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Quick Guide for Choosing the Right Cheese

Decades ago, housewives who walked into the typical supermarket probably had little choice as to what kind of cheese they could purchase. But with the advent of artisan cheese shops and the eagerness of grocery stores to offer a larger variety of cheeses, both domestic and international, the choice of cheeses has grown greatly. Asiago and manchego have become household words and are these types of cheese are often as easily found as cheddar and Swiss.

The world of cheeses, however, can be a bit confusing given the overwhelming number of choices. Knowing what kind to buy may be perplexing at first, but a few simple guidelines can help you determine what you need, what will work best, and what tastes you might prefer.

Find a good cheese store – First and foremost, if you’re determined to learn more about cheeses, start by finding either a store that’s dedicated entirely to the sale of cheese or perhaps a gourmet food store that carries a variety of cheeses and employs someone who knows a lot about them. (If you live in a small town, this might be a tall order. However, there may be someone at your local grocery store who knows their cheese, so don’t be afraid to ask.) Most cheese stores will allow you to taste their offerings, so it’ll be easy to formulate favorites. Become buddies with the cheese monger (cheese store employee) and you’ll most likely get to try new varieties when they arrive!

Taste the three main types – Typically, cheeses are made from cow, goat, or sheep milk. All of them taste a bit different. Cheeses from cow’s milk tend to be buttery, goat cheeses are a bit tangy, and there’s a definite nutty flavor to the cheeses made from sheep’s milk. Try samples of all three to determine which you like best but keep an open mind about using all three.

Learn to distinguish hard from soft cheeses and how they are used – Cheeses are generally available in four textures – soft, semi-soft, semi-hard, and hard. The texture is determined by the amount of moisture in the cheese. Soft cheeses, like havarti or muenster, tend to be on the bland side. Semi-soft cheeses, like emmental, gruyere, or gouda, are usually ideal for melting and generally aromatic. Semi-hard cheeses are among the most popular and may range from mild to sharp. Common examples are Cheddar or Monterey Jack. Finally, most hard cheeses are grating cheeses – like Parmesan – and are usually quite sharp and appropriate for garnish or eating in small amounts

Categorize your cheeses – Make a list of the cheeses that fall into the same family but might be from different countries. For example, Emmental and Gruyere are both similar, but one is from Switzerland and the other from France. However, they can be interchanged in recipes. So, if you keep a handy list of possible substitutions, you can play with your recipe by exchanging cheeses from the same family for one another.

Buy only what you need – Refrigeration really isn’t kind to most cheeses, so it’s best to purchase only as much as you’ll need for your recipe or to serve to guests. If you wind up buying more because you can’t get a smaller quantity, try to consume it within a few days. In the meantime, keep it in your refrigerator’s drawer compartment and wrap it in wax paper for the best results.

Spend at the top of your price range – Like wine, the better the cheese, the higher the price. So, stretch your budget a little when it comes to buying cheese because you’ll be rewarded with a better tasting product.