Cheese comes in numerous varieties of different styles, textures and flavours, but it’s all made from the same basic ingredient – milk. So what are the differences and how are they created?
Different cheese characteristics
Different cheeses have developed in different regions influenced by their unique culture and environment. There are different cheesemaking techniques, which have developed over time in response to new technologies and changing consumer demand. There are also numerous variations in the characteristics of cheeses including colour, aroma, texture, flavour, firmness, presence of mould, gas holes or ‘eyes’, as well as keeping qualities.
There’s no single method of classifying cheese, and a number of criteria can be used such as length of ageing, texture and region of origin. However, key differences in cheese characteristics can generally be attributed to:
- the origin of the milk
- moisture content
- specific moulds and bacteria added
- varying lengths of ageing.
While all milk is made up of the same basic elements, its composition varies according to:
- the type and breed of animal
- the season and geographic location
- the health and nutrition of the animal.
While most cheese is made using cows’ milk, milk from other animals, especially goats and sheep, is also used. Goats’ milk cheese is white in colour and has a distinctive flavour. Goats’ milk has higher water content than cows’ milk so yields less cheese and the cheeses are usually softer. Sheep’s milk is higher in fat and makes a creamy-textured cheese. It has a higher percentage of milk solids so yields more cheese – almost twice that of cows’ milk.
The moisture content of cheese is one of the most common methods of classifying cheese, and it can vary from very soft to very hard. There’s no distinct boundary between these categories, and some cheeses can move between categories depending on the length of ageing.
Cheddar, Swiss, Gouda, Edam
Mozzarella, blue, Brie
Very high moisture
Cottage, cream, ricotta
There are two groups of softer cheeses – unripened and ripened. Unripened cheeses, such as cottage cheese and cream cheese, involve little processing, and their flavour tends to be bland.
Soft, ripened cheeses such as Camembert and Brie have a mould added to the surface, which produces a protein-digesting enzyme. The enzyme breaks down the curd during ripening, creating a runny texture and developing the characteristic flavour.
Harder cheeses undergo more complex processing, and there are two main groups:
- Those with a simple microbiota made using mesophilic starters.
- Swiss cheese varieties made using thermophilic starter bacteria, which can withstand higher processing temperatures. Subsequent growth of propionic acid-producing bacteria during ripening contributes to the flavour of these cheeses and also creates characteristic gas holes or ‘eyes’.
Processing steps that help remove moisture include:
- cutting and stirring the curds – a finer cut releases more moisture
- heating helps shrink the curds and remove more whey
- pressing the final cheese – varying pressure and time affect the amount of whey released.
Very hard cheeses such as Parmesan and Romano are aged longer. The very low moisture content of these cheeses makes them more crumbly and good for grating.
Addition of mould
Some cheeses have mould culture added during the initial cheese-making process. While aging, the cheese is pierced with fine metal rods to create air channels. The mould grows along the veins within the cheese. This is different from Brie or Camembert where the mould grows on the outside of the cheese. Blue cheese can be soft or firm. Examples include Gorgonzola and Stilton.
Ripening affects flavour and texture
Freshly made cheese usually tastes salty and quite bland, as it is the ageing or ripening period that helps develop flavour. As cheese ages, microbes and enzymes break down the casein proteins, changing the texture and intensifying the flavour of the cheese.
Ripening conditions are carefully controlled with different temperatures and humidity levels affecting the rate of ripening, loss of moisture and rind formation.
The ripening period can be anything from several days to 2 or more years. As the ripening period increases, the cheese loses more moisture, develops a stronger flavour and becomes harder and more crumbly in texture.
Other techniques that create variations in flavour and texture include the addition of salt and stretching the curd.
Addition of salt
Salt is an essential ingredient in all cheese. It contributes to the flavour and also has a role in drawing out moisture from the cheese, creating a smoother texture and helping protect it from bacterial contamination. Some varieties of cheese have salt added during processing and some by immersing in a brine solution.
A stringy texture is created in some cheeses by stretching the curd and kneading it in hot water. An example is Mozzarella, an Italian cheese commonly used on pizzas.
The article The science of cheese explains cheesemaking principles in greater depth.
This US site has a range of cheese recipies.
Learn about the differences between cheese ‘families’ and more.
Encyclopaedia of cheese
This site presents a comprehensive list of cheeses grouped by country of origin. It includes information about the origin of the cheeses and describes their characteristics. Many also link to images and further information.
Types of cheese
Read an introduction to different ways of categorising cheese on Wikipedia, included are some examples and descriptions of key cheese characteristics.