I have here various types of cheeses that are commonly used in cooking. You will use them in sauces, salads, as toppings, as fillings; their uses are endless. I have broken them down into 7 types of cheese: Grating, Melting, Ripened, Blue, Cream, Whey and Medium. Each type of cheese has its own unique characteristics and several specific cheeses are given for each type.
These are also called the hard cheeses, because they have been hardened over a long aging process. Consequently, they are less often found on the cheese board (but when served with honey and pear slices they make a delicious dessert… I digress). The grating cheeses, as the name implies, are often used in their grated form as a flavouring and thickening agent, such as in a carbonara sauce, or in risottos. They dissolve well and have a characteristic ‘sweet and nutty’ flavour.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano is the most common variety, and is named after the areas in Italy where it is produced, i.e. Parma and Reggio Emilia. Parmesan is the French term for this cheese but it has also become a generic name for cheeses imitating Parmigiano. These powdered fakes only vaguely resemble the real thing and contain much more salt because of their short commercial manufacturing process.
- Pecorino Romano is a stronger grating cheese than Parmigiano and is exclusively from sheep’s milk, pecora meaning sheep in Italian. In spite of its Romano name, it is made mostly in Sardinia nowadays. Pecorino Romano is preferred for pasta dishes with heavy sauces and in Risotto but because of its stronger smell, it is less often grated directly as a topping on pasta dishes. There are other cheeses starting with Pecorino, like Pecorino Toscano as they are also made from sheep’s milk, but they are (probably) not grating cheeses.
- Grana Padano is a third Italian hard cheese. It is the mildest of the three and purportedly the best-selling hard cheese in Italy. “Grana” means grainy and “Padano” refers to the Po River Valley. This cheese is good with dishes where the cheese imparts flavour but should not smother delicate tastes, such as in a carpaccio, where the taste of fresh raw meat needs to be retained.
- Manchego Viejo is a Spanish hard cheese similar to Pecorino Romano as it is also made from sheep’s milk. Do not confuse this with Manchego Curado which is a less aged version.
Melting cheeses melt nicely (like ice into water), but they don’t dissolve (like sugar in coffee) as easily. When they melt, they remain chewy and don’t run. That’s why they are also called stringy cheeses. So melting cheeses are usually used in situations where the cheeses are meant to remain separate and distinct after melting, like in a panini or on nacho chips.
- Gruyère, being a Swiss cheese, is surprisingly used in a lot of French recipes. It is traditionally used to top off French Onion Soup, and is sandwiched in Veal Cordon Bleu and Croque Monsieur, two other perennial French favourites. It is also an essential component of Mornay Sauce and Cheese Fondue. Gruyère has a higher fat content, which gives it a distinctive buttery flavour when it’s melted.
- Comté, this is a type of Gruyère, except it comes from France. Another less popular Gruyère type French cheese is Beaufort.
- Amozzerella is a low moisture mozzerella, a commercial variety invented by (surprise!) the Americans, as a pizza topping. This type of ‘fake’ mozzerella is made all over the world now. Unlike the case of the fake American swiss cheese, this mozzarella is actually quite commonly used in cooking, when it come to dishes where a stringy cheese is desired, like in lasagna or fried mozzarella sticks.
- Raclette is another Swiss which is often eaten on its own when melted. There is in fact specialized equipment to slice and melt this cheese. It is softer than, but can generally be used as a substitute for Gruyère.
- Wensleydale is a mild, creamy and crumbly British cheese. It is perhaps the best cheese for making grilled cheese on toast; the British certainly think so. Everyone is familiar with Wensleydale because it is the favourite cheese of Wallance and Gromit.
Soft Ripened Cheese
These cheeses are characterized by a chalky white rind and soft yellow core. They are normally eaten as part of a cheese platter, so why are they here? Because they are sometimes served as appetizers as well. One way to serve ripened cheese is fried in bread-crumbed batter and another way is baked in filo pastry. In both cases, they are usually served with cranberry jam.
- Brie and Camembert invariably come to mind when one thinks of French cheeses. The two are actually made pretty much the same way, from very similar ingredients and for our purposes, you can consider Brie and Camembert to be one and the same. The main difference is Brie is made in larger wheels, which leads to a less mature centre while Camembert is made in small cylinders and is therefore aged more evenly. The French insist on giving them different names because Brie originates from someplace near Paris while Camembert is from Normandy (you know how they are). The name Camembert is not protected so all foreigners only make the Camembert variety. One other minor difference is that there are double and triple cream versions of Brie.
Blue cheese is a general classification of soft cheeses that are spotted or veined with bluish-green mould. During the aging process, rods are inserted into the cheese and this allows the cheese to be ‘infected’ with mould spores from within. They are crumbly, and have a salty and sharp taste. The most telling characteristic of the blue cheeses however, is their pungent smell.
- Gorgonzola is frequently used in Italian cooking. It is more often than not found to be one of the four cheeses in quattro formaggi pasta sauces recipes. It is also sometimes served with polenta.
