Texture and Moisture Classifications
The inside of the cheese is often referred to as the paste, and in general terms this means all the cheese that is not part of the rind. The paste can show different layers of aging (often cheese ages from the outside in) and artisanal cheeses often have cores of paste that are firmer than the surrounding paste. Texture and moisture classifications are used to describe the different types of paste found in cheese.
Buttery, custard-like, silky, oozing, and spoonable: In a word, soft cheeses are voluptuous. Their ooziness is the result of minimally cut curds that retain 40–70 percent of their moisture, the fact that these curds are ladled into molds, and short aging cycles. They are made in a variety of sizes, from small, individual, or one-meal servings, to wheels eighteen inches across. Soft cheeses have the feel of a firm pillow when young. They age from the outside in, and mature soft cheeses will feel a bit squishy at their peak. Their flavor is heightened and extended by aging, making young cheeses lighter and milder, and mature cheeses full-bodied and more flavorful.
Most soft cheeses are aged less than sixty days. As mentioned previously, in the United States, raw-milk cheeses must be aged more than sixty days, so almost all soft cheeses sold in the United States are made with pasteurized milk.
Two of the most famous soft cheeses are Brie de Meaux and Camembert de Normandie, both French A.O.C.-protected cheeses. However, there's a wonderful array of soft cheeses from all over the world, and many cheese makers specialize in making these elegant treats.
Mild, friendly, milky, creamy to strong, aggressive, ripe, and rich, semi-soft cheeses run the full gamut of flavor profiles. Two techniques, washed curd and washed rind, distinguish them from soft cheeses.
Washed-curd cheeses have their curds bathed in whey or water before being pressed into molds. They are usually made in relatively large wheels, have a buttery mouthfeel, and sometimes are dotted with irregular, small holes, referred to as an open texture paste. Some of the most famous are Monterey jack, Colby, and Havarti.
An Epoisse is a washed-rind soft cheese from Bourgogne, France. Wheels of Epoisse have a deep, orange rind, and are usually exported in small, round, wooden boxes that serve both as packaging and containment. Not only are they washed in brine, but also they are given a good dousing of cognac. When opened, they exude a strong, pungent aroma that is carried over to the cheese's rich and enticing flavor.
Washed-rind cheeses are said to originate with monks who developed them to eat during long, meatless fasts. By washing the curds in brine, the monks learned to coax out cheese's earthy, more rustic, and pungent qualities. These earthy, rustic qualities are reflected in their cheeses' rind, which develops into a deep orange to rust color. The results are some of the cheese world's most famous stars, prized for their complexity and fullness of experience, such as Muenster, Pont-l'Eveque, and Port Salud.
Eatable, sliceable, and wonderful to cook with, semihard cheeses are neither soft nor hard, and, as you might expect, they are a little bit harder than semisoft cheeses. The distinction between semisoft and semihard cheeses is important because the difference in moisture (semihard cheeses have less moisture) means semihard cheeses easily break into chunks, can be cut into cubes, and can be sliced and grated. Many different cheese-making techniques produce semihard cheeses, but they have in common a significant loss of moisture while their curds are cut and pressed, a generous addition of salt to absorb more moisture, and attention on the cheese maker's part to creating a relatively smooth and even-textured cheese. Their flavors range from mellow and subtle to spicy and sharp. Cheddar, Swiss, Gruyere, pecorino, Asiago, fontina, and raclette are among the most familiar names from this category.
The distinction between semihard and hard cheese can be a fine line, but hard cheeses are generally those that are significantly drier, more aged, sometimes crumbly, and often thought of as cooking cheese. Many people are surprised, however, when they take a moment to taste some of the truly magnificent hard cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, aged Comte, aged Asiago, or aged Gouda. With the exception of Parmigiano-Reggiano, all of these cheeses have younger and slightly different cousins that fall into the semisoft or semihard category. But when they've reached their full potential through aging, they give off fruity, almost candy-like aromas. They are complex in taste, starting out on the tongue with bright flavors, and ending with stronger, smokier, and denser flavors. In addition to being essential ingredients in the kitchen, they make ideal table cheeses as well.