The Cheese Guide
Whether you’re seeking the star of your next cheese board or the best cheese for your next sandwich, macaroni and cheese, salad, or pizza, here’s you’re guide to navigating the many types of cheeses available today.
Every cheese starts with the same four ingredients: milk (usually from cows, goats, or sheep), plus salt, culture, and enzyme. Yet anyone who’s ever gone shopping for cheese knows that those basic ingredients can yield fascinatingly different cheeses. How do you choose a cheese you’ll love? The easiest way is to get a general understanding of six basic types of cheese. Start with this cheese guide, and we’ll have you talking like a cheese pro in no time.
Find the perfect cheese for any recipe or cheese tray with this handy cheese guide with info for cheese-lovers of any skill level.
These soft and rindless types of cheese are crafted within a day and are meant to be enjoyed soon after they’re made. Some of the different cheeses in this category include:
- Chèvre: This soft, mildly tangy goat cheese is great for serving over salads. Also enjoy it as part of a cheese board—serve alongside crackers and sweet or savory preserves. Learn how to build a cheese board with these pointers.
- Feta: This fresh cheese originally hails from Greece, where it was traditionally made from sheep’s or goat’s milk. These days, it’s widely made in the U.S., too, though often from cow’s milk. The texture is firm to crumbly, and the flavor is sharp, tangy, and salty. It’s one of the best cheese varieties for salads and pasta tosses.
- Fresh mozzarella: Usually made from cow’s milk, fresh mozzarella has a mild, milky flavor and soft texture. It’s one of summer’s most popular cheeses, especially when served with sliced homegrown tomatoes, fresh basil, salt, pepper, and olive oil, a treat known as caprese.
- Mascarpone: This soft, rich, and buttery cheese from Italy is made from cow’s milk. It’s the best cheese for making tiramasu, and is also great with fresh fruit.
- Queso fresco: One of the most popular cheeses in Mexican cooking, this slightly salty variety has a dry texture and mild flavor. It's best crumbled over finished dishes.
These fresh and creamy cheeses have soft, sometimes fuzzy or wrinkly rinds, a result of a natural mold that has been added to the milk during the cheese-making process. Often found on a cheese board, these types of cheese become luscious and fuller in flavor when served at room temperature.
Here are some of the different cheeses you’ll find in this category:
Brie and Camembert: These two cheese names might sound familiar—their rich, mild, and creamy appeal make them among the most popular cheeses for serving at parties! These cow’s milk cheeses are also the best cheese candidates for serving warm and wrapped in pastry crust.
Soft-ripened goat cheese: Goat cheese that has been allowed to age can develop a soft, bloomy rind. There are many cheese names and brands available, and they range from chalky to creamy in texture; when it comes to flavor, they range from light and tangy to downright assertive. If you love goat cheese, it’s worth going to a dedicated cheese shop and talking to a pro to find the types of cheese you’ll enjoy. We especially love serving these on a cheese board.
Washed-rind cheeses: These types of cheeses are also aged to develop a rind. However, the cheese-maker goes one step further: As the cheeses age, their rinds get rubbed or washed with a solution (often of salt and water, though sometimes of a local product such as beer, wine, or brandy). This step brings beefy and bold effects to these very different cheeses. In fact, true cheese-lovers often refer to these cheeses as “smelly”—and in the cheese world, that’s a compliment! Some washed-rind cheese names you’ll find include Taleggio (from Italy) Reblochon and Èpoisses De Bourgogne (from France) and—perhaps the smelliest of them all—Limburger (made in both Germany and the U.S., originally from Belgium).
Semisoft and Semihard Cheeses
Semisoft cheeses have a smooth interior and high moisture content. As they age, they become more firm and pungent. We grouped these together, as some cheeses in this category can be either semisoft or semihard, depending on how long they’ve been aged.
Here are some of the most popular cheeses in these categories:
- American process cheese: Because American cheese is made with additives not usually found in other types of cheese, it’s labeled a “process cheese.” The smooth, mild, semisoft cheese melts well, making it a favorite for macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, and to top burgers—especially for the under-10 crowd.
