes to cheese plates in particular, we’d venture to say Gouda and Manchego are pretty popular picks as well.)

What Kind(s) Should I Include in a Cheese Board?

This is where it gets fun, friends—namely because there’s not just one way to assemble a cheese board. Per Wells, you have two basic options: “a classic board that incorporates as many styles and types as possible or a specialized board featuring a ‘flight’ of one specific cheese type.” 

When it comes to curating a classic cheese board, it’s important to keep in mind that too many cheeses can be overwhelming. So where do you begin? Per Wells, it’s best to “include a variety of milk types (cow, goat, sheep, bufala and mixed milk cheeses). First, select a soft-ripened cheese such as a Brie or Camembert, then add in a semi-soft or semi-firm cheese such as cheddar, Gouda or Manchego. Next, you can add either a fresh cheese like chevre, mozzarella or burrata and finish it off with a hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano or a blue like stilton or Roquefort.” Bottom line: Keep the selection down to four or five from these categories while featuring a mix of different milks and then round it out with accoutrements like charcuterie, honey or jam, fresh fruit, olives and, of course, crackers or bread.
And if you have a weakness for extra creamy, spreadable cheeses (raises hand), a flight will fit the bill. Go ahead and craft your soft-ripened board by “selecting a favorite Brie and Camembert, adding a goat cheese (such as Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog or Firefly Farms Merry Goat Round) and finishing it off with a mixed milk cheese like Langa La Tur, plus some nuts, chocolate, charcuterie and fig spread.” Oh, and don’t forget the Champagne.

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