We’ve all had that uncomfortable moment. You walk up to a cheese counter, ready to buy some delicious cheese. The cheesemonger asks what you’re looking for. You freeze. What do you want? Or rather, how do you describe it to your monger without sounding stupid?
First of all, mongers are there to help you! You should never feel bad about stumbling over descriptions of the type of cheese you’re looking for — it’s their job to ask the questions that will lead to you leaving with something you’ll love. If you’re made to feel stupid for not knowing something, your cheesemonger is not doing their job (and is being kind of a jerk).
That said, it’s certainly nice to feel confident in your cheese vocabulary and to be able to flex a few cheese terms. Here is an arsenal of cheese vocabulary that will help next time you’re at a cheese counter.
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Rind: The outside coating of a cheese that forms during the ripening process. Not all cheeses have rinds, but many do. The soft coating around a Brie is a rind. The hard coating around a Gruyère is a rind. Fresh mozzarella, on the other hand, has no rind.
Paste: Any part of the cheese that is not the rind.
Creamline: Only found in bloomy rind cheese and sometimes washed rind cheeses, a creamline is the halo of ooze in between the rind and the paste, which is evidence of the rind ripening the cheese.
Bloomy Rind: This is the same family as Brie and Camembert — the cheeses that had mold (usually Penicillium candidum or Penicillium camemberti) added during the cheesemaking process. As the cheeses ripen, the mold sprouts all over the surface of the cheese, which the affineur taps down into a rind. The rind breaks down the fat and protein, thereby ripening the cheese. Not all bloomy rinds are Bries, but all Bries are bloomy rinds.
Washed Rind: The “stinky cheeses” of the world. These cheeses, including classics like Epoisses and Taleggio, are gently scrubbed down with a blend of brine, cultures, and sometimes alcohol, inviting a sticky, stinky bacteria to jump on, resulting in an orange or pink hue called Brevibacterium linens (B. linens). Had they not been washed, most of these cheeses would have matured into bloomy rind cheeses.
For those nervous about cheeses that smell like feet, it’s worth tasting outside your comfort zone — washed rinds rarely taste as strong or offensive as they smell.
Smear-Ripened: Another term for a washed rind, referring to the wet brine gently smeared over the cheese.
Surface-Ripened: Any cheese that is ripened from the outside in. This includes bloomy rinds and washed rinds.
Alpine Style: Any cheese made in the style of old European mountain cheeses like Gruyère or Comte. These cheeses typically come in larger wheels and have hard, brown rinds and smooth paste.
Grana Style: Cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano whose curds were milled down to the size of a grain (“grana” in Italian) of rice, thereby releasing moisture and preparing the curds to be molded into a cheese that will eventually be rather dry and hard.
Tomme: A French word for a small wheel of cheese. The most recognizable tomme found in the United States is Tomme de Savoie.
Geotrichum Candidum: Increasingly called Galactomyces candidum, Geotrichum (sometimes shortened to “Geo”) is the yeast-like mold that ripens bloomy rind and washed rind cheeses. Geo is mostly used in the ripening of goat cheeses from the Loire Valley like Chabichou or Selles-Sur-Cher, or of cheeses made in that style, such as Coupole or Ash-Rind Buchette. Sometimes, Geo is encouraged by the application of ash, as in Valencay. Remember, wrinkles are sexy!
Double Cream: Cheese that’s been made with whole milk plus extra cream and is at least 60 percent fat by dry matter (meaning at least 60 percent fat if you theoretically removed all the liquid from the cheese).
Triple Cream: Cheese that’s been made with whole milk plus extra cream and is between 61 and 72 percent fat by dry matter (percentage of fat if you theoretically removed all the liquid from the cheese).
Rennet: The enzyme that separates the solids (curds) from the liquid (whey) in the cheesemaking process. Traditional rennet is animal-based and unsuitable for vegetarians, but some cheeses are made with microbial and plant-based rennet.
Affinage: The art of aging and ripening cheese, which often is the most work involved in the process of cheese production. Sometimes, European cheeses are labeled by their affineur, the person responsible for ripening the cheese, and not by the person or company that originally made the cheese.
Affineur: A person responsible for ripening cheese.
Farmstead: Cheese made only from milk sourced at that farm. Called fermier in French.
Terroir: The French term for “taste of place,” or the undefinable character that the place a food or beverage is made imparts on the final flavor, texture, and experience.
Pasteurized: A cheese made from milk that has been heat-treated to kill potentially harmful bacteria, otherwise known as pathogens. The FDA accepts several temperature/time combinations as pasteurization, but the most common in cheesemaking are 161 F for 15 seconds or 145 F for 30 minutes or more. Those who advocate for raw-milk cheese argue that pasteurization kills potentially beneficial bacteria as well, and careful handling of the milk prevents contamination.
Raw: A cheese made from milk that has not been pasteurized. A milk product could also be labeled “unpasteurized,” which may mean it was heat-treated, but not to the amount of time mandated by the FDA in order to count as pasteurized.
Thermized: A more mild form of pasteurization using less heat for less time than the FDA mandates in order to be called “pasteurized.” Primarily used in Europe.
Annatto: A flavorless orange dye from the tropical achiote plant used to color some cheeses, such as cheddar.
Transhumance: Guiding animals to a better area for grazing, usually in a seasonal cycle.
Alpage: The special version of transhumance found in the Alps, where cows are led up in the mountains to graze in the summer.
Cheese Cave: Not usually the kind of cave with bats and stalactites, but modeled after the climate in those caves, where cheese was often ripened in days of yore. These days, “cheese caves” are climate-controlled, walk-in refrigerators that are primed to the best humidity, temperature, and general microclimate for the ripening of a specific style of cheese.
Ammoniated: When a cheese — thanks to overripeness or neglect — has the pungent smell of ammonia. Sometimes, simply unwrapping ammoniated cheeses and letting them air out for 30 minutes to an hour can fix the unpleasant smell/taste of ammonia. Other times, it’s a sunk cost.
Amino Acid Crystals: Ever bitten into a parm or aged gouda and noticed crunchy bits? Those are amino acid crystals, which form in more aged cheeses. Sometimes, people incorrectly call them salt crystals. The first amino acid crystal to form in cheese is tyrosine, a precursor to dopamine, which results in a mild euphoria upon consumption.
Sharp: A term that has been muddled by marketing campaigns. Sharp just means acidic — if it makes your mouth water, it has acidity and is therefore a “sharp” cheese. Sharp does not necessarily mean strong, spicy, or flavorful.