The big cheese

Cheddar

Information provided by Mark Todd(aka “The Cheese Dude”), consultant forthe California Milk Advisory Board

The most popular cheese in the world,cheddar is named after the CheddarGorge in England, where it was firstdeveloped by cheese makers. Cheddar
describes a family of semihard and hardcheeses, offering a range of flavors, frommild to very sharp. Mild cheddar is aged30 to 90 days; medium cheddar is aged90 days to six months; and aged or sharpcheddar is aged for six months or longer.Cheddars can age for a decade or moreunder ideal conditions, and they developmore intense flavors, different texturesand cooking properties as they age, so it’simportant to know the age of the cheddar.When wrapped in wax, the color of thewax denotes the flavor of the cheese:clear wax for mild, red for medium andblack for sharp.

Cheddar is available natural orcolored. The coloring is derived from theachiote plant’s annatto seed. This versionadds color to dishes, particularly whenmelted and browned. Creamy white andmarbled cheddars are also available. Thetexture of cheddar is smooth and firm,but becomes more granular and crumblyas it ages. Being a whole-milk cheese,cheddar melts well, but due to its slightlylower moisture content, it does not flowas well as whole-milk mozzarella. It does,however, have more flavor.

Parmesean

Information provided by the Wisconsin MilkMarketing Board.

Known as the king of Italian cheeses, Parmesan originated inthe Reggio and Parma regions of Italy. Its flavor is sweet, butteryand nutty compared to the sharper and more piquant flavor ofRomano, and its flavor intensifies with age. Parmesan is madefrom part-skim milk and has a granular texture. In Italy, it’scommon to serve Parmesan for dessert with fresh figs, walnutsand a sweet red wine.

Note that some commercially grated cheeses containanticaking ingredients that prevent them from incorporatingcompletely into sauces. Freshly grated cheese can producesmoother sauces.

Provolone

Information provided by the WisconsinMilk Marketing Board

Provolone producers use more and differentcultures to make provolone, comparedto mozzarella. These cultures result in fullerflavors and allow provolone to age well. Theflavor is slightly piquant when young, andbecomes sharper as it ages; the firm texturebecomes granular with age. Like mozzarella,it is a pasta filata cheese, meaning that thecheese curds are kneaded and pulled as opposedto being stirred during its creation;this creates the pull when the cheese melts.

In earlier times, Italiancheese makers heatedcuring rooms with woodfires, which imparted aslightly smoky flavor tothe cheese; today, bothsmoked and unsmokedvarieties are available.

Ricotta

Information provided by the WisconsinMilk Marketing Board

Italian cheese makers originally producedricotta from the whey that remained aftermaking mozzarella and provolone. Theyadded lactic acid or vinegar to the wheyand reheated it almost to boiling (ricottameans “recooked”); this process causedthe curds to separate and rise to thesurface, where they were skimmed offand drained.

Available in nonfat to whole-milkvarieties, ricotta has a milky, delicate,mild, fresh flavor with a hint of sweetness,and offers a creamy yet slightlygrainy curd. Whey or part-skim ricottaprovides the firmest texture for stuffingin dishes such as lasagna, while wholemilkricotta is softer and creamier,well-suited to being encased in raviolior tortellini. Ricotta is also an excellentcooking cheese because of its cohesive
texture, which binds ingredients.

Mozzarella

Information provided by Mark Todd(aka “The Cheese Dude”), consultantfor the California Milk Advisory Board

Mozzarella originated in Italy, as both afresh, soft cheese with a high moisturecontent, and as a lower-moisture semihardvariety. Thanks to the popularity of pizza,it’s the second most-popular cheese in theUnited States. Fresh mozzarella can beformed in small white balls (bocconcini)or larger forms, and is usually packed inwater; it has a delicate flavor and a soft,creamy texture. Semihard mozzarellais creamy white in color, and may beproduced in balls or blocks. Mozzarellahas a mild, milky flavor and a smooth,elastic texture. Fresh mozzarella is easyto slice and typically served uncooked;semihard mozzarella is easily sliced,cubed or shredded, and often added ontop of foods to be cooked.

Mozzarella is available in part-skim andwhole-milk varieties, and these two typescook differently. Whole-milk cheesesmelt and flow well, but resist browning;part-skim cheeses brown readily, but donot flow to cover well. A blend of the twowill give the desired effect of browningand flowing to cover a pizza crust or otherdish. Also try adding smoked mozzarellato the menu; a small amount in any dishgives great depth of flavor.

Feta

Information provided by Adam Buholzer, vice president of production, KlondikeCheese Company; and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

Originally a Greek cheese, feta was often made with sheep or goat milk, but nowis commonly made in the United States with cow milk. Feta doesn’t melt andprovides a piquant tang to dishes; the versatile cheese is most commonly used insalads. Feta is also available in flavored varieties, such as tomato-basil or herb.Cheese makers refer to feta as “pickled” because after formation it’s packed in brine, which preserves the cheese for approximately six months longer than mostfresh cheeses. The result is a tart, salty flavor with a crumbly, moist texture.

Tracy Morin is PMQ's managing editor.