If you've ever walked into a cheese shop and been completely giddy but also overwhelmed, we're here to help. There's a wide, wide world of cheeses out there that can be broken down in countless ways: by milk type, amount of aging, country of origin, and so on. And while there's no singular formula for composing the ultimate, show stopping cheese plate, keeping in mind the various factors that differentiate cheese can help give you a starting point.
One way to categorize cheese is as fresh, semi-soft, semi-hard, hard, and blue. This offers a snapshot of the various textures, ages, and styles. But what accounts for these differences in cheese types? According to Elizabeth Chubbuck, SVP of sales and marketing at Murray's Cheese, milk source (cow, goat, sheep) of course, influences flavor, but when it comes to texture, it is all about moisture and aging. "The difference in texture between a camembert and a Parmigiano Reggiano—a soft cheese and a very hard cheese—has everything to do with how much moisture is left in the curds during the cheese making process combined with the amount of time the final product is aged," she explains.
All cheese begins the same way: with milk. As Chubbuck explains, "you take milk and add starter cultures which convert lactose into lactic acid. Depending on the type of cheese you are making, you might also add mold spores for rind development or blue veining. You then add rennet which is a coagulant for milk. Rennet completely manipulates the protein structure; from a visual perspective when the rennet is added the milk slowly transforms from a liquid into a big block of milk Jell-O. That big block of "milk Jell-O" is the basic building block for every cheese that exists."
When a soft cheese like camembert is being made, that big block of milk Jell-O would be scooped out into small, camembert-shaped baskets, allowing the weight of the curd to press out additional moisture. The wheels of camembert are small, relatively light, and the resulting cheese retains a lot of moisture, giving you a nice supple texture. If you're making a hard cheese, you want to cut the blocks of milk Jell-O in order to release more moisture from the curd. Then, as the cheese ages, additional moisture leaves the cheese so it gets harder and harder. In the case of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the block of Milk Jell-O is cut into rice size pieces, and the resulting wheels of cheese must be aged at least 24 months.
Composing a cheese board can be a bit of a Rubik's cube. Chubbuck suggests taking into account factors like time of year (yes, cheese can have a seasonal vibe), and how large the gathering is, and how adventurous your guests are, then choosing cheeses that offer a variety of ages, textures, treatments (smoked or wrapped in a leaf, for example), milk types, pungency, shapes, and even color (blue cheese, she says, is great for adding a pop of color). She suggests starting with one "wow" cheese that anchors the board and working from there.
If you opt for a traditional cheese board, Chubbuck says that at Murray's they find an odd number of cheeses to be most aesthetically pleasing. However, she's also fond of the grazing board trend. "As somebody who has worked in cheese for a decade and entertained with cheese even longer than that, the one thing I know is that people are not confident in front of a cheese board," she notes. "You get them in front of a cheese board with chunks of cheese and they'll, like, shuffle and make awkward eye contact and not dive in." A grazing table, where everything is laid out and pre-cut, can offer a much more approachable alternative.
No matter how you cut it, knowing your way around the basics of different cheese types is a simple way to build a better cheese board and sound like a connoisseur. Keep an eye out for the rest of this series, where we'll dive a little deeper into the characteristics of each cheese type, as well as essential tools to up your cheese game.