There are many cheeses out there. For cheese lovers—which, really, is everyone—the long list of options is exciting, not daunting.
Yet when it comes to cooking, you aren’t always sure what cheese will give you the final touch you’re dreaming about. It’ll still taste delicious if you accidentally choose a stringier cheese than planned, but how can you decipher the cheese labels at the grocery store to figure out which cheese is what you want?
Here are some differences to look for when choosing a cheese for your next meal.
Mozzarella consists of pulled cheese curds that are kneaded, which contributes to its well-known stretch perfect for a bite of pizza. When it comes to labels, the mozzarella causing confusion in the refrigerated section of the store is likely categorized as either low or high moisture. The choice is easy depending on how you will prepare and serve your meal. Choose a low-moisture mozzarella for baked dishes. While a high-moisture mozzarella is good for pizza or other meals that call for burrata, a mozzarella and cream combination, high-moisture mozzarella is mainly used for cold dishes. Keep in mind the moisture content is so high that heating it will result in a thick, bubbly mozzarella puddle, a wonderfully cheesy option for sauce-heavy recipes.
Another cheese with lots of options is cheddar. Cheddar comes in many variations. Cheddar’s texture changes as it ages, becoming drier and more crumbly. This also changes the potency of its flavor. Mild, medium, sharp, extra sharp, and every other level of cheddar you see is determined by aging. A mild cheddar is aged for the shortest amount of time, while an extra sharp cheddar is aged the longest.
There’s a balance between the amount of moisture in cheese and how it will melt. While you want a lower moisture option in the already high-moisture option like mozzarella, cheddar is a drier cheese. The drier the cheddar, the less moisture it has, so mild and medium cheddar is best for melting, while sharp cheddar will take more heat to melt and extra-sharp is best enjoyed cold. There isn’t a standard time to age a cheddar cheese for each category, so the intensity can vary between brands.
Color is not an indicator of taste, especially for cheddar. Cheddar cheese is a naturally white or pale yellow color. There can be a slight variation in color according to natural factors like a cow’s diet. Dark yellow or orange variants are the result of coloring.
This orange coloring is prominent in Colby and Colby Jack. Don’t be upset that this is some type of cheddar trying to trick you, because though it may look like cheddar, Colby has a moister, softer texture and less tangy taste. And the darker color is natural!
Despite the color, Colby is closer to a Monterey Jack than a cheddar. The difference is the extra ingredient that gives Colby its distinct coloring and flavor. When blended with Monterey Jack, the combination is known as Colby Jack. (Monterey Jack is also commonly mixed with cheddar, so double-check the label if you’re looking for Colby Jack.) And someone really enjoyed blending Monterey Jack with other flavors and cheeses, because another option, Pepper Jack, consists of Monterey Jack that’s flavored with peppers and spices to give it a kick, often found in Tex-Mex recipes. Like cheddar, Monterey Jack is good served cold or heated, making it and its blends a great staple for sandwiches, whether they are toasted or not.
These aren’t the only cheeses where it matters more what taste and texture you’re seeking rather than what moisture content it has for your meals. Parmesan has a hard, gritty texture with a surprisingly light taste that can be added over soups and pasta, but it can also be melted for an extra bit of creaminess in recipes. There’s also swiss, a type of cheese recognized by its holes and light yellow color, which can be melted for a more stretchy, stringy bite.
And there are so many more types of cheese, like harder gruyere and gouda or a soft brie. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your cheese options, keeping in mind what you want to do with your meal. It’s sure to be delicious.
For recipes using these cheeses and more, browse our dairy recipes.