Real Food Encyclopedia | Cheese

One of the oldest forms of food preparation, cheesemaking is a fascinating process, part science, part art. Temperature, pH, humidity level and various microbes can all play a role — as does the touch of an experienced cheesemaker.

So what exactly is cheese? At its most basic level, cheese is a food made up of milk curds: the solids that form when milk curdles or coagulates, typically achieved through the addition of acid or rennet. Beyond that, there’s a huge amount of variety. Cheese can be creamy and soft, or shaped and pressed — or perhaps most recognizably, aged and “ripened” with help from bacteria and fungi. It can come in many sizes and shapes. It can be mild, salty, sharp or stinky.

Most cheeses you’ll encounter are made from the milk of cows, goats or sheep, but elsewhere in the world, animals like water buffalo or yak are the dairy producers of choice. Europe, North Africa and the Middle East are among the most prolific cheese producing regions with many different varieties. After the colonization of the Americas, cheese culture also took root, and there are many cheeses — Colby, Muenster, Vermont cheddar — that are homegrown in the United States.

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Did you know?

  • A common origin myth for cheese involves storing milk in a satchel made from an animal stomach. The stomachs of ruminant animals contain rennet: enzymes that cause milk to coagulate and are now commonly used in cheese production.
  • Pule cheese, made in Serbia using donkey milk, is considered the most expensive cheese in the world.
  • There is also moose-milk cheese, produced only at a single farm — Älgens Hus, in northern Sweden.
  • The Sardinian cheese casu martzu is made by introducing cheese fly larvae to a wheel of pecorino, with the activity of the maggots further fermenting and breaking down the cheese inside. Casu martzu has been banned in Italy since 1962.

What to look for when buying cheese

When you’re selecting cheese, keep in mind how you’re going to use it. Save something like a two-year clothbound cheddar for a cheese plate — its unique texture and taste is best enjoyed unadulterated. For cooking, use cheeses that are younger or less delicate.

There is also the matter of whether a cheese is industrially produced, like much of the packaged cheese found in the dairy aisle of a grocery store, or more small batch and artisanal, which you might find in a specialty case at the store, or at a cheese shop or farmers’ market.

There are many words to describe different categories or styles of cheese: “crème,” “grana,” “monastery style.” If you need more info, just ask the cheesemonger. Here are a few of the more common terms you’ll encounter:

  • Fresh: A large, somewhat amorphous category, but typically used to indicate cheese that has not been aged. This can include super-soft cheeses like cream cheese and cottage cheese, as well as cheese that have been pressed to remove moisture (like paneer) or stored in brine or oil (both common with feta).
  • Stretched-curd: Curds are kneaded and pulled, changing the structure and texture. Can be eaten fresh (as with mozzarella) or pressed, dried, smoked, brined, aged or otherwise treated. Some stretched-curd cheeses — like halloumi — are described as “squeaky.”
  • Soft-ripened: Penicillium camemberti (named for Camembert cheese) or other cultures are introduced, either into the milk itself or sprayed on the surface of the cheese, which “ripen” the cheese to a soft or even runny texture. The edible rind is typically white, tender and a little fuzzy or velvety to the touch. Sometimes called “bloomy rind.”
  • Washed-rind: Famously stinky, these cheeses are named for the salt-brine process that creates an ideal environment for the bacteria Brevibacterium linens. The distinctive yellow or orange hue is often a giveaway. Examples include Limburger, Livarot and taleggio.
  • Natural-rind: Cheeses that are aged au naturel in a cheese cave and treated minimally — flipped or brushed, or with cheeses like Parmesan, rubbed with oil or lard — but otherwise left alone. Some cheeses will also be given an artificial, inedible rind to prevent the growth of harmful mold, as with clothbound cheddar or wax-dipped edam.
  • Blue: Before being shaped, the curds are sprinkled with cultures (notably Penicillium roqueforti, named for Roquefort) that will create the characteristic blue mold. The mold tends to grow in “veins” where the cheese has been punctured before aging to allow access to oxygen.
  • Processed: Cheese that has been melted and emulsified — which changes the texture and keeps the fat from separating — then reconstituted as a solid. Often, but not always, additional ingredients such as oils, colors and flavorings are added. These cheeses have a longer shelf life, melt uniformly and can be produced for a lower cost at a larger scale. American cheese is a classic example.

Cheeses are also typically described on a hardness scale, which helps determine the best ways to use them and how they will act when cooking. At one end, you’ll find soft cheeses — the ones with the highest moisture content, like creamy mascarpone and brie. At the other, the hardest cheeses, often used for grating. Other favorites like cheddar, comté and cotija fall on the scale between.

Another important consideration is the source of the milk (i.e. which animal it’s from), which can have an impact on composition and flavor. The animal’s diet and environment can also play a role.

Cow cheeses 

Cow cheeses are the most common, in part because cows produce a larger volume of milk than other livestock. Larger fat globules mean many cow cheeses have a rich or heavy consistency. The flavor can be buttery or sometimes grassy, as cows cannot fully digest the beta-carotene in their grassy diets. This also means that cow cheeses are typically not pure white. Some common cow’s milk cheeses:

  • Asiago
  • Brie
  • Cheddar
  • Colby-Jack
  • Edam
  • Gorgonzola
  • Havarti
  • Mascarpone
  • Oaxaca
  • Parmesan
  • Swiss

Sheep cheeses

Sheep milk contains significantly more fat and protein than other milks, and sheep cheeses often feel creamy or rich in the mouth. Flavor-wise, some have distinct “barnyard” notes, and many are described as sweet or nutty. Try a pecorino (“from sheep,” in Italian) next to a Parmesan and you’ll taste the difference. Some common sheep’s milk cheeses:

  • Feta (may include some goat milk)
  • Halloumi (may include some goat or cow milk)
  • Manchego
  • Ossau-Iraty
  • Pecorino Romano
  • Pecorino Sardo
  • Pecorino Toscano
  • P’tit Basque
  • Roquefort

Goat cheeses

Goat cheeses are distinctively tart, earthy or “barnyard-y,” in part because of goats’ adventurous diet and the presence of certain fatty acids. Fresh, unaged goat cheese is bright white and fluffy, and is often labeled as “chèvre.” Soft-ripened goat cheeses are sometimes lightly coated in vegetable ash to encourage beneficial mold growth and protect against insects. Some common goat’s milk cheeses:

  • Bucheron
  • Caprino
  • Garrotxa
  • Humboldt Fog
  • Murcia al vino
  • Valençay

Other cheeses of the world

Certain cheeses can be made with any of the above milks, or a combination. But many cuisines involve cheeses made with the milk of other livestock that is close at hand. Water-buffalo cheeses include Italian mozzarella di bufala and Filipino kesong puti. In the Himalayas and parts of Central Asia, the milk of choice is yak. Camel milk, while widely consumed, is not well-suited to cheesemaking, but a small number of companies have perfected the process to produce cheeses of various textures.

In recent years, there has also been great progress in developing vegan cheeses that taste and behave more like the real thing. It’s now fairly easy to find cheeses made from cashews, soy or pumpkin seeds that slice, spread, melt and even bloom like many of the cultured dairy cheeses we know and love.

Sustainability of cheese

The scale of cheese production runs the gamut. On one side of the spectrum are small, farm-based operations, where everything — from raising and milking the animals to aging the finished cheese — is done on site. Such operations are often given distinctive labels to convey the individualized process (like “farmhouse” in England or “farmstead” in the U.S.).

The majority of producers operate on a much larger scale, though big doesn’t necessarily mean bad — family-owned operations and dairy cooperatives often pool milk from surrounding farms, often imposing guidelines for sustainable animal husbandry and giving small herds a reliable market for their milk. At the far end of the spectrum, however, there are industrial producers, which sometimes use oils and fillers to produce cheese-flavored substances labeled “cheese food” or “cheese product.”

Environmental impact

The farming of different animals has different foodprints. We know dairy cows, in particular, are responsible for a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. But raising any animal at a large scale in an industrial system will have its problems. Artisanal cheese producers frequently raise their animals on pasture, which has a much less detrimental impact on the environment than animals raised in confinement.

In addition to processing, aged cheeses must be cooled and stored for extended periods of time — all of which adds to their carbon footprint. But there are many companies that do things by hand and distribute their products on a regional level, reducing transport time and food miles.

One less-discussed concern with cheese production is its main byproduct: whey. Making just a single pound of cheese will also leave you with up to 9 pounds of liquid, which many producers will spread on fields or feed to animals. But doing so in excess can create polluting, acidic runoff that threatens nearby waterways. Large operations will often try to turn it into energy using biodigesters.

But there is actually an entire category of cheeses made with whey, devised as a solution to the byproduct problem: Whey cheeses include ricotta, mizithra and brunost (the famous Norwegian “brown cheese,” not technically a cheese but close enough). Making such cheeses with excess whey can be a sign that a producer is taking sustainability a step further. If a dairy produces whey at a high enough volume, they may also sell it to one of the upcycled food brands turning the excess liquid into protein shakes, probiotic drinks and even spirits.

Read our report The FoodPrint of Dairy


In the U.S., dairy workers, many of them undocumented, face substandard housing, low wages and dangerous working conditions that lead to regular injuries and deaths. As crowded conditions on factory farms continue to facilitate the spread of bird flu, workers have been on the front lines of the virus’s leap from animals to humans — but often have little access to medical care, adequate testing or other basic precautions.

To learn more about labor issues in the dairy industry, take a look at the ProPublica series “America’s Dairyland,” which explores the various dangers of the job. You can also follow the efforts of worker-led organizations and initiatives, like Migrant Justice’s Milk With Dignity Program, which is pressuring large dairy brands and purveyors in Vermont — most recently, Hannaford — to align their supply chains with its code of conduct.

Animal welfare 

Dairy production has many of the same problems as raising meat animals. Dairy cows often experience cruel treatment, unnecessary surgical modifications and confinement in dirty, crowded conditions where diseases thrive. Because of this, conventional (non-organic) dairy cows are often given consistent doses of preemptive antibiotics in their feed, contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Dairy from sheep and goats is a far smaller industry in the U.S., and these animals tend to not spend their lives in the same crowded CAFOs common for dairy cows. But in all cases, farms that feed their animals an all-grass diet, allow them to spend time in the fresh air and sunshine and don’t administer prophylactic medications or chemicals to boost their milk production yield are better for the animal and the environment. Such dairy products are often labeled “pasture-raised” or “grassfed.”

Organic cheeses

Cheeses labeled “organic” must be made with organic milk, which in turn means that the cows that produced it were raised in a certified-organic setup. These cows cannot be given hormones or antibiotics, their feed must also be organic (no GMOs, synthetic fertilizers or prohibited pesticides) and they must be grazed for a certain amount of time on organically maintained pastures. New organic rules, which go into place in 2025, also ban cruel practices like tail-docking. But though life on an organic dairy farm is a step up from factory-farm conditions, it can be far from idyllic. For the most stringent standards on living conditions for livestock, look for Animal Welfare Approved certification in addition to the USDA Organic label.

Eating cheese


All cheeses are best stored in the refrigerator, and some experts say the produce drawer is best, for protection against the frigid air and a little humidity. But there’s such a thing as too much moisture — and plastic wrap can be the main culprit. Many cheese experts will recommend you remove it as soon as you get your cheese home.

The freshest cheeses (ricotta, mascarpone) should be eaten within a week once opened, and are best stored in as airtight a container as possible. If a cheese comes stored in whey or brine (common with mozzarella and feta) it’s best to keep it that way.

Wrap other cheeses in parchment or cheese paper, which offers more breathability than plastic. To keep harder cheeses from drying out, it can help to pop them into a slightly-open zip-top bag or a resealable container. Soft cheeses, opened, can typically last up to 10 days. And harder cheeses will last several weeks in the fridge after opening, if not longer — the longer the cheese was aged before time of purchase, the longer it can keep on keeping on. It’s also possible to freeze cheese, though not all varieties will respond positively.

Found a new moldy spot? If it’s a spot of white or blue on a harder cheese, you’re good — cut off a chunk an inch around it, and the rest of the cheese will be perfectly edible. If the mold is an unusual color like red or black, however, it’s safest to discard the whole thing. For softer cheeses, any mold (that’s not the original bloomy rind) is a sign you should not eat it.


Many cheeses can be enjoyed as they are: cubed into salads, sliced onto sandwiches, scooped or shredded for pasta. And of course, one of the best ways to show off a variety of cheeses is to make a cheese plate. There are no hard and fast rules, but for variety, a good rule of thumb is to include something newer and softer, something firmer and more aged and finally, something more adventurous, like a super-tangy goat or a stinky blue. You can serve it simple or with some crackers and honey, or blow it out into a full-on charcuterie board with meats, fruits, nuts or even pickles and olives.

Many cheeses are famously melty, a strength perhaps best demonstrated in a good old-fashioned mac and cheese. But cheese is also a natural fit for casseroles and gratins, dips and sauces or bready baked items like pizza. Sometimes, the cheese itself is cooked, taking more of a starring role — take halloumi or paneer or the aptly named queso de freír. Next time you’re entertaining, try a show-stopping baked brie.

But don’t forget dessert! There’s nothing like a good cheesecake, but it’s far from the only way to turn cheese into something sweet. Soft, fresh cheeses are a natural fit — look no further than the iconic Sicilian duo of cannoli and cassata. Guava and cheese is a natural pairing in pastries and cakes. The Arab dessert knafeh uses layers of shredded phyllo dough and a melty stretched-curd cheese (mozzarella works just fine), as well as other ingredients like semolina, pistachio, butter and syrup flavored with rose or orange blossom. And if you haven’t tried a slice of cheddar with your apple pie, you’re missing out.

For more ideas, check out the many publications dedicated to cheese, including Culture, Cheese Connoisseur, Cheese Professor and the Creamline newsletter.

Nutrition and health

Every type of cheese will have a slightly different nutrition profile, but all are a source of fat, protein and calcium. Most cheeses also contain sodium, as well as other vitamins and minerals: One ounce of cheddar cheese, for example, contains between 10 to 15 percent the recommended daily value of phosphorus, Vitamins A and B-12, selenium and Zinc.

Cheese is relatively low in lactose to begin with compared to other dairy products, as a lot of it departs along with the whey. Cheeses made with whey will contain the most, while aged cheeses tend to have the least, as the process converts the sugars into lactic acid. Some who struggle with digesting cheese may find cow to be the main culprit because of cow milk’s comparatively larger fat globules.

Most cheese available in the U.S. is made with pasteurized milk. But there is also “raw-milk” cheese, made with milk that has not been heat treated for food safety. This is the most traditional method — pasteurization was invented only in the late 19th century, after all — and is still common in many countries, especially in Europe. Proponents say raw-milk cheese is more assertive in flavor and more “alive” thanks to the presence of microorganisms. But it can also be a source of listeria, E. coli and other dangerous pathogens if the cheeses are not aged and stored in a way that prevents these bacteria from taking over. In the U.S., raw milk cheeses can only be sold if they have been aged for 60 or more days — soft, runny, bloomy-rind raw cheeses are not allowed.

Top photo by Chlorophylle/Adobe Stock.