Fresh cheeses are the wee babes of the cheese world, you might say. Allowed to sit for only a few days before they should be consumed, these youngest cheeses are fresh in all senses of the word.
Understanding fresh cheeses requires a quick lesson in cheesemaking.
The milk, which must be pasteurized if a fresh cheese is to be sold in the US, is curdled. This can be done with acid, with a starter culture, or from a combination of heat and acid.
Some fresh cheeses are then coagulated with rennet; others are not coagulated.
For many other kinds of cheeses, the curds would then be pressed to expel the whey, the cheese would be placed in a mold, and then it would be aged for a certain amount of time.
For the most part, fresh cheeses are not pressed, so they have a high water content. They are not allowed to ripen or age, so they also retain most of their initial moisture. This often means that a fresh cheese will be very soft, spreadable, and moist.
Sometimes cream is added to fresh cheeses to make them super supple. Other times they are just made from skimmed milk.
So what are these tender, fresh cheeses?
Cream cheese, Chèvre, cottage cheese, Crème Fraiche, Fromage Blanc, Gournay, Mascarpone, Mozzarella, Neufchâtel (the real French version, not the cream cheese-like stuff you find in the US), Paneer, Quark, Queso Blanco, Queso Fresco, Ricotta. In some instances, the term “fresh cheese” can also refer to young versions of cheeses that have actually been pressed to expel much of their moisture, such as cheese curds, Manouri, and White Stilton.
Some people would argue that many of the cheeses I just named are not actually cheeses, but rather they are derivatives of cream or other kinds of dairy products. That depends on how you view the extent of the cheesemaking process from start to finish.
I’m not picky, but some folks like Steven Jenkins are. For example, as Jenkins writes of Mascarpone in his book, Cheese Primer: “…not actually a cheese–no starter rennet is used in its production” (496). It’s a topic we could argue about all day. For my part, I put forward that Mascarpone has been thickened without the use of rennet, so it goes through a process that is similar but not identical, rendering it nonetheless still a cheese.
Generally speaking, fresh cheeses do not have a ton of flavor on their own. They are milky and maybe a little sweet, depending on the type of milk that was used to make them. Many fresh cheeses are flavored by the addition of spices, herbs, and salt.
Because they are so good at helping to magnify other flavors, fresh cheeses are often employed in cooking. Think of mozzarella melted on a pizza, ricotta oozing out of hot lasagna, Tiramisu stuffed with creamy Mascarpone, and mashed potatoes freshened up with Fromage Blanc.
But I find the most intriguing uses for fresh cheeses to be those that allow them to sing alongside other ingredients, not necessarily melded into them. And summer is probably the best season for that, because of all the wonderful produce that is at its peak during the warmer months.
Here are a few of my favorite suggestions for making good use of the freshest cheeses around.
While you could just eat a bowl of fresh berries with Ricotta, Crème Fraiche, Cottage Cheese, Quark, or Fromage Blanc and call it good, I adore pairing Mascarpone with summer fruits. (And mind you, I am Ricotta’s biggest fan with everything.)
I love smearing Mascarpone onto fig halves and drizzling the combo with honey—even hot honey, spreading it on grilled or fresh stone fruit slabs, muddling it with pitted cherries, or spreading it on a slice of baguette and sprinkling it with berries. Maybe it’s the addition of cream that makes Mascarpone the true winner with fruit; or maybe it’s just that it’s so good.
Fromage Blanc and cream cheese both make excellent partners for fresh veggies. Skip the ranch dressing; dip those carrot spears, broccoli and cauliflower florets, radishes, snap peas, and cherry tomatoes into an herbed Fromage Blanc. Toss it with lightly steamed green beans, or let it melt ever so slightly on a baked potato.
Or, prepare a light pizza dough, cook it, then spread herbed or plain Fromage Blanc, Gournay or cream cheese over it like you normally would with a tomato pizza sauce, and cover the whole thing with diced veggies. Fresh veggie pizza for the win!
Pasta salad is my jam.
I’ll do up Farfalle, Orzo, or Rotini with slices of bell pepper, onion, tomato, avocado, and olives, a drizzle of olive oil, some fresh herbs, and then dress it with cheese. While my all-time favorite salad cheese is Feta, equally delicious results can be achieved with the likes of Queso Blanco, Mozzarella, cottage cheese, paneer, and the king of crumbled fresh cheeses, chèvre.
You can also skip the noodles in the salad and sub in quinoa, cous cous, or pearl couscous for varied textures. Or you can just make a normal green salad and top it with the fresh cheese of your choice.
On a Cheese Board
Your cheese board need not exclude unripened cheeses. Any of the members of the fresh cheese family make excellent partners for their aged compatriots.
Just make sure that you begin your tasting with the fresh cheeses lest they become overpowered by their more aged peers. In general, you want to taste the mildest cheeses first and the strongest cheeses last.
For a Grill Party
Grill party, barbecue, whatever you want to call it—just make sure there is fresh cheese.
If you’re roasting corn, pair it with chèvre or Fromage Blanc. If you’re serving fare for vegetarians with some grilled zucchini or other vegetables, let the veggie slices roast in foil with some Queso Blanco, Queso Fresco, or Mozzarella.
Be sure to top that hot burger patty with Gournay, Chevre, or Fromage Blanc. And I’ve already mentioned the best summer dessert you can get off the grill: peach or nectarine halves grilled, then smeared with Mascarpone.
At a Picnic
Pasta and fruit salads are no brainers as far as picnic food goes. Fresh sandwiches made with thinly sliced vegetables and cream cheese or Gournay are also great to pack and take.
For a simpler snack, Ricotta or mozzarella can be served on baguette slices with honey and fruit or olive oil and sliced heirloom tomatoes. Potato salad can be lightened up with Crème Fraiche instead of mayonnaise, and cheese curds provide a mess-less but delicious snack.
Everything is better with cheese, and I’m willing to bet that most of your summer favorites are even better with fresh cheese, too.