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Cheese: A Happy Accident

For as long as humans have tended sheep, goats, and cows, we've been making cheese. Rumor has it the first cheese was formed accidentally -- nomads in the Middle East or Central Asia carried milk in containers made from animal stomachs. As they walked, it mixed with enzymes (called rennet) and separated into curds and whey. The result: cheese. Egyptians loved their cheese, too: Tomb murals dating back to 2000 BC show people making cheese.

Make a Gouda Impression

If you're cooking with cheese, you can use it straight from the fridge. If it's part of an appetizer plate, serve it at room temperature, and try to limit it to five varieties of different flavors, shapes, and textures. Let it sit out 20 minutes to 1 hour before serving to help bring out its true personality.

Get Fresh

Cream cheese (Neufchatel), ricotta, feta, goat (chevre), queso fresco, and cottage cheese are considered soft or fresh cheeses. These have been aged for a short time or not at all. They're creamy and soft and have a mild taste. Cream cheese is great for making dips and cooking. Add feta to your salad to get a salty kick without a lot of sodium, or sprinkle it over baked eggplant and tomatoes.

The Softer Side

Brie, that oozing, runny cheese with the dusty rind, is soft-ripened, as is Camembert. These are typically creamy, almost runny at room temperature. And yes, you can eat the rind. For a quick appetizer, wrap brie topped with a slathering of jam in puff pastry and bake until golden, then serve with crackers, or try Spinach and Brie Topped Artichoke Hearts.

All Shapes and Sizes

Gouda, Havarti, Muenster: All are semi-soft. So are Colby and Monterey Jack. Some Italian cheeses like mozzarella belong to a group called pasta filata. These are cooked and kneaded, then twisted or formed into shapes. (Filata means "spun" in Italian.) Havarti goes great with ham in a pressed sandwich, or try Gouda in this Caramelized Onion and White Bean Flatbread.

Cheese Is Grate

Harder types like cheddar -- the second most popular kind in the U.S., behind mozzarella -- Swiss, Gruyere, and Parmesan can be grated into your favorite macaroni and cheese or casserole, or paired with apples or pears as a snack. Cold cheese is easier to grate, so shred it right out of the fridge. Try it in this Roasted Apple and Cheddar Salad.

Going Blue

Mold isn't something you want to eat -- unless it's in your cheese. It's called veining, and it's created by adding a type of mold called penicillium roqueforti during the process. The most well-known blues are Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Maytag Blue, and Stilton. Try topping your steak with a dollop of blue cheese, or for an appetizer, make Beet Carpaccio.

Simple Ingredients

Whether it's Camembert or cheddar, Gouda or Gorgonzola, all cheeses are made with the same four ingredients: milk, a starter culture, salt, and rennet. But it's the quality and type of those ingredients, how they're combined, how long they're aged, and what else is added, like fruits or spices, that make those hundreds of tasty cheeses we love to eat.

Don't Overdo It

Cheese can be a healthy part of your diet, as long as you eat it in moderation. Adults need 2-3 servings of dairy each day. One serving -- 1 1/2 ounces of cheese or the size of four dice -- provides the same amount of calcium as 1 cup of milk or yogurt. If you have dietary, religious, or animal rights concerns, check the label for ingredients or talk to a local cheese maker to learn more before buying.

Nutrition News

Cheese often gets a bad rap -- after all, it's the leading source of saturated fat in the U.S. diet. But it also provides calcium, phosphorus, and zinc in addition to protein for folks who don't eat meat. And new research has linked it with lower blood pressure and a lower risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. If you need to cut back on salt, look for low-sodium cheeses or softer types like mozzarella.

Udder Delights

Most cheese is made from cow's milk, but some come from other animals, like goats and sheep -- even buffalo, moose, or reindeer! They may sound weird, but they're worth a try. There's much more to goat cheese, also known as chevre, than just those mini logs at the grocery store. There