- Asiago (ah-SYAH-go): Originally from Italy, though now widely made in the U.S., this cow’s milk cheese can range from semifirm to hard, depending on how long it’s aged. It has a nutty, sharp flavor that gets more pronounced as it ages. If you’re looking for great cheese tray ideas, try serving Asiago alongside antipasto ingredients, such as olives and marinated artichoke hearts and mushrooms.
- Bel Paese (bell pay-AY-zeh): This semisoft, mild-flavored cow's milk cheese originally hails from Italy's Lombardy region, though it is now also made in the U.S. It's a great snacking cheese.
- Brick: When young, this semisoft cow's milk cheese from Wisconsin is quite mild, but it can become sharp and tangy as it ages. Because it melts well, it's a good choice for cooking. Also enjoy it in sandwiches, on a cheese board, or for general snacking.
- Cheddar: Age determines whether this semi-firm cow’s milk cheese has a mild or sharp flavor, and its color ranges from cream to pumpkin orange. We think it’s one of the best cheese options for macaroni and cheese, though it holds its own on a cheese board, too.
- Cheshire: Hailing from England, this dense, crumbly cow’s milk cheese ranges in color from white to light orange and has a tangy and lightly salty flavor. Cheshire is also available as a blue cheese, and with its blue veins amidst the yellow-orange color, it makes a striking addition to a cheese board.
- Colby: Named for the place it was first made (Colby, Wisconsin), this mellow, semisoft cow’s milk cheese is one of the best cheese options for kids and others who like mild-flavored cheeses.
- Edam (EE-dum): Though originally from Holland, the Edam cheeses that you’ll generally find at the supermarket are American made. Recognized by its red, wax packaging, Edam is a semisoft cheese with a mild tangy and slightly salty flavor. Though it’s satisfying as a snack, it’s a bit too mild to stand out on a cheese board.
- Gjetost (YAYt-oost): A brown cheese? Yes—though the color might look a little funky at first, this sweet, semifirm cheese from Norway is cooked until caramelized (that's what makes it brown). it offers a smooth, sweet and vaguely fudge-like flavor. Serve it the way the Norwegians do—alongside fresh fruit for dessert.
- Gouda: When young, this cow’s milk cheese has a semisoft, creamy texture and slightly nutty flavor. It’s a great melting cheese. With its earthy and more pronounced caramel-like flavor, a semifirm aged Gouda is great for a cheese board.
- Gruyère and Comté (Groo-YEHR, cone-TAY): Gruyère is Swiss, and Comté is French. Both are terrific semifirm Alpine cheeses with deep nutty and fruity flavors and aromas. Comté often has a bonus of toffee-like flavors, especially as it ages. They’re terrific in fondue and one of our top choices for a cheese board.
- Havarti: This traditional Danish cheese has a buttery yet tangy flavor and melts nicely for sandwiches and sauces. It’s also a good candidate for a cheese board—its mild flavor will balance out more assertive cheeses.
- Jarlsberg (YAHRLS-berg): This smooth, firm cheese has small holes, and while it’s patterned after similar Alpine cheeses in Europe, it’s not as bold in flavor as those cheeses. Jarlsberg is good for cubing, shredding, and snacking.
- Monterey Jack: This smooth, semisoft to semihard cheese has a creamy-white color and a mellow, go-with-everything flavor that ranks it among the most popular cheeses for sandwiches. When aged, it becomes a hard cheese known as Dry Jack, which has a bold, nutty flavor and is terrific on a cheese board or for grating.
- Mozzarella: Not to be confused with fresh mozzarella, this drier and less perishable version is a smooth, semisoft cheese with a chewy texture and mild buttery flavor. It’s the quintessential melting cheese for pizza, lasagna, and other baked Italian dishes.
- Muenster (MUHN-ster): American Muenster is a rich, mild cheese. Because it melts incredibly well, it’s one of the most popular cheeses for grilled cheese sandwiches. Do not confuse American Muenster with French Munster, which is a boldly flavored washed-rind cheese.
- Port du Salut: This cow’s milk cheese from France has a buttery, savory flavor. It’s lovely on a cheese board with fresh fruit.
- Provolone: This cow’s milk cheese originated in Italy. It tastes mild when young, and grows sharper as it’s aged. Sliced thin, young provolone is one of the best cheese choices to use in sandwiches—it goes with everything!
