The World of Hard Cheeses

This is the second of a three-part series of Cooking Tips about cooking with cheese. In this one, I want to look at how cheese is categorized and then we will discuss some of the more popular hard or semi-hard cheeses. In Part III, I will concentrate on softer cheeses.

The categorization of cheese can vary somewhat. For simplicity sake, I will use the following listing.

Hard

Semi-hard (or semi-firm)

Semi-soft

Soft-ripened

Fresh

Blue

Hard cheeses have been aged to remove moisture, which also allows the salt in the cheese to crystallize, resulting in a sharp flavor and a slightly granular texture.

Examples

  • Mature Cheddar
  • Dry Jack
  • Dry Gouda
  • Asiago
  • Manchego
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano

Semi-Hard (semi-firm) cheeses have more moisture than hard cheeses and a slightly smoother texture. The aged ones have a bolder, more complex flavor.

Examples

  • Younger Cheddar
  • Swiss
  • Gouda
  • Gruyère

Cheddar – this must be one of the most popular cheeses in the US. I know it is one of my favorites. It was originally made in England by a process called “cheddaring”, in which curds are cut into slabs, stacked and pressed.

  • Color – Cheddars may be white or yellow, the latter created by dying it with annatto seeds.
  • Flavor – the flavors of Cheddars can vary from mild to sharp and are known for their tangy, nutty flavor.
  • Texture – it is dry and crumbly in texture
  • Aging – there is no minimum but best is at least one year
  • Uses
    • The mild cheddar has a higher moisture content and melts better than sharp cheddar. As cheddar ages, the texture becomes more firm and drier. It can tend to curdle when melted. To counteract this, one recommendation is to shred it and toss it with cornstarch or combine with a better melting cheese.
    • Sandwiches, burgers
    • Grated over casseroles
    • Cheese sauces for mac/cheese, savory pies, quiches

Monterey Jack – this is a cheese that was born in California and is at times called Cali Jack cheese. Pepper Jack is the same cheese spiced up. It is a superior melting cheese with a mild flavor.

  • Color – pale yellow
  • Flavor – mild and buttery with slight tang
  • Texture — smooth
  • Aging – about 1-2 months
  • Uses
    • Jack is a great melting cheese
    • Casseroles and mac/cheese
    • Sandwiches
    • Cheese dips
    • Sprinkled over chili

Parmesan – I wrote a prior Cooking Tip on this cheese will that will give you more detail and describe the differences between Parmesan-Reggiano and Parmesan.

  • Color – cream
  • Flavor – a strong, nutty taste that is more pronounced as it ages
  • Texture – a hard granular cheese
  • Aging – Parmesan-Reggiano should be aged at least 12 months and up to 36 months. Domestic parmesans have a varying length of aging.
  • Uses
    • Grated over pasta, casseroles, salads
    • Eaten as a snack
    • Cheese sauces
    • Add to panko and eggs to make a coating for chicken

Gruyère – Produced in France and Switzerland and made from cow’s milk.

  • Color – yellow
  • Flavor – sweet but slightly salty & nutty. Flavor does vary with age.
  • Texture – a hard cheese
  • Aging – the best is aged for about a year
  • Uses
    • Great for melting
    • French onion soup
    • Cheese sauce
    • Fondue
    • Table cheese
    • Grated in salads and pasta

Swiss cheese – now made elsewhere, the traditional is Emmentaler Swiss cheese. The holes are formed when bacteria release carbon dioxide as the cheese ages.

  • Color – pale yellow
  • Flavor –mild, sweet and nutty
  • Texture – medium hard
  • Aging – from 3 to over 6 months
  • Uses
    • Sandwiches
    • Savory pies, frittatas, souffles, omelets
    • Cheese sauces
    • Fondue

Emmentaler – an Alpine-style or Mountain cheese that originated from the milk of cows that were led up into the Alps to graze over multiple seasons. Native to Switzerland.

  • Color – pale yellow
  • Flavor – mild, slightly sweet, slightly nutty
  • Texture – semi-hard with large holes
  • Aging – at least 4 months and up to 14 months
  • Uses
    • A good melting cheese
    • Chicken cordon bleu
    • Traditional for fondue
    • Grilled cheese
    • Casseroles

Gouda – this is a cow’s milk cheese originating from the Netherlands and is one of the most popular cheeses worldwide. Today, the name is applied to any cheese produced in the traditional Dutch manner.

  • Color – yellow
  • Flavor – sweet & nutty
  • Texture – a semi-hard to hard cheese
  • Aging – at least 4 weeks but better if at least a year
  • Uses
    • Young gouda can be melted
    • Aged gouda is better grated over salads or casseroles

Provolone – an Italian cheese of two forms – Dolce and Piccante

  • Color – white to pale yellow
  • Flavor – varies with age. Dolce is milder and sweeter. Piccante is sharper. Some versions are smoked.
  • Texture – a semi-hard cheese
  • Aging – Dolce is 2-3 months. Piccante is more than 4 months.
  • Uses
    • Casseroles
    • Pizza
    • Sandwiches
    • Baked pasta dishes

Edam – A Dutch cheese

  • Color – traditionally sold in spheres with pale yellow interior and coat of red wax
  • Flavor – very mild but slightly salty and nutty. Flavor sharpens as it ages.
  • Texture – a semi-hard cheese
  • Aging – 3 – 12 months
  • Uses
    • Chicken dishes
    • Potato dishes
    • Souffles
    • Salads
    • Soups
    • Sauces

Manchego – A Spanish sheep’s milk cheese

  • Color – ivory to straw yellow
  • Flavor – younger ones have a buttery, rich flavor and aged ones are deeply salty with crystals
  • Texture – a firm, compact cheese
  • Aging – 60 days to 2 years
  • Uses
    • Eat as is, especially paired with quince paste

Asiago – an Italian cheese with two forms – fresh and mature

  • Color – ranges from off-white to yellowish depending on age
  • Flavor – nutty with the fresh form being milder in flavor
  • Texture – fresh is smoother and mature is somewhat crumbly
  • Uses
    • Grating on dishes
    • Melting
    • Slicing

American Cheese – Made from blending cheese with emulsifiers and stabilizers. It must be labeled as “process cheese product” because it is only partly cheese. Try to buy one where the first ingredient is “cultured pasteurized milk” to ensure the best quality.

  • Color – yellow
  • Favor – reminds you of your childhood
  • Texture — smooth
  • Creamy, smooth cheese made from blending natural cheeses.
  • Forms: individually wrapped slices or blocks
  • Uses
    • Good for melting
    • Grilled cheese

That is quite a few cheeses but it only scratches the surface on hard and semi-hard cheeses. I encourage to go to a cheese-monger or your supermarket specialty cheese department and have fun! Stay tuned for another Tip on softer cheeses.