- Roquefort is a blue cheese from the south of France and is commonly used to make blue cheese salad dressing. While both Gorgonzola and Roquefort use the same mould, Roquefort is made from sheep’s milk. When making blue cheese dressing, Roquefort is the traditionally the blue cheese that is used.
- Blue Stilton is the other better-known blue cheese. It is the milder British version of Blue Cheese and is sometimes know as the King of Cheeses. As its milder and crumbly, it is sometimes sprinkled on top of salads.
Soft Cream Cheeses
This class of cheese is defined by soft, spreadable, creamy cheeses. Some might say this is not really a class of cheeses but a group of cheese derivatives, but they are sure useful when it comes to cooking creamy dishes and desserts.
- Mascarpone is a cream cheese made from a type of sour cream. It is milky-white in color and and has the consistency of hard mousse. A versatile cooking ingredient which can be used to increase the richness of sauces, and even risotto, Mascarpone is most well known as a key component of tiramisu and other desserts.
- Burata is a cheese made from mozeralla and cream. It comes in a shell of regular mozerella but the insides are extremely soft, creamy and mild. Burata is usually eaten with a sweetened aged balsamic vinegar.
- Petit Suisse is the next most popular non-pastuerized cream cheese. It is made from cows milk and with extra cream added. Unlike Mascarpone, it is mildly salty. While this cheese is often eaten plain with jam, fruit or compote as a desert, you can also use it to make savoury dishes creamy. Petit Suisse is also used in cakes, but only in France for some reason.
- Philadelphia Cream Cheese is the omnipresent brand of Kraft cream cheese which has only been with us for less than 150 years. Philadelphia, which comes in the original harder block form and a softer tub version, is most commonly used as a spread on bagels, and is also the key ingredient in the non-baked cheese cake.
- Boursin is another commercial brand of soft cream cheese which has become popular. It differs from Philadelphia in that it is salty and crumbly, and comes in various herb or pepper flavours. They are ideal for savoury recipes requiring cream cheese.
These cheeses are made from the whey that is discarded after the curds are used in producing ‘normal’ cheeses. Consequently, they don’t taste like other cheeses.
- Ricotta is the only whey cheese I use with any regularity. It is neither salted nor ripened, giving it a very mild taste. Because it is a ‘blank canvas’, more often than not this white powdery cheese is used as part of a filling. To elaborate, ricotta is very versatile and can be made sweet or savoury, and it easily allows other flavours to be embedded into itself. It is found in cheese blintzes and cannelloni fillings for example. Ricotta is also used to make desserts for the same reason.
- Feta, is not really a whey cheese, but it is cured in a whey and brine solution in the manufacturing process and coincidently has the same powdery texture as ricotta. It is however very salty in comparison. Feta, when cut into small cubes becomes the defining ingredient of the Greek salad. It is also used in various Greek pies and pastries.
- Mozzerella. There is the real Italian mozzarella, those that come in brine. These can be made from buffalo milk (better) or cow milk. They are very soft but chewy and are best served in salads such as Insalata Caprese.
This is just a generic classification of firm cheeses which don’t fall under any of the other categories. In fact the majority of cheeses belong here and I have just named a few. Also called semi-firm or semi-hard cheeses, most of them are pressed to reduce moisture. I would say that these cheeses typically appear in dishes like cheese soufflés or omelets, which don’t require cheeses with any special qualities. They are also often used in cheese sauces and cheese soups.
- Emmental (also called Emmentaler) is probably the most famous cheese of Switzerland. It is a firm cheese, with characteristic large holes. In cooking, it is often used in to create golden cheese crusts, or gratins. In America, a commercial type of Emmental is sold everywhere as simply “Swiss Cheese”. This is widely used in hot sandwiches where the cheese melts and should never be substituted for Emmental in cooking.
- Cheddar is the world’s most mass produced cheese and ranges from off-white (natural) to dark orange (dyed) in colour. Because it comes in a large variety of sub types nothing too specific can be said cooking-wise about Cheddar, other than some version of it is normally used in many cheese soup recipes, in American macaroni and cheese and as a burger topping. Beware, many commercial cheeses use the Cheddar name, but are actually processed cheeses (yet another American ‘invention’) and often bear little resemblance to the real McCoy. Kraft singles for example are only about 50% real cheese.
- Gouda is the ubiquitous Dutch cheese everyone is familiar with. As it is a ‘curd washed’ cheese, it is a milder substitute to the sharper Cheddar. Beyond this, Gouda is mostly eaten by itself or used in recipes which contain the word ‘Dutch’.
- Edam, also from the Netherlands, is the low fat version of Gouda. It is unique in that it has very little smell. Use this if your audience has had little experience in eating cheeses.
- Danish Fontina, the softer and milder version of the Italian original which it has overshadowed. It can be used as a substitute for Gouda or Edam (but not Italian Fontina).The last 3 cheese are typically covered with a red or bright yellow coating of edible paraffin wax making them easily recognizable. The coloured wax forms part of the rind and prevents them from drying out.