Quick Tip 29 - A Holiday Primer on Cheese

Quick Tip 29 - A Holiday Primer on Cheese

Hello and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophe Quick Tips, where Jon O’Guin tosses out tips, tricks, and culinary history to get you through your Hump Day struggles. Today, we’re diving into a topic near and dear to my heart, and I’m not just referring to the wedge of Cahill Porter lodged in my aorta: Cheese, and the cheese plate.  

I definitely ate all of this. (It's the filling to Monday's Grilled Cheese)

While not necessarily the first thing you think of in association with the holidays, let me tell you that Cheese will be playing an important part in the proceedings, and can be brought in to make one of the simpler entertaining dishes you can find: the Cheese plate. So, in the interest of making your evenings easier, and your parties that smidge more swanky, let’s talk cheese!


The Lac-tastic Four

Before we get into the specifics of designing a cheese plate, let’s have a quick tutorial on Cheese itself, from the ground up.

Cheese is, simply put, coagulated milk. We took milk from an animal, threw some stuff in it, and got it to make a protein and fat rich food. Cheese is a really weird food, in that (and I’m sorry if you didn’t know this) the primary coagulating agent is an enzyme from animal organs. While that’s likely weird enough for most, I’d like to point out that Cheese, as a food, predates recorded civilization. Which means that at some point, someone left organ meat in milk, and when the milk suddenly went solid, said to themselves “Well, damned if that doesn’t look tasty”

He was a brave soul. A brave, dumb soul.

Now, before I start dividing things up for you, a quick note: Cheese has one of the strongest terroir factors in food, meaning it’s the most affected by…everything. The animals that make the milk change it. The food they eat. The way you cool it. The length you cool it. The heat of the room it cools in. That’s why there are over a THOUSAND types of cheese. But you don’t need to worry about all that. Let’s just look at the basics for now.

There are three main “sources” of Cheese, four moisture classes, three distinct curd treatments and four mold divisions. So, mathematically, there are…124 separate cheese classes. While that number might initially seem daunting, don’t worry: First, it’s all rather simple to process, and second, you can skip most of it and think of it as the three sources and the four “categories”. The “sources” are simply the animals that made the milk the cheese comes from, and the “categories” basically refer to the texture of the cheese. Having now cut from 124 to 12, let’s break them down! First, the sources:

Cows: As probably expected, this is the default option for most Americans. This is likely what you think of when you think of cheese. Cow’s milk cheese tends to be a little more earthy than other cheeses, because cows…well, because they eat more dirt. That’s why.

Goats: Goat’s cheese is most frequently eaten soft, so it contains so much of the ‘essence’ of the goat’s milk. Meaning it tastes a little like goats smell, though it can also taste bright and grassy. It tends to have a thick texture (this is because it has the least fat, but a lot of protein.), and is seen as the fancier of cheeses.

Sheep: Sheep only eat the top of grasses. And are closer to the ground. Further, their thick wool means their bodies don’t have to burn as much energy keeping themselves warm as cows. These are all reasons sheep cheese is the fattiest. It tends to taste the most “buttery”. Because, again. Sheep are fat lazy bastards.

I think he's talking about ewe.

Now, the four texture categories also very simple. Because mostly it’s a matter of aging, and a lot of the more complicated actions take place in only half the textures. So let’s break them down really quick.

Soft: Soft Cheeses are the kind of cheeses that you can spread at room temperature. They’re the youngest of cheeses, but also seen as the ‘fancier’ ones. Bries, Camemberts, and other weird French words show up here. Typically, these cheeses will have a more pungent quality (Limburger cheese is a soft cheese).


Firm: This category basically means any cheese that you truly “cut”, with resistance. This is where you’ll find most sandwich cheeses. Cheddars, Provolones, Harvartis, and so on. These tend to be the “safe” cheeses. The cheese will have flavor, but it’s calmed down from the pungency of soft cheese, and hasn’t reached the sharpness of Aged


Aged: These are the hardest cheeses you’ll find. Some will have hardened crystals in their flesh, some will be basically bricks. The unified truth is that these will be sharply flavored. Where a soft cheese might have a cloying quality, Aged cheeses will ‘bite back’. Things like Parmigiano, Extra-Sharp Cheddar, Goat’s Milk Gouda.


Blue: These cheeses are the most likely to fight Soft in pungency. Blue cheese have their curds introduced to specific (perfectly safe) bacteria, causing them to grow distinct mold veins in their flesh, giving them a crumbly texture and a very distinct taste. Examples: Gorgonzola, Roquefort,

So, you’ve got a basic guide to cheese, how do you put it to use?


The Basics of the Cheese Plate

The crucial component of a cheese plate is of course, the cheese. However, the most crucial ELEMENT is variety: a cheese plate of just cheddars isn’t going to blow anyone’s minds at the family get-together. It’s going to say, “I forgot this was happening, and grabbed the first thing I could.” However, on the other hand, having twelve different cheeses on the same plate is likely to inspire some analysis paralysis in your guests. So what do you want? Everything I’ve read says you want to aim for somewhere in the range of four to five cheeses. Personally, I’m a huge cheese fan, and even I would pause at a cheese plate consisting of more than eight options.

Labeling your cheeses also makes them easier for guests to get into. Or get into your guests, I suppose.

So, which four to five make the cut? Well, basically everything I read agreed: Just take one of every category, and a “safety”. So grab a Soft cheese, a Firm, an Aged, and a Blue, and then toss a Cheddar or Swiss in. If you forget, just remember the simple mnemonic BAFSS. On second thought, that’s an awful mnemonic. What the hell is a “BAF”? That was stupid. Ignore it.

That garbage fire out of the way, a quick note. If you yourself are having a bit of analysis paralysis picking the cheeses, always remember: there’s literally no shame in asking. If there’s person working the cheese counter, just say “Hey, I’m looking for a soft cheese for a holiday cheese plate, what would you recommend?” Remember, this is literally their job. If there isn’t someone there, just google the cheese in question. If it sounds good, take it!

But, you know. PAY FOR IT first. 

Lastly, the sides. Now, I’m guilty of going overboard here. Salamis, hams, mustards, sauces, multiple types of crackers. And that’s not a bad option, assuming that the plate is the central meal. If it’s just an appetizer, then cut it back to a simple few things: one mustard, some little toasts or crackers, some fruit, maybe little cup of honey. Boom. You’ve got a solid cheese plate to make your entertaining this holiday season a little more classy.