Try these tangy treats
When it comes to cheese, the American palate has historically erred on the side of monotony, sated by a hunk of Cheddar, a shake of processed Parmesan, or a gooey string of mozzarella.
But in recent years, an increasing number of artisanal and imported cheese varieties have found a place on the American table.
This culinary expansion includes “fresh cheeses,” the catchall term for unripened, rind-free cheeses that vary from spreadable creams to molded blocks.
Once dominated by the cream cheese slathered on bagels and the cottage cheese spooned over cantaloupe by dieters, the fresh-cheese category in the U.S. has expanded to include tastes from countries and cultures around the world. Here are 8 favorites.
Farmer cheese. Farmer cheese is cottage cheese’s crumblier, tangier cousin. It is produced by a similar method, beginning with curdled milk that then gets strained of liquid — but it ends up with a much lower moisture content.
Fresh cheeses are unripened, rind-free cheeses that vary from spreadable creams to molded blocks.
Farmer cheese has a slight acidic bite that makes it a perfect pairing for rich, savory, or sweet dishes. In America, it was once a farmstead staple and a fixture in the diet of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, who used it to fill blintzes and enrich hearty noodle dishes.
- Fromage frais. Literally translating to “fresh cheese” (and sometimes called fromage blanc, or “white cheese”), fromage frais is France’s answer to Greek yogurt. Made from cow’s milk curdled with lactic acid, rennet, or bacteria culture, the resulting product has a mousse-like texture and delicate, effervescent flavor. Like yogurt, it is commonly eaten with berries or other fresh fruit, and often comes packaged in yogurt-style cups. It can also replace cream cheese in cheesecakes, top omelets, or be stirred into sauces.
- Labneh. Enjoyed throughout the Middle East, labneh is produced by straining liquid whey from either soured milk or yogurt. According to Juliet Harbutt’s book Cheese: A Complete Guide to Over 300 Cheeses of Distinction, Bedouin tribes traditionally used a goat or sheep’s skin to drain the yogurt, ending up with a tart, thick cheese. Today, labneh is generally made with cow’s milk, either commercially or at home using muslin cloth. It is a popular breakfast condiment, served with chopped fresh salads or spread on pita with olive oil and za’atar (a Middle Eastern blend of thyme, sumac, sesame, oregano, and other spices.)
- Mascarpone. In her book Milk, Anne Mendelson describes mascarpone as a “non-cheese” cheese because it is made “by simple acidification” — the addition of citric acid to cream — “instead of lactic-acid fermentation or enzymatic action.” After the acid is added, the mixture is allowed to drain and thicken. The result is a slightly sweet and spoonable cream that is best known for the supporting role it plays in Italian desserts like tiramisù. It also tastes wonderful paired with fresh fruit or added to lasagna.
- Paneer. Like mascarpone, paneer is not officially considered “cheese” according to Mendelson’s classifications. Still, it is India’s most widely recognized contribution to the cheese world. It is produced by heating milk with acid and then pressing out the water — either until it forms a moist paste (called chhenna), or until nearly all the liquid has drained away, leaving a block of firm, white paneer. Paneer contributes bulk and mild flavor to vegetable dishes like palak paneer (spinach curry) and mattar paneer (paneer with peas). It does not melt, and can also be cut into cubes and pan-fried like tofu.
- Quark. Germany’s most popular cheese (quark represents nearly half of all cheese production in the country) is just beginning to gain recognition among American consumers. Pronounced “khvark,” the name simply means “curds” in German. Quark is mildly tangy and ranges in texture from crumbly to smooth, depending on water and butterfat content. It is used in both sweet and savory preparations, adding buoyancy to cakes or a silky dressing to boiled potatoes stirred with chopped, fresh herbs.
- Queso fresco. While Mendelson classifies queso fresco as another “non-cheese” (like mascarpone and paneer), the name itself literally translates to “fresh cheese.” Spanish monks first introduced queso fresco to Mexico (along with other cheeses) in the 16th century. Today, it is a popular ingredient in Latin American cooking. With its slightly salty taste and crumbly texture that resists melting, it is a delicious sprinkled over enchiladas, moles, or bean dishes.
- Ricotta. The word ricotta means “re-cooked” in Italian, and refers to the process of reheating whey until it thickens into a white, slightly granular paste. Ricotta’s invention is a testament of the thrifty-nature of Italian cheese makers, who realized they could repurpose whey (a byproduct of making Parmigiano-Reggiano and other cheeses) into something equally delicious. Ricotta tastes like a rich, less watery version of cottage cheese. It is used as a creamy filling for lasagna and ravioli, and lends sweet richness to cannoli and other Italian desserts.
Leah Koenig is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.