For specific examples of each type of cheese, please click on the links at right.
Very mild and soft, unripened fresh cheeses are used often in desserts and in some main-course recipes, breakfast dishes and sandwiches. Some have a slightly acidic taste.
The mild Italian cheeses in this category, known in Italy as pasta filata, are made by immersing the curds in hot water and then kneading and stretching (or "stringing") them. In general, the cheeses melt smoothly over bread, pasta, vegetables or poultry and also are good for slicing and using in sandwiches.
Uncooked and unpressed (that is, the curds are left to firm naturally), these cheeses are aged for a very short time after being transferred to molds. Their texture is usually soft enough to spread, and they have an edible rind that is powdery white or orange in color. Some of the rinds of the stronger-flavored cheeses have been washed in brine, brandy or even beer to add flavor during aging. Since the flavors of these cheeses are easily lost when heated, they are rarely used in cooking (except for Brie, which is sometimes baked in a pastry or almond crust).
Cooked but not pressed, these cheeses are soft but can be sliced. They are ideal for melting on sandwiches and on baked dishes.
Semifirm (or Semihard) Cheeses
These uncooked, pressed and aged cheeses are dense in texture and ivory to pale yellow in color. They are popular for eating with bread and fruit, for sandwiches and for cooking, as they melt nicely.
Firm (or Hard) Cheeses
These cheeses are cooked, pressed and aged for a firm, compact texture. Perfect for grating, some have a granular texture and a hard rind.
These cheeses are inoculated with the spores of special molds to develop a fine network of blue veins for a strong, sharp, peppery flavor and a crumbly texture. Most blue cheeses can be crumbled, diced, spread and sliced. Depending on the cheeses' moisture content, however, some hold their shape when sliced better than do others.
Goat's and Sheep's Milk Cheeses
Goat cheeses are made from pure goat's milk or a blend of goat's and cow's milk. Mild, creamy and only slightly tangy when fresh, goat cheeses become distinctly sharp in flavor as they age and harden. They are molded into a variety of shapes, such as logs and wheels, and may be coated with dried herbs, leaves or ash. The French term for goat cheese is fromage de chèvre, which is often shortened to "chèvre."
Double and Triple-Cream Cheeses
These cow's milk cheeses have cream added to increase the fat content for an extremely soft, smooth texture and a rich, slightly sweet flavor. By law, double-cream cheeses must have at least 60 percent milk fat, while triple-cream cheeses must have 75 percent or more. They can be either fresh or ripened.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)