Cooking With Dairy: Know Your Cheeses

Cheeses are great for cooking or just nibbling, and come in many varieties. Find out which ones best complement your tastes. Tips on wines and dishes.

For those who like cheese, there are typically certain favorites that they keep going back to, without a thought of trying something new. You may be surprised by just how many types of cheeses there are, and what dishes they best serve when cooking. Here are some of the more popular cheese products and what to expect from them by way of taste and food integration.


This is a delightful Italian cheese, which, when young, ranges in taste from mild and understated to rich and buttery. After aging, however, it acquires a certain tangy sharpness that blends well with a variety of dishes. Asiago provides a savory complement to pasta, rice, quesadillas, potatoes, salads, pizza - and even tastes great when melted on croissants and other specialty breads. Beverages that are enhanced by Asiago are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, cider and cranberry juice, to name a few. If you're examining a wheel of this type of cheese and are wondering how long it may have been aged, take a look at the coating on the wheel. A white coating will signify a young cheese, whereas a black coating expresses age.


Where it is in the aging process will determine the texture of Blue Cheese. Younger cheeses will tend to have a creamy texture, while the older ones will typically crumble. Though each wheel has its own unique style of blue vein patterning, the combination of taste sensations that include both peppery and tangy are inherent in each wheel - some more than others, depending upon a variety of environmental factors. The older the Blue Cheese, the more pronounced the taste. This works well when served with a variety of fruits, nuts, breads and salads, and is a wonderful complement to sparkling wines, Zinfandel, Port and fruit juices.


From the smooth rind - suitable for eating - to the rich, creamy interior, this is a delightfully rich, buttery cheese. One of the more mellow cheeses, Brie ranges in color from a subtle ivory to a pleasant yellow and softens when kept at room temperature. This cheese melts very well, making a nice topping for crackers and crusty breads, and - when served in its soft, but unmelted state - is an excellent complement to melons, pears, strawberries, grapes and walnuts. It is also an exquisite partner to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and apple cider, in addition to a variety of sparkling wines.


As in the case of Brie, Camembert has an edible crust which contains a mild, buttery interior. As you continue to savor it, the flavor makes a bolder presentation, exhibiting hints of mushroom, garlic, nut and salt. Foods that blend well with Camembert include melons, sun-dried tomatoes, grapes, croissants and the sweeter berries. This cheese also does very well when melted, presenting a smooth texture that spreads well. Beverages that are complemented by Camembert include red wines, champagne and apple cider and will be enhanced by the cheese in a greater or lesser capacity, depending upon the age of the cheese (flavoring ranges from mild to pungent).


The perfect marriage between cheeses, Colby Jack blends the best qualities of Colby and Monterey Jack to offer a range of flavors from light and mellow to sharp and tangy, with a mildly sweet stage in between. Marbled yellow and orange in color, this delightful cheese is delicious when served chilled or melted - just be sure to grate before melting - and the taste is well presented when coupled with foods such as apples, pears, mushrooms and a variety of dark breads, include rye and pumpernickel. Heavier wines, such as port and those of the red variety are well suited to Colby Jack, as is beer and apple cider.


A creamy, yellow cheese wrapped in a shiny wax coating, Edam has a mild, nutty taste with a touch of saltiness. When the cheese is young, it offers a soft texture and complements fruits such as cherries, peaches, apricots and melons - and beverages which include fruity wines, lemonade, flavored ice tea and flavored sparkling water. When aged, Edam is a wonderful sidekick to foods such as pears and apples, as well as beverages such as white wines, fruity wines of the red variety and sparkling juices, such as cranberry. Note that, when planning to melt this cheese, it should be grated prior to heating in order to ensure the best texture.


Another in the line of Italian cheeses, Gorgonzola - a member of the blue cheese family - is fairly soft and creamy in its youth, which matures into a pungent, crumbly cheese when aged. This spicy, full-bodied cheese sports bluish-green marbling throughout its ivory coloration, and melts best when crumbled. For those who enjoy a sweet, soft cheese, Gorgonzola Dolce is the cheese of choice, while individuals who are looking for a sharper flavor and firmer texture prefer Gorgonzola Piccante. Pears, walnuts, raisins, fruit breads and crackers of the sweet variety harmonize quite well with this cheese, as well as red wines that are full-bodied or sweet, champagne and fruit juices.


The variety of taste sensations that this earthy cheese has to offer will take your palate from buttery to toasty to lightly fruity in the blink of an eye, and doesn't lose its strength when served in unison with other richly flavored foods. This is a smooth yellow cheese with small holes that melts very well when shredded and serves as a wonderful complement to Italian deli meats, a variety of nuts, figs, dates, melon and red apples. Beverages which enhance the flavor of Gruyere include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, beer and cranberry juice, to name a few. Melted, this works quite well in soups, sauces and fondue.


Smooth and buttery Havarti is pale yellow in color, with tiny holes, and has a subtle tanginess which presents itself as you continue to savor it. Great for cooking, Havarti melts best when shredded prior to heating, and goes quite well with foods such as roasted red peppers, salads, sandwiches, olives, red grapes and bread sticks. Sauvignon Blanc, sparkling water and a lighter bodied Pinot Noir help to bring out the flavor of this delightful cheese. Havarti comes in a variety of flavors, which include jalapeno, dill, garlic and herb and caraway.


Creamy and spreadable in texture, this nutty and slightly sweet cheese can be used in much the same way as cream cheese. It's perfect for spreading on bagels, English muffins and nut breads, and also goes well with fresh fruit, jellies and jams. White wine, grape juice and cranberry juice are perfect complements to foods containing Neufchatel, which can be found in a variety of shapes - usually in the dairy case in the same area as cream cheese, cottage cheese, ricotta and other loose-bodied dairy products.

These, and many other cheese varieties, are perfect for entertaining guests or simply for nibbling when the mood strikes. Recipes using these mouthwatering varieties can be found in cookbooks and online, using the cheese names as keywords.

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