Making cheese from goat's milk is nothing new. The news is in the expanded selection of goat cheeses in well-stocked supermarkets as well as cheese shops and health food stores. But with this increased availability comes a problem: how to choose the kind of cheese with the characteristics you want. To add to the confusion, the industry has no set rules for labeling so the name of a cheese may or may not be helpful.
The majority of goat cheeses come from France and are called chËvres; chËvre means goat, but in everyday usage it means goat cheese, too. The popularity of the French cheeses has stimulated domestic production; most local cheesemakers also call their products chËvres. These, coupled with imports from Italy and Norway, present many choices.
The distinctive, tart, earthy flavor has wonderful subtle (and some not so subtle) variations. Regardless of how they are made, chËvres have a unique tang and aroma right from the start, growing robust and bold in these rapid-aging cheeses. The flavor comes partly from the fatty acids in goat's milk that differ from cow's milk; feed also affects the flavor. Both milks have similar fat content that varies by breed.
Principal milk production of goats (unlike cows) is seasonal - mid-March through October, with the greatest flow in the warm months. Few cheeses are aged more than four months, and most do not freeze without loss of quality. (This is why you see more cheeses in the summer.) In an attempt to even out production, the French are experimenting with cheese made from frozen goat milk curd; in the West, artificial light is being tested to increase milk production in the winter.
Goat cheeses can be classified by standard cheese nomenclature as unripened (fresh) or ripened; the texture of each is defined as soft, semisoft, firm, or hard (indicating moisture content).
This may seem misleading. Unripened cheeses can vary in moisture content: some are spoonable, but most you cut with a knife and these can be aged. Ripened cheeses have a culture introduced that gives them their special taste and texture. Another prime reason for confusion is the disparity in names. With one manufacturer, a name may be used as a type, with another as a brand. Or one kind of cheese made by several different makers may have several different names. Most cheeses can be distinguished by age, density (moisture content), size, shape, and coatings. Young cheeses tend to be much whiter, while ripened cheeses develop a cream color.
Generally, cheeses with less moisture have a more piquant flavor and stronger aroma. The larger and denser the cheese, the more slowly it dries as it ages, and the more complexities of flavor develop. Thus a small log will taste different from a large log made in the same way. Also the same cheese formed as a cake or a pyramid will have a different flavor. Ash, herbs, and carotene contribute flavor and color and may inhibit bacterial activity on the surface.
SOFT, UNRIPENED GOAT CHEESES
They represent the bulk of production by domestic cheesemakers. They are ready to sell and eat when they're anywhere from a few days to two weeks old. The most fragile is the soft, spoonable fromage blanc. Others last longer because of lower moisture content. Imported fresh cheeses are usually shipped by air; if vacuum-packed in plastic, they will keep unopened for several months.
Unripened cheeses have a tang (some much more so than others) and usually a moist, fresh curd texture like ricotta cheese. A light, fresh to pronounced goat aroma is appropriate, but if the cheese smells sour (like a moldy wet rag), not tart, it will taste bitter and unpleasant.
SOFT, RIPENED CHEESES
There are nine examples of soft-ripened goat cheeses. These cheeses usually have a velvety-looking white surface mold (from Penicillium candidium) like cow's milk Camembert or Brie. ChËvrita, Camembert, and chËvrefeuille will ripen like regular Camembert or Brie; they are ready to eat if they give readily when pressed and the center is creamy. The exterior white mold (or flower) is edible. The others - pyramid and bšcheron - don't get as soft and may look crumbly but will taste very smooth. As the cheese ages, the white mold turns darker and brownish; you can trim it off, if desired.
Crottin is an unripened cheese. It can be eaten soft or allowed to dry until very hard, then crumbled to use. Soft-ripened goat cheeses have a more complex flavor and aroma than unripened cheeses. And while there should be no soured smell, to a chËvre fancier a good whiff of ammonia promises a powerful taste experience. With the larger cheeses, ask for a taste at the market to be sure the cheese is what you want.
SEMISOFT OR FIRM, RIPENED
Two cheeses from Washington - Swiss style and Cascadian, which are similar and two from California - jack and Cheddar styles - are comparable in texture to their nongoat counterparts and are relatively long lasting. French chËvrotin and Èterlou are also like jack cheese but are not widely available. All are usually aged three to four months before distribution.
FIRM, UNRIPENED GOAT CHEESES
Most familiar in foil-wrapped rectangles, gjet–st is caramel color, with a very sweet, slightly tangy flavor and a firm, buttery consistency. The Norwegian import is made from goat's milk or a mixture of whey from goat's milk and cow's milk. A similar brown cheese is made in Washington; both have long storage life.
HARD, UNRIPENED OR RIPENED
These cheeses are firm textured and similar to GruyËre (or harder). The milk may or may not be cooked; the curds are pressed. Aging matures and dries them. Few are available. The cheese from Washington is ripened. Unripened chËvre sec is dry enough for grating and is much like Romano cheese. Crottin, ripened or unripened, can be soft or hard.
Examples of further variations of goat cheeses include an imported Italian ricotta made from whey. It looks like regular ricotta and is as perishable (it should smell fresh), but with a mild tang.
Various goat cheeses packed in olive oil and herbs are intended to eat on bread; you can make your own. The oil extends the life of the cheese, but be sure the acidity of the cheese is low enough to prevent growth a food-poisoning bacteria capable of growth under the anaerobic conditions in the jar. Mild, tiny mini-chËvres are unripened cheeses, often coated with flavoring, made of equal parts goat's and cow's milk.
BUYING AND STORING
Goat cheeses are about 15 percent more expensive than comparable cheeses made from cow's milk. When buying cheeses that are cut by weight, you can ask for a taste, but with the smaller, single cheeses you must use your nose to judge quality.
In general, store goat cheeses the same way you would similar cheeses. Refrigerate the very perishable fresh and soft-ripened ones wrapped loosely in waxed paper. (You can put them in a larger container or refrigerator compartment so they won't pick up other odors or share their own.)
Serve goat cheeses as you would the same type of cow's milk cheese; most taste best at room temperature.
Source: Sunset 1983