Consider this your Cheese 101 course.
Consider this your Cheese 101 course.
There are some things in this life that cut really deep. Like our love of fall-themed treats (remember the time Peyton made those apple cider donuts?), our passion for a well-planned dinner party, and last but not least, the intense joy that a beautifully stinky piece of cheese brings to us. This is why we are on an eternal quest to expand our knowledge of all things cheese, and how we can share that knowledge with our readers in the hopes that we can all grow cheesier, together. We knew that we wanted to create a comprehensive guide to cheese, a cheese 101 course if you will, and we also knew that we needed to go to the best possible source. That’s where Murray’s Cheese comes in. Not only is Murray’s a beloved Bleecker Street fixture, but it has evolved into a world-renowned cheese destination that offers only the finest selection of our beloved cheeses. It’s where we go to browse, to sample, and to get inspired on the reg. We sat down with Lauren Toth, the Training & Curriculum Manager at Murray’s Cheese, who is the closest thing we know to a cheese Yoda. She’s breaking down all of the cheese families, those oft-confusing cheese terms, and spilling the tea once and for all on how to use that set of cheese knives that’s sitting at the back of your cabinet.
Lauren, thanks for chatting with us! Can you share your story about your love of cheese, history with cheese, and how your business came to be?
I consider myself a lifelong cheese enthusiast (ask my parents about my early love for string cheese and Alouette spread), but I never dreamed that cheese could be a career until I discovered Murray's Cheese in the West Village of Manhattan. Ages ago, my husband took me there for a Cheese 101 class as a birthday surprise, and I was immediately hooked. I became a regular customer and took classes as often as I could afford. When I became increasingly unhappy with the career I was pursuing, I couldn't stop thinking about how much fun the cheesemongers at Murray's seemed to be having while doing their jobs every day. In the end (with a lot of encouragement from family and friends), I made the decision to quit my job and intern in the cheese aging caves at Murray's, where I learned the basics of caring for cheeses as they age to perfection, developing the appropriate flavor and texture for their respective styles. From there, I grew with the company, becoming a cheesemonger at our Grand Central location and then moving to the corporate office to work behind the scenes supporting our 450+ Murray's Cheese shops in Kroger supermarkets across the U.S. Along the way, I achieved my American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP) certification, and today I function as our Training & Curriculum Manager, helping to spread cheesy knowledge to staff across the country.
Murray's was established in 1940 by an Eastern European immigrant named Murray Greenberg. The original shop functioned as a neighborhood store where customers bought their dairy staples (milk, butter, eggs etc.). Murray retired and sold the store to his lead clerk, Louis Tudda, in the 1970s, and Louis operated the store until 1990 when the lease on the space ended. He decided it was time to retire, and he sold the business to one of his regulars--Rob Kaufeldt. Rob moved the store across the street and expanded the scope of specialty cheese offered there. He traveled the world in search of new and exciting cheeses to offer his customers, and along the way began importing cheese and specialty foods directly. As it grew, the company fostered a number of important and distinct business streams, including Wholesale, E-Commerce, Catering & Events, a Public Education program, a full-service restaurant (with another on the way!) and an award-winning cheese aging facility.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Types of cheese. What are the big families, or categories, of cheese that we should be aware of?
There are thousands of cheeses out there, which can be intimidating, but to make navigating these cheeses easier, we organize them into groups, or families, based on common characteristics.
Different people may use different names to describe these cheese families, but here are some popular examples you're likely to run into:
Washed Rind- The washed rind family is best known for its funky aroma and a pinky peach coloring on the rind. Both of these traits can be attributed to the diverse community of microbes that are deliberately cultivated on the rinds of such cheeses through regular washing with brine or booze (beer, wine or spirits). This style was originated in monasteries hundreds of years ago.
Cheddar- You're probably familiar with this style of cheese, but did you know "cheddaring" is an actual process? True cheddars undergo "cheddaring" during the make process, wherein coagulated milk is cut down to small pieces ("curds", in this case the size of a pea) to release moisture. These curds are packed together then stacked & rotated in a precise process meant to drain excess moisture. This accounts for the firm, dry texture and crumbly nature of these styles.
Alpine- This term describes cheeses that come from the Alpine region in Europe (Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany & Austria). Gruyere and Comte are two very popular examples of this style of cheese. Alpine cheeses tend to come in larger formats and often boast a smooth, elastic paste and exceptional meltability. These cheeses are the ones you want in your fondues, aux gratins, grilled cheeses and mac & cheese dishes.
Grana- This is the family that includes the "King of Cheeses," Parmigiano-Reggiano. So-called because during the make process, the coagulated milk is cut down into curds the size of a grain of rice (hence, grana). Grana styles tend to be hard, low in moisture, and perfect for grating.
And one more thing we are frequently asked is what the true difference is between hard and soft cheeses. The major difference between hard and soft cheeses is moisture level. Simply put, cheeses with a softer texture contain far more water content than those cheeses that are firmer and dryer.
Ok, now onto cheese terminology. There are a lot of fancy words out there which we encounter while in the market for a good cheese. What are the key terms that we should know and understand?
Bloomy- This is a term used to categorize the style of soft-ripened cheeses that come with a snowy white rind. Think Brie or Camembert. The term "bloomy" refers to the fact that the white rind is actually composed of mold spores that have "bloomed" like flowers and then been carefully patted down over time to create a thin, delicate rind.
Barnyardy - This is the polite term to use to describe a somewhat animal-y taste that you sometimes encounter in cheeses, particularly those made of goat's milk. Some people are more sensitive to this aroma, and if that's the case for you, it's useful to communicate that to your cheesemonger so they can help you avoid it.
Earthy - "Earthy" is typically used to describe the mineral, soil-like aromas that emerge from certain cheeses, often from natural, mold-ripened rinds. Think of the smell of a damp cellar or wet gravel. You may encounter this aroma in a variety of different cheese styles.
"Sharp" -This is a term you should know so you can avoid using it. Often-times cheese newbies will use the word "sharp" to mean anything they want it to mean - mostly because they know it's an appropriate term to use to describe cheese and they're at a loss for how to describe what they want. That said, "sharp" has a precise meaning; it refers to the level of acidity in the cheese. Cheeses that are higher in acidity are considered "sharp". Unless you are specifically trying to convey your feelings about acidity in your cheese, try to use other, more straightforward descriptive terms when communicating with your monger (e.g. "buttery", "stinky", "mild", "intense" etc.)
Can you tell us about pasteurized versus unpasteurized cheeses, and how this works?
In cheesemaking, pasteurization is the process of heat-treating milk to a precise temperature for a specific amount of time with the aim of killing off potentially harmful bacteria. Not all cheeses on the market are pasteurized; some are made with raw (non-heat treated) or unpasteurized (heat treated but not to the levels required for pasteurization) milk.
In the U.S., regulations govern the production & sale of unpasteurized cheese. Such cheeses must be aged 60 days or more to be legally available for sale. Cheeses that are aged for this long tend to be lower in moisture, and bacteria need that moisture to thrive; this means it's less likely that an aged cheese will succumb to colonization by harmful bacteria.
While pasteurization effectively kills the potentially harmful bacteria in milk, it also kills the many beneficial bacteria that are present that add to the complexity & diversity of aroma, flavor and texture in the final cheese. For this reason, some cheesemakers prefer to make raw/unpasteurized cheeses only; they want their cheeses to reflect the full terroir of the land on which they are made.
Both pasteurized and unpasteurized cheeses can be exceptional; what really matters is the ingredients, care and attention that the producer puts into the production of the cheese.
What are your tips for consuming cheese? What are some of your favorite pairings, and how do you like to architect a cheese board?
Pairings are a cheese's best friend! One of the best ways to coax out the maximum flavor experience of a cheese is to pair it with something else, whether that be a beverage or another food.
Pickles are one of my favorite go-to pairings for cheese. I LOVE classic cornichons (baby gherkins), which are extremely versatile and eminently snackable. They're great with classic Alpine styles; savory cheddars; and funky, gooey washed rinds. The acidity of the pickle perfectly complements the fatty richness of the cheese and balances out deeper savory and umami notes.
To me, constructing the ultimate cheese board is all about balance and variety. I want to have a range of styles, flavors, textures and even colors represented on the board.
I typically go with 3 or 5 cheeses for a board; the odd numbers tend to be more visually pleasing. I aim to have at least 3 milk types, as well as a mix of different styles (e.g. bloomy, Gouda, blue). Ideally I include one or two crowd pleasers as well as something that's a bit more unusual or that has a great story behind it.
I'll often portion out at least some of the cheeses (anything in a wedge shape is SUPER-easy to cut into individual pieces) for convenient snacking. I'll position the cheeses first, then add any prominent pairings like charcuterie or crackers, then layer on olives, dried fruit & nuts, etc. Jams, honeys, and mustards always elevate a cheese board, and I typically serve those in small bowls with individual spoons or honey dippers.
Don't forget the sweets! Chocolates, cookies, caramels and candied nuts make great (if unexpected) accoutrements on a cheese board, especially if you're enjoying it for dessert.
Ah, the elusive cheese knife. Everyone has a set, and no one quite knows how to use them. What are the key cheese knives, and what knife goes with what cheese?
Soft and semi-soft cheeses are best cut with a slim knife with openings or holes on the surface; these holes are meant to reduce the "drag" as the knife pulls through the cheese and helps keep the integrity of the cheese intact during and after cutting.
Knives that look like mini butcher knives, or those with sharp blades or points are best used to cut hard cheeses--they'll allow you to dig in and nudge a chunk of cheese off the wedge. Don't feel pressure to make a clean slice with hard cheeses--often times their natural inclination is to crumble, and that's just fine!
The flat, shovel-like implement with a narrow slit on the surface is called a cheese plane. You can run the cheese plane over the surface of a semi-firm, firm or hard cheese to create thin shavings that are great for snacking or for adding to salads or cooked dishes.
It's preferable to offer separate knives for each cheese (that requires cutting) on your board; that way the cheese won't get cross-contaminated or messy.
Can you leave our readers with a few last words about picking out the best cheese for your palette?
My biggest tip is: don't be shy! Strike up a conversation with your friendly neighborhood cheesemonger. They are NOT there to judge your knowledge (or lack thereof) about cheese and are most likely EXCITED to help you find your next favorite. Share with them what you like or dislike about cheeses you've had in the past (use whatever words you have to describe these qualities) and they'll help you zero in on your next pick. If you find a winner, ask them what words they would use to describe it--then you'll know for next time how to ask for something similar.
And don't forget to ask for recommendations on pairing items! Pairing can be mystifying, but mongers spend a LOT of time trying these items and testing out different combinations. I promise they will have some killer recommendations for you!
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