Hard Cheese 101 aka Gateway Cheese™: Cheddar, Swiss and Parmesan

Many of the best known cheeses in the world—Cheddar, Parmigiano Reggiano, “Swiss” (aka Emmentaler) are firm to hard in texture. And yet, using these three as illustrations, they taste radically different. So, how do hard cheeses wind up this way—different from the limpid Bries, also different from one another?

Unlike most of the cheeses in the 101 groups discussed thus far, such as bloomy rinded Brie or washed rind Taleggio, the hard cheeses begin their journey as curds from which a far greater amount of moisture is removed. This can be achieved in several ways, including cutting of the curd (reducing a big floating mass into increasingly smaller bits), heating the curd (raising the temperature leads to a contraction of the curd and the accompanying expulsion of liquid whey), pressing the curd (applying pressure during cheesemaking and/or after the wheels are formed to squeeze out residual moisture) and, finally, salt which, in the form of brine or crystals can pull out remaining liquid inside the newly formed cheese.

The steps, used in select combinations, yield a young cheese that is better designed for aging, and they, in combination with carefully selected bacteria added to the milk at the beginning of the make, as well as the chosen aging process determine the flavor and texture a finished cheese will have some 6, 12 or 24 months later.

Let’s talk Cheddar.  Most of us know it by the delineators “mild”, “medium” or “sharp” and the divisively subjective “white” or “orange.” Cheddar of these sorts is typically produced in a block of ten to hundreds of pounds and sealed in cryovac immediately after production. It then ages (sometimes for years) in refrigeration. The flavor delineators can be tied to the acidity (“sharpness”) in the final cheese. Most cheddar of this sort isn’t actually “cheddared,” the cheesemaking technique from which this type originally took its name. Cheddaring is the labor intensive milling (grinding) of cheese curd, slab formation of the ground curd and stacking and unstacking to press out whey. Traditional English cheddar (and now, some American artisan clothbound wheels) is produced not in blocks but in tall wheels that are wrapped in cloth and aged in open-air caves for six to ten months. The resulting cheese is drier and more crumbly, and boasts complex flavor that needn’t depend on acid for personality. Celery, toasted nut and caramel notes are common. 

There are several producers making notably delicious and complex block cheddar worth seeking out, including Collier’s Welsh Cheddar, Milton Creamery Prairie Breeze (Iowa) and Barber’s 1833 Vintage Reserve Cheddar (England). For Clothbound, the earthen UK king is Mongomery’s and the queen is Quicke’s. For American-made, Cabot Clohtbound is the more toffee go-to.

The milling and salting of Cheddar curds before they’re formed into actual wheels of cheese is a key contributor to the style’s chunky break-apart texture and its vast difference from the smooth pliability (and relatively “sweet” flavor) of “Swiss” type cheeses such as Emmenthaler (with the big holes), Gruyere, and French Comte and Beaufort. These cheeses originated in mountainous regions with a short grass season and thus a limited production window in which as much milk as possible needed to be stored in form of cheese. Additionally the rarity and difficulty of transporting salt meant a different cheesemaking process that relied on heat and pressure to remove moisture. Cheese geeks know these as the cooked-pressed cheeses, reliant on a combination of excessive cutting of curd (to the size of rice grains) and high heat in the vat to expel whey. The cheeses are then pressed under extreme pressure and salt is used sparingly, often with a salt brine wash on the finish. The resulting cheeses are smooth and dense, with flavors akin to cooked milk—brown buttery notes and roasted or toasted characteristics are common. The frequency of salt water washings also contribute exterior bacterial growth and funky, pungent flavors known in the washed rind family.

As an eater, rather than a maker, of cheese I regard Parmigiano Reggiano and its brethren as something of a hybrid between Cheddar and Alpine. Curds are cut into tiny bits, and heated to extremely high temperatures in the vat (like Swiss-y types) but the formed wheels aren’t pressed, and are left to bob in salt water baths for several weeks to draw out remaining moisture. While Parm has many of the cooked milk and nutty flavors, it’s also quite acidic, often mouthwateringly so, and salt is a prominent contributor to flavor. Tropical fruit flavors like pineapple are common. The cheeses are aged for one to two years, and accordingly are drier and crumbly in texture. Hence their utility as grating cheeses, where a small sprinkle is powerful enough to season an entire dish.

Each of these varieties is meant for aging and long-term storage, so they’re the most durable in a home fridge, often keeping for two to three weeks wrapped in cheese paper or plastic wrap.

Small specks of surface mold may develop (blue or green typically) and these can be scraped off without compromising the cheese underneath.

You may notice, especially in Swiss and Parm types aged over one year, white specks or crystallized patches. These are amino acid clusters, not mold, and add a pleasant crunch to the cheeses’ texture.