California Cheeses have taken their cue from the centuries of
cheese production in other parts of the world. While several
types of cheeses and cheese processes have originated in
California, the basics about cheese are fairly elementary
and the rules for making cheese apply. What is different,
however, about California cheese is the weather, the feed,
the rules & regulations, and today's modern equipment,
methods, and taste preferences. Cheese has grown in
popularity alongside the wine industry in California, and
both are excellent foods and beverage served together.
California's more than 50 cheese makers produce 250 different varieties and styles of cheese made exclusively from California milk. While these cheeses vary considerably in style, flavor and age, one characteristic shared by many California cheeses is the way they capture the rich, fresh flavor of milk. Broadly speaking, California cheeses fall into five main categories: Fresh (Unripened), Soft & Soft-Ripened, Semi-Hard & Hard, Very Hard, and Spiced & Flavored. Following is a brief description of each category.
Fresh (Unripened) Cheeses
Fresh cheeses, also called unripened cheeses, are young cheeses that have not been allowed to age. As a result, they have a shorter shelf life than aged cheeses and are freshness dated. They are typically soft and have a flavor close to that of fresh whole milk. These cheeses, like fresh milk, must be kept refrigerated. Store these cheeses tightly wrapped in a section of the refrigerator where they will not absorb flavors from other foods. Discard if signs of mold appear.
Popular fresh cheeses produced in California include: Cream Cheese, Mascarpone, Fromage Blanc, Ricotta, Cottage Cheese, Mozzarella (water-packed), Quark, Feta, Caciotta, Burrata and String cheese. California cheesemakers also produce a wide variety of fresh Hispanic-style cheeses that are growing in popularity with all consumers. These include Panela, Queso Fresco, Queso Blanco, Requeson, Oaxaca and some forms of Asadero. Some fresh Middle Eastern-style cheeses also are produced here, including Ackawi and Baladi.
Soft & Soft-Ripened Cheeses
These cheeses are typically soft but have been allowed to mature to various degrees. Some soft-ripened cheeses ripen (or age) inside of a fluffy white rind and become softer and creamier as they age. Other soft cheeses may have a reddish washed-rind or no rind. All cheeses in this category have high moisture content. Mild when young, they usually develop a fuller, more mature flavor as they age. Many of these cheeses used to be available only as imports but are now readily available from California cheesemakers. Some popular soft and soft-ripened cheeses produced in California include Teleme, Brie (Double and Triple-Crème), Camembert, Schloss, Mt. Tam, Red Hawk, Crescenza and Breakfast Cheese.
Semi-Hard & Hard Cheeses
The descriptions semi-hard and hard refer mainly to moisture content, not to texture. The cheeses in this category actually include a broad range of textures, from semi-firm to very firm and from cheeses that are quite young only weeks old to those aged up to several months or more. Because these cheeses contain less moisture than the soft and soft-ripened types, they hold their shape much better.
This category of cheeses contains some of the most popular cheese types, such as Monterey Jack, Cheddar, Colby, Gouda, Edam, and originals like Serena, Northern Gold and Original Blue. California specialty cheeses in this category include raw milk forms of Jack and Cheddar, Italian-style cheeses such as Asiago, Provolone, Toma and Fontinella, Middle Eastern types such as String and Ackawi, and a range of Hispanic-style cheeses including Cotija, Manchego, Enchilado, Menonita and Queso Blanco.
California cheesemakers also produce low-fat and reduced-fat cheeses for those concerned with reducing the calories from fat in their diet. Reduced-fat or low-fat Monterey Jack or Cheddar, two of the most common types, provide cheese flavor and appearance with reduced-fat content.
Very Hard Cheeses
These are dry and the hardest of all types. They are also called grating cheeses due to their hardness. Because of their low moisture content, these cheeses can be stored for longer periods of time. California cow's milk cheeses that fit within this category are Parmesan, Aged Gouda and Asiago. There are also hard versions (called "añejo") of Hispanic-style cheeses like Cotija and Enchilado, which are very dry and crumbly.
Perhaps the best-known real Californian in the group is Dry Jack, a version of Jack that is aged at least nine months and sometimes up to several years. It was created in San Francisco during World War I as a substitute for hard Italian cheeses when shipments from Italy were interrupted, and subsequently became very popular. Today, several cheesemakers still make Dry Jack.
Spiced & Flavored Cheeses
The practice of adding spices and flavors to cheese is an old tradition and one that has become a specialty of California cheesemakers. Jack and Cheddar are the cheeses most often flavored, but California cheesemakers have been working with a number of other cheeses and an increasingly broad range of flavors. Spiced and flavored cheeses have a texture and color similar to their original forms, except for the color sometimes added by the natural flavoring ingredients.
In addition to Jack and Cheddar, there are spiced and flavored versions of Feta, Brie, Cream Cheese, Caciotta, Quark, Wine cheese, Gouda and Havarti. In all, cheesemakers choose from many natural spices and flavors, including pesto, garlic, jalapeño pepper, onion, black pepper, green chili, cumin and sun-dried tomato. These flavored cheeses, which can range from mild to very spicy, make great snacks and provide an attention-getting centerpiece for entertaining. They also are increasingly finding their way into recipes where the herbs and spices add a special flavor to traditional dishes.