A Guide to Fresh Cheese

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Fresh Goat Cheese. © Image 2014 Jennifer Meier

Fresh cheese is cheese in its youngest, purest form. Fluffy ricotta, creamy goat cheese, soft mozzarella, crumbly feta...these are all delicious examples of fresh cheese. Cheese that falls into the category of "fresh cheese" is loved for its simple but satisfying flavor. Fresh cheese usually tastes mild, sometimes salty or tangy.

Fresh cheese does not have a rind and is not aged for a significant amount of time.

The texture ranges from creamy and spreadable, to soft and pliable, to crumbly. Most fresh cheeses are sold in tubs or plastic packaging and are just as likely to be found at a grocery store as they are in a specialty cheese shop.

During the cheesemaking process, the milk for fresh cheese is "ripened" by adding starter cultures, which convert the milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid. This encourages the milk to thicken. For denser, thicker, full-fledged curds, rennet is then added to thicken the milk even more. Once curds form, the liquid (whey) is drained away and what remains is turned into cheese.

To make fresh cheese like ricotta or goat cheese at home, ingredients such as lemon juice, vinegar or buttermilk can be used instead of starter culture and/or rennet as a short-cut method for ripening milk. For some types of fresh dairy products, like creme fraiche, the milk or cream can be thickened simply by leaving it out in a warm counter (if it's unpasteurized) or by adding buttermilk or yogurt with live cultures.

However, serious cheesemakers use starter culture because it yields more consistent results and better flavor.

Types of Fresh Cheese

  • Feta - Feta is brined, which gives it a salty, tangy  flavor. Typically made with sheep or goat milk, but can also be made with cows' milk.
  • Queso Fresco - Crumbly, dryish texture and mild, slighty salty flavor.
  • Cotija - Dry and crumbly and a bit salty. Similar to feta but often milder.
  • Mozzarella - Also known as a "pasta filata" cheese, the curds for mozzarella are heated and stretched. Fresh mozzarella is stored in water and has a very creamy texture. A drier form is sold wrapped in plastic. Both have a mild, milky flavor.
  • Oaxaca - Mild flavor with a slightly rubbery texture that is similar to mozzarella
  • Panela - Mild flavor and a texture that softens but does not melt when heated. Panela can be pan-fried or grilled.
  • Halloumi - Mild flavor and rubbery texture that softens but does not melt when heated. Haloumi can be pan-fried or grilled.
  • Paneer - Cultured (soured) milk pressed into a sliceable cheese with a crumbly, creamy texture that does not entirely melt.
  • Farmer's cheese - Cultured (soured) milk that has been drained into a dry and crumbly texture
  • Queso Blanco - Cultured (soured) milk pressed into a crumbly cheese with a mild flavor and texture that does not entirely melt.
  • Crème fraîche - Milk or cream that has been cultured (soured) so that the texture thickens. Similar to sour cream.
  • Fromage blanc - Milk that has been cultured (soured) that is thicker than creme fraiche but not as thick as ricotta. It has a mild, tangy flavor and smooth texture.
  • Ricotta - Creamy, spreadable cheese with a slightly sweet, milky flavor. The best ricotta has a fluffy, smooth texture and is not grainy. Traditionally, it is made using the whey drained from curds.
  • Mascarpone - Cream that has been thickened and drained and has a slightly sweet flavor.
  • Cottage cheese - Curds with milk or cream added to give them a spoonable consistency. The flavor tends to be a bit tangy.
  • Quark - A non-fat or low fat cheese with a texture that is smoother and creamier than cottage cheese but not quite as smooth as sour cream.
  • Pot cheese - Low-fat cottage cheese, also called dry-curd cottage cheese