And forget that pile of toothpick-pierced blocks you call a "cheese plate." Take your party's culinary quotient up a few notches by serving a variety of fine cheeses that complement each other in taste and texture.
Healthier than you think
It takes about 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese, which means many of milk's nutrients are concentrated into that tasty hunk. Cheese is a good source of dietary calcium and fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E in addition to vitamin B12 and riboflavin (B2). Zinc and phosphorus, which works with calcium to keep bones and teeth strong, are also in cheese. And some varieties like Brie and Saint Andr contain high levels of conjugated linoleic acid, which may have anti-cancer and cholesterol-lowering properties.
Cheese is also loaded with protein, making it a good post-workout or midday snack. While whole milk is about four percent protein, cheese can contain anywhere from 18 to 36 percent. A two-ounce piece can supply up to 20 percent of your daily protein requirement. Also, nutrients in cheeses are broken down into amino acids by bacteria and enzymes during the ripening and aging process, making them easier for your body to process.
The skinny on fat
How many times have you passed on adding a slice of cheddar to your veggie burger because you were wary of extra fat? Not all cheeses are created equal. Some, like feta, are naturally lower in saturated and total fat (4.2 grams per ounce saturated/six grams total) while others, like cheddar, are naturally higher (six grams per ounce saturated/9.4 grams total). The keys to enjoying cheese and keeping your diet healthy are to read labels and stay conscious of portion size.
A cheese's flavor and texture comes largely from its fat content, which depends mainly on the type of milk -- whole, two percent, one percent, skim or fat-free -- used in the cheese-making process. For example, many traditional and artisan cheeses are made from whole milk, so if you're buying cheese from the farmer's market or a gourmet store, it's most likely a full-fat cheese.
If you splurge on higher fat cheeses like a blue (5.3 grams of saturated fat per ounce) or cheddar cheese (six grams of saturated fat per ounce), watch your portion size. One ounce of cheese equals one thin slice or a piece about the size of your thumb. More strongly flavored cheeses like a Pecorino, which you might shred over pasta, generally have more calories per ounce because they're firmer and contain less moisture. But you don't need to use much to get the taste benefits -- a small sprinkle of a strongly flavored cheese goes a long way. Also remember that moist cheeses like fresh mozzarella and cottage cheese are naturally low in fat.
The good news is that the days of rubber fat-free cheeses are gone. Many manufacturers have come out with great tasting low-fat and reduced-fat versions. Low-fat generally means it has three grams or less of fat per ounce. Reduced-fat cheeses contain 25 percent less fat per ounce than its full-fat counterpart. One caveat: They also often contain less fat-soluble vitamins.
It's best to buy only the amount of cheese that you'll use within a few days. If you need to store it for longer, wrap the cheese in parchment paper, aluminum foil or wax paper and keep it in a temperature-regulated place like your refrigerator's vegetable bin. Don't place unwrapped cheese in plastic storage containers; the air circulation inside facilitates mold growth.
Cheese can be grouped by many categories including how it was processed, the type of milk it's made from, or the appearance of its rind. Here's a primer on some of the most common cheeses.
Fresh cheese is uncooked and unripened or slightly ripened curd. These young cheeses, typically tart and lemony in flavor, are moist (usually 80 percent water) and can often be eaten with a spoon.
- Italian mascarpone: Has a creamy, icing-like texture and is often used in desserts.
- Ricotta: A sheep's milk whey pure white in color with a nutty, milky flavor.
- Cottage cheese: A mild flavored cheese, common on supermarket shelves and available in low-fat varieties.
Semi soft/soft cheese is buttery and mild in flavor and easy to spread.
- Brie: A rind French cheese with a silky texture and subtle mushroomy flavor. Its flatter, wider shape distinguishes it from Camembert.
- Feta: A salty, crumbly cheese usually made from sheep's milk. It's extremely popular in Greek cuisine and is a great addition to salads.
- Goat cheese: Smooth in texture with a fresh, grassy flavor.
- Mozzarella: Low-moisture mozzarella, whether whole or skim milk, is relatively firm and often used on pizza. Fresh or high-moisture mozzarella, available in whole or skim-milk varieties, has a short shelf life (use within 10 days) and is usually sold in small balls and packed in tubs of cold water. Buffalo mozzarella is made from buffalo milk, not cow's.
Semi-hard cheese is usually mild when young and becomes harder and more flavorful as it ages. It's slightly rubbery texture makes it easy to slice and ideal for sandwiches.
- Gouda: A Dutch cheese noted for its nutty flavor. Young Gouda is mild in flavor, mature Gouda more assertive, and aged Gouda aggressive in flavor and smell.
- Gruyere: A Swiss cow's milk cheese with a fruity aroma and a nutty, slightly sweet taste.
- Cheddar: Comes in a range of styles, most often sharp, extra-sharp, medium or mild. Sharp or acidic flavored cheddars have more lactose.
Hard cheese is firm and slightly crumbly or firm and rubbery.
- Parmesan: A pungent, salty cheese that's often sprinkled on pasta and pizza. The pricier Parmigiano-Reggiano from Northern Italy is regarded as the creme de la creme of Parmesans.
- Asiago: Sweeter, a bit saltier and less sharp than Parmesan, and good over pasta.
- Romano: Very similar to Asiago and Parmesan but is saltier and sharper than both and has a nuttier flavor. It can be made from sheep's, cow's or goat's milk.
- Manchego: A Spanish, slightly tangy cheese made from the milk of La Mancha sheep and aged more than a year.
- Mimolette: Distinguished by its rusty orange center and deep brown rind, it has a sweet, caramelized taste with a smooth, dense texture.
Washed rind cheese is bathed in or rubbed with a liquid like saltwater or Calvados (apple brandy) during ripening so the rind is orange or red in color. They usually have a potent smell.
- Taleggio: A salty, square-shaped cheese from the Lombardy region of Italy.
- Epoisses: A rich, buttery cheese from Burgundy in France.
- Munster: An Alsatian cow's milk cheese with a nutty flavor and creamy texture.
Blue-veined cheese is marbled with blue-green mold and has a pungent aroma and tangy flavor.
- Gorgonzola: A moist, crumbly Italian cheese sold in two styles: sweet (dolce), which is softer and very pungent, and aged, which is firmer.
- Spanish Cabrales: A mix of sheep's, cow's and goat's milk with deep purple veins and an intense flavor. Traditionally wrapped in sycamore leaves to give it a woody flavor.
New York City-based writer Jen Murphy is an assistant editor at Food & Wine magazine and writes the biweekly column "What's Your Workout" for the Wall Street Journal Online.