There are 9 Gateway Cheeses™ from which the entire world of cheese can be mapped. They are:
Gateway Cheese™: Mozzarella
Leads you to: Unaged and rindless (aka “fresh”) cheeses, all about the flavor of the milk from which they’re made, becoming increasingly intense thanks to salt.
Intense: Milky brine
Gateway Cheese™: Brie
Leads you to: Soft, smearable, white-rinded cheeses that embrace cream, butter, and yogurt, becoming increasingly intense with flavors of cooked vegetables.
Intermediate: Crème fraîche
Intense: Cooked mushroom and cruciferous veggies (broccoli/cauliflower), bitter greens
Gateway Cheese™: Havarti
Leads you to: The consummate everyday eating cheeses (the Europeans call them table cheeses), plush and springy in texture, with milky flavors that move from tangy to sweet to seriously earthy.
Approachable: Barely tangy milk
Intermediate: Sweet, cooked milk
Intense: Bitter greens, soil and hay aromas
Gateway Cheese™: Taleggio
Leads you to: The world of stinky cheese. Soft and sticky, with a pungent aroma if not necessarily strong flavor. The first time I used the phrase “gateway cheese.” I was working at the Murray’s counter, and this was the cheese it applied to. When customers came in saying they liked soft cheese but wanted something stronger, I recommended Taleggio.
Approachable: Yeasty pizza dough
Intermediate: Cured meat
Intense: Beef bouillon, smells of the body
Crossing the rind line you’ll find families of cheese whose exterior rind tends to be thicker, chewier, or downright hard due to extended aging. Generally I consider these rinds inedible, and though they will never hurt you, they tend to taste like the aging cellar. In other words, like dirt.
In addition to crossing the rind line, we’ve crossed the line into boring stylistic names taken directly from cheesemaking practices that determine style. Fun words like Fresh, Bloomy, and Washed give way to technical words about Cooking and Pressing. I’ve yet to come up with a catchy, but accurate way to encapsulate these differences, so for now, we’re sticking to the technicalities. Up to this point in the cheese styles, we’ve considered relatively young, relatively high moisture examples that are made, roughly speaking, in the same way. The milk is coagulated (the proteins knit together through a combination of time, acidification and coagulant) and the liquid is drained off. The resulting curd is minimally handled, scooped up, formed into a shape, salted, and then the magic of molds, bacteria and time impact the texture and flavor of the cheese from the outside in.
The “age-ability” of a cheese is determined not just by time, but steps taken by the cheesemaker to rid the curd of as much moisture as possible. Take a Brie and “age” it for ten months, and you will not have a sophisticated and complex result. You will have an old, desiccated, and spoiled piece of cheese. The pressed cheeses (uncooked and cooked) are designed from their inception to be ageable. The more water that is removed the firmer the cheese and more intense the flavor.
Gateway Cheese™: Manchego
Leads you to: The cheeses you’re least likely to have heard of, and most likely to enjoy. Aged sheep and goat cheeses start with subtle, outdoorsy associations and progress into caramel, piquant, and downright gamy concentration.
Approachable: Subtly herbaceous and nutty; soft, gentle flavor
Intermediate: Caramel edging into butterscotch
Intense: Piquant and gamy, like rare meat
Gateway Cheese™: Cheddar
Leads you to: Firm, chunky, and crumbly cheeses beyond the world of mild, medium, and sharp. These cheeses begin milky and lactic, progressing to sweet buttered toast and, ultimately, sour, wild intensity.
Approachable: Cultured butter
Intermediate: Buttered toast
Intense: Wet soil, game
Gateway Cheese™: Swiss
Leads you to: A bevy of smooth, pliable, brilliant melters with sweet (as in not sharp) flavor that becomes increasingly toasty and roasty, culminating in caramelized onion and beef bouillon. The one with holes is the first we all met, but chances are you’ll find several that are better.
Approachable: Swissy, cooked milk
Intermediate: Toasted/roasted nuts, meaty
Intense: Tropical fruit, caramelized onion
Gateway Cheese™: Parmesan
Leads you to: Hard, grainy cheeses with nutty character, these guys start sweet and candied and wind up savory and acidic. It’s where aged Gouda shows up, so radically different from its moist, red wax–covered little brother, and where I break down the merits and distinctions between American Parmesan and Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Approachable: Candied nuts
Intermediate: Bourbon and butterscotch
Gateway Cheese™: Blue
Leads you to: Cheeses with interior mold, and generally higher salt, but still a radically diverse group ranging from soft, sweet, and buttery, to savory and fudgy, to smoky, acidic, and crumbly.
Approachable: Salt, Blue Brie
Intermediate: Toasted nuts, licorice
Intense: Fermented fruit, black pepper
Gateway Cheese™: The Misfits
Leads you to: Even cheese has a category for The Ones That Don’t Fit Anywhere Else. The misfits include goat cheeses betwixt Mozzarella and Brie, scoopable specimens made with plants, and cheeses made and aged in such specific ways that they require a category unto themselves.