BRATTLEBORO—Pity the poor hard cheeses of the world. Softer cheeses like brie are considered luxurious and delectable and, while we are quite fond of pliable double-crèmes and squishy triple-crèmes, we hardly think their firmer cousins should be forgotten.
And they aren’t, really, but hard cheeses are usually only brought out for grating, and that is a sad situation.
Hard cheeses can provide immense, concentrated flavor and economy to a cheese board. A little-known benefit to keeping hard cheeses in the house is that, in a pinch, a large piece of hard cheese can be used as an impromptu weapon. Dine in style, and protect the homestead! And there are no ambiguous Second Amendment issues — everyone can legally possess cheese!
So what is a hard (or firm) cheese, anyway? Where do you cross the line from semi-firm cheese into firm cheese? Is there a quantitative method for assigning cheese to one category or another? How does cheese get to be so hard, and can all cheeses be eaten in a “hard” format? And what does one do with hard cheese? Is it just for grating?
First, the accepted industry standard for quantifying a cheese’s textural category is to measure its moisture content. The less moisture a cheese has, the harder the cheese, because once moisture is lost, we are left with solids, and solids are, well, solid. Hard.
Generally, hard cheeses’ moisture content is about 30 to 40 percent (40 to 50 percent moisture denotes a semi-firm cheese), but some hard cheeses’ moisture content can be as low as 15 percent.
To give you a measure of comparison, fresh cheeses — such as ricotta — can have a moisture content of up to 80 percent.
As cheese gets older, it continues to dry out, so the moisture content is measured as the cheese leaves the ripening facility and is released for sale. Cheese continues to get harder as it ages, so length of maturation time is a big determinant of how hard it will be, but that doesn’t completely explain it.
For example, picture Parmigiano-Reggiano, one of the most popular hard cheeses. Most of what is sold in the United States has been aged for 24 months.
Now, think about Grafton Village Cheese’s Cheddar with the black label, or Cabot’s Vintage Choice Cheddar. Both cheddars are aged for 24 months.
But Parmigiano-Reggiano is much harder than the cheddars. The two varieties could hardly be considered in the same category of firmness. How is this possible?
Moisture is the key here, or loss of moisture.
The Parm has lost more moisture than the cheddars, even though they are the same age; the Parm has lost more moisture because of the way the curds were cut.
During the cheesemaking process, milk is precipitated (the nice way of saying “curdled”) and the proteins clump together to form solids (the curds), and the liquid (the whey) is expelled. The cheesemaker cuts the curds to a very specific size according to the type of cheese desired.
Think of cheese curds you might have enjoyed as a snack or melted onto poutine. Those are almost always cheddar curds, which are about the size of a half dollar.
Parmigiano (as well as Pecorino Romano and Grana Padano, to name a few) is in a class of cheese called the “grana” cheeses; their curds are cut to about the size of rice grains.
The smaller the curds, the more efficiently and effectively the whey is drained from the cheese, which results in a harder cheese. High-moisture cheeses (with larger curds) could not be aged for two years. The whey trapped in the cheese would rot, and the cheese would be awful.
Nearly every cheese has one appropriate level of maturity — and associated texture — in which it ought to be eaten; very few have an indefinite shelf-life. Some cheeses, such as Manchego or Ossau-Iraty, have a small window, but they don’t go much further than two stages, typically semi-soft to semi-firm.
So, when some smug know-it-all tries to tell you the older the cheese, the better — as if this were true for all cheeses — you can smile to yourself, knowing this person is a fraud. Ask them the last time they’d had year-old mozzarella di bufala.
There are a small handful of other hard cheeses available in most American markets, including Vella Dry Jack (not to be confused with Monterey Jack, which is much softer), Piave, Pecorino Crotonese, Sbrinz Hard Mountain Cheese, Mimolette (aged 24 months), and super-aged Gouda or Boerenkaas (aged 24 months or longer).
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Many hard cheeses are used as grating cheeses, adding a pleasant burst of flavor to pasta dishes, soups, sauces, and pizza. No complaints here, as their texture and their umami notes (think meaty or savory, like soy sauce, ketchup, or anchovy paste) lend themselves well to being used as more of a condiment than a featured food.
However, hard cheeses also deserve a place at the table, as whole cheeses featured on a cheese board. Nearly every hard cheese tastes wonderful, splintered off the wedge with a sharp knife, dipped in honey, or served with very sweet fruits such as cantaloupe or berries.
These cheeses are so very solid, and flavor resides in fat, which can exist only in the solids. The volatile organic compounds that create flavor and aroma are mostly fat-soluble, which is part of the reason why low-fat cheese tastes so bland.
These cheeses are so jam-packed with flavor, most people can have only a nibble or two before feeling completely satiated. So even a hard cheese that seems pricey per pound is far more economical than a cheaper, less-intensely-flavored cheese, because a little goes a long way.
Next time you are at your local cheese counter, ask your cheesemonger to let you try some hard cheeses, using the list above as a starting point. A good cheesemonger might have recommendations beyond these.
If your local cheese counter has no cheesemonger and only sells pre-cut cheese, seek out a very solid looking cheese. Give it a gentle squeeze. If it resists your advances and almost squeezes you back, you likely have a firm cheese in your hand.
Take it home, but leave the grater until another day. Have a little snack and give this sturdy cheese the spotlight it deserves.