- Swiss: Made in the U.S., this cow’s milk cheese was originally patterned after the Alpine cheeses of Switzerland. It has a mild, slightly nutty flavor and small holes. While it’s a good choice in sandwiches and one of the best cheese types for fondue, if you like more boldly flavored cheeses with character, try the Alpine types of cheese from Europe, including Gruyère or Comté.
In general, cheeses become firmer and more pungent as they age. The hard texture of these types of cheeses makes them the best cheese for grating, and their taste is sharp.
Look for these cheese names when seeking great graters!
- Aged Manchego: From Spain, this sheep’s milk cheese has a mellow, nutty flavor. Enjoy it on a cheese board before dinner, or for dessert with bread and cherry preserves.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano: A rich, sharp flavor distinguishes this Italian cow’s milk cheese. It is one of the best cheese choices for risotto and for grating as a finishing touch to pasta.
- Pecorino Romano: “Pecorino” is the Italian term for all sheep’s milk cheeses made in Italy; Romano refers to the fact that this cheese hails from the region that includes Rome (though the cheese is also made in Sardinia). Pecorino Romano has distinctively salty and peppery flavors; a little goes a long way to add so much flavor to pastas and salads. Note that American-produced Romano cheeses are different cheeses altogether—they’re produced from cow’s milk and not nearly as full-flavored.
Blue Cheese Varieties
These types of cheese have distinctive blue veins created by the addition of a helpful mold during the cheese-making process. The flavor ranges from mild to assertive to quite pungent.
Here are some cheese names you’ll often see when hunting for blue varieties:
- Gorgonzola: This cow’s milk cheese from Italy has a rich, slightly pungent flavor that becomes stronger as it ages. Partner it with pears and apples on a cheese board, or crumble it over potatoes.
- Maytag Blue: Soft and crumbly in texture, this blue cheese is made in Iowa and has a salty, slightly peppery flavor. We love it crumbled and served over salads.
- Roquefort: This pungent, slightly salty blue cheese from France is made from sheep’s milk and has a creamy texture. It is the best cheese to use for Roquefort salad dressing, and is great with fruit for dessert.
- Stilton: The creamy yet slightly crumbly texture of this English cheese makes it especially good alone or served with port or dry red wine.
Different Cheeses for Different Uses
Use this cheese guide to tell you how to pick cheese depending on how you plan to use it:
- Best Types of Cheese for Grating: Cheese names that come top of mind when it’s time to add a finely grated finishing touch to soups, salads, and pasta dishes include aged Asiago, Pecorino Romano, Manchego, and Parmagiano-Reggiano.
- Best Types of Cheese for Slicing: Because they’re sliceable and melt well, the following are some of the more popular cheeses for sandwiches, both grilled and cold: American, brick, cheddar, Colby, Edam, Gouda, Gruyère, Havarti, Monterey Jack, mozzarella, American Muenster, provolone, and Swiss.
- Best Types of Cheese for Shredding and Melting: When it comes time to make a cheese sauce, macaroni and cheese, a cheesy casserole, or pizza, get out the shredder and reach for one of these types of cheese that shred and melt well: American, cheddar, Colby, Comté, Gouda, Gruyère, Jarlsberg, Monterey Jack, mozzarella, American Muenster, provolone, and Swiss.
Best Types of Cheese for a Cheese Board: What are the best types of cheese for a cheese board? The cheeses you like best! Many different cheeses can be used. The trick is to offer a range of flavors (from mild to strong) and textures (from soft-ripened to hard). Yes, even hard cheeses—like Parmagiano-Reggiano can work on a cheese board; although you can’t slice these types of cheese, they break into delightfully snackable chunks and shards. Limit your cheese picks to around five different cheeses—more can become overwhelming.
If you’re looking for a never-let-you-down selection for your next cheese board, include Brie or Camembert (nearly everybody loves them), Manchego (one of the more popular cheeses from Spain), a well-aged cheddar, and a soft-ripened goat cheese (the latter will please the true cheese aficionados in your crowd). And, for good measure, include one of the blue cheese varieties. (You’ll never go wrong with Stilton.)