A primer on the basic varieties, plus a few delicious examples of each type.
Soft and Semisoft Cheeses
Aged one week to three months, these are good melting cheeses. Soft cheeses in this group have a thin, velvety rind and ripen from the outside in. Examples include:
This is a “smelly” cheese, with an aroma much more potent than its nutty, salty, beery flavor. It yields to the touch, but if it is sunken in the center it is overripe and too strong. Look for Livarot made by Graindorge or Levasseur.
Food pairings: Apples, walnuts.
Drink pairings: Cabernet Sauvignon, cider, brandy, beer.
Similar cheeses: French Pont-l’Eveque or Reblochon, Italian Taleggio.
Brie de Meaux is the king of cheese―benign, creamy, slightly sour.
Food pairings: Sweet pickles, baguettes.
Drink pairings: Red Burgundy, Merlot.
Similar cheeses: Italian Toma or Paglia-style cheese, French Camembert.
Hard and Semi-hard Cheeses
Aged one month to four years and good for cooking and melting. These cheeses usually have natural rinds and are typically aged longer and have denser textures than semisoft cheeses. Examples include:
An Italian cheese with an inedible oiled rind. Amazingly piquant; slightly salty.
Food pairings: Arugula, prosciutto.
Drink pairings: Big red wines―Chianti Riserva, Barbera, Barolo.
Similar cheeses: Italian Pecorino, Dutch aged Gouda, American dry Jack, American Parmesan, Wisconsin Roth Kase Aged Gruyère.
This French cheese has a creamy-brown rind, a fresh aroma, and a nutty, fruity flavor. The interior has two layers separated by a thin stripe of ash. Look for the Brunnerois brand.
Food pairings: Chutney, crackers.
Drink pairings: light, fruity Beaujolais, Pinot Noir.
Similar cheeses: Italian Fontina, Swiss raclette, French Saint-Nectaire.
Commonly known as Swiss cheese, true Emmental is much firmer than what is sliced in the deli. It has a fruity, woody, nutty flavor with a savory bite. Make sure the rind is stamped “Switzerland.”
Food pairings: Ham, apples.
Drink pairings: Gewurztraminer, dry Vouvray.
Similar cheeses: Norwegian Jarlsberg, Greek Kefalograviera, French Comte.
Sheep’s-milk cheese from Spain with a sweet, mild flavor. Buy wedges cut from a piece labeled “La Mancha” (there are many inferior imitators).
Food pairings: Fresh figs, grapes.
Drink pairings: Dry sherry, Rioja.
Similar cheeses: Vermont Shepherd Putney Tomme, Swiss Tete de Moine.
Aged two months to four years. Americans eat more Cheddar (3.5 billion pounds a year) than any other cheese, so it has earned its own category. (Most Cheddars are technically in the hard-cheese category.) Examples include:
The traditional Cheddar, made from cow’s milk, has a firm, buttery, earthy flavor.
Food pairings: Walnuts, apples.
Drink pairings: Light red wines, Zinfandel, beer, ale.
Suggested varieties: Vermont Shelburne Farm cloth-bound Cheddar, English Montgomery, or Keen’s Cheddar.
Similar cheeses: English Cheshire, French Cantal.
A rich, moist buttery yellow or orange cheese with an explosive but pleasant bite.
Food pairings: Celery, crackers, apple pie.
Drink pairings: Pinot Noir, young Syrah, ale.
Suggested varieties: Vermont Grafton Four Star Cheddar, Shelburne Farms Farmhouse Cheddar, Cabot Vintage Choice, Black Diamond Canadian Cheddar.
A white or orange cheese with a smooth flavor.
Food pairings: Cherry tomatoes, apple pie.
Drink pairings: light Chardonnay, Pinot Gris.
Suggested varieties: Oregon Tillamook Vintage White Cheddar, Wisconsin Carr Valley Cheese Sharp Cheddar, California Vella Cheese Company raw-milk Sharp Cheddar.
The curds that will become a blue-veined cheese are often inoculated with the mold Penicillium roqueforti. Once shaped, the cheese is skewered to create veins where air can penetrate, which allows the blue mold to grow. Examples include:
An Italian blue cheese with a slightly sticky crust. The texture is creamy, moist, and buttery. The Dolcelatte brand is a slightly toned-down Gorgonzola.
Food pairings: Black olives, radicchio.
Drink pairings: Amarone, Barolo, Marsala.
Similar cheeses: Danish Classic Saga, French Roquefort or Bleu de Bresse, German Cambozola.
A taste that is both salty and sweet, and slightly peppery. Avoid buying pieces with dry or crumbly edges.
Food pairings: Grapes, walnuts.
Drink pairings: Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauternes.
Suggested varieties: Massachusetts Great Hill Blue, Vermont Boucher Vermont Blue, French Bleu d’Auvergne.
A firm yet crumbly English cheese with profuse blue-green streaks; strong and tangy. Buy wedges, not scoops.
Food pairings: Walnuts, fresh figs.
Drink pairings: Sherry, port.
Similar cheeses: Colorado Bingham Hill Rustic Blue, California Point Reyes Original Blue, Whole Foods Organic Blue Gouda.
Wondering which blue-veined beauty to crumble on a salad and which to nibble with a glass of dessert wine? Check out Blue Cheese Pointers.
Chevre, the French word for “goat,” can be used to refer to any goat cheese, and there are as many varieties of goat’s-milk cheese are there are of cow’s milk (about 80 types, with different rinds, molds, shapes, and sizes, are made in France alone). Here are a few examples. (For more, check out goat cheese varieties.)
Fresh Goat Cheese
A moist, flaky, tart, and spicy cheese; may be coated with herbs, ash, or peppercorns.
Food pairings: Watercress, niçoise olives.
Drink pairings: Sauvignon Blanc.
Suggested varieties: French Selles sur Cher, New York Coach Farm Pyramid, Colorado Haystack Mountain.
A fresh goat cheese that’s wrapped in wine-soaked grape or chestnut leaves. The cheese is white with a bit of blue mold on the rind; it has a pleasant sourness.
Food pairings: olives, dates.
Drink pairings: Merlot, Rhône, white zinfandel.
Suggested varieties: Washington State Sally Jackson Banon, French Banon.
Aged goat cheese tastes rounder and less tart.
Food pairings: Whole-wheat or oat crackers.
Drink pairings: Sancerre, Pinot Gris, light Chardonnay.
Suggested varieties: Vermont Butter & Cheese Company Goat Fontina, Holland Goat Gouda, California Laura Chenel Tome, California Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog.