How to Select and Prepare Cheese

Everything you need to know about selecting and preparing the world’s best cheeses.

By: Brian Campbell

While a cheese shop is the best place to fully explore the myriad forms this delicious treat can take, the cheese aisle of your local grocery has plenty of options that will do just fine and make any meal better. Here are six of the most common cheeses found in grocery stores and how best to use them.

The Basics
The diversity of cheese in the world is both dizzying and wonderful:

  • Every type of milk from cow and sheep to horse and water buffalo can serve as a basis.
  • Depending on how the cheese is processed, the texture can fall anywhere on the spectrum from rich and creamy to dry and crumbly.
  • Aging and added ingredients can make cheese mild or sharp, tangy or sweet, salty or pungent.

1. Blue Cheese
Blue cheese refers to a number of cheeses that have edible mould introduced during production and are spotted or veined with mould throughout. The mould lends a strong, sharp flavour, and these cheeses tend to be salty.

Common Varieties:

  • Gorgonzola is a powerful Italian variety that melts well and is often served over pasta.
  • Roquefort is a crumbly French blue made from sheep’s milk and often used in savoury baked goods.
  • Stilton is an English blue most often eaten on its own or paired with a sweet wine.

How to Select
Most blue cheese should be speckled with colour, crumbly and carry a distinct aroma.

How to Prepare
Most of us are most familiar with blue cheese as an ingredient in a salad dressing with the same name; but for a real treat, ditch the bottle and crumble a high-quality blue cheese directly over your salad.

2. Cotija
Cotija is a hard cow’s-milk cheese from Mexico. It’s characterized by a high salt content, which was originally used as a means of preserving the cheese.

How to Select
Cotija should be bright white, crumbly and have little to no odour.

How to Prepare
Because of its saltiness, Cotija is almost never eaten on its own, but instead is usually served grated or crumbled over Mexican dishes like tacos, burritos, soups or salads.

3. Parmigiano-Reggiano
Hailing from Parma and nearby areas in Italy, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a staple of Italian-American cooking. It’s a hard cow’s-milk cheese with a low fat content that gives it a dry texture. Parmesan is known for its strong sharp taste, which becomes more intense and complex as the cheese ages for at least two years.

Tip: The ubiquitous “Parmesan cheese” is an imitation of Parmigiano-Reggiano and can vary widely in quality.

How to Select
A block of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese should be pale yellow and hard. On the cheese’s skin, look for the date it was made — most are aged only 10 months and lack the complexity of the real thing as a result.

How to Prepare
Parmigiano-Reggiano is typically served over pasta dishes or blended into risotto, but can also be eaten on its own. You can even use your leftover rinds to make a wonderfully rich broth.

4. Chèvre
The word “chèvre” is simply French for “goat”; but when it comes to cheese connoisseurs, its meaning is hotly debated. To some, it refers to any cheese made from goat’s milk. To others, it refers to a specific French-style goat cheese that is white, tangy and soft.

How to Select
Goat cheese should be soft, white and very moist.

How to Prepare
Its tangy flavour balances the sweet ingredients nicely in a salad, and its creamy texture makes it excellent for spreading on crackers or bread as a snack or appetizer.

Tip: Chèvre generally keeps for two weeks after opening. When the flavour (and smell) changes from tangy to sour, it’s time to throw it away.

5. Cheddar
While cheddar originally referred to a cheese made in the English village of Cheddar, the term is now applied to any cheese made using a process involving cutting the cheese into slabs, and then stacking and turning them to yield an even, firm texture.

How to Select
Cheddar is the most widely eaten cheese in the world, so it varies widely in flavour and quality. Traditional cheddar was almost exclusively sharp and crumbly, but some contemporary varieties can be mild and smooth.

How to Prepare
Because cheddar melts exceptionally well, it's an outstanding choice for any dish that calls for melted cheese, such as cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese, nachos or grilled cheese.

6. Gouda
Originally from Holland, Gouda is characterized by a sweet flavour derived from the addition of water early in the cheese making process. It is now made in a number of countries.

How to Select
The more aged Gouda is, the better it's considered to be. Look for Gouda that is wrapped and smell it before purchasing — the aroma is a good indication of the flavour.

How to Prepare
Young Gouda has a mild taste and firm texture, making it an excellent addition to sandwiches or cheese sauces. After it’s matured, it becomes crumbly and takes on a caramel flavour. Aged Gouda is best enjoyed on its own.

Like this guide? Check out our similar guides to selecting and preparing beef, pork, poultry and shellfish.

Brian Campbell, along with his wife Elizabeth Stark, writes the blog Brooklyn Supper — the story of a family eating with the seasons in Virginia and Brooklyn. They believe strongly that good, local food and wholesome meals should be for everyone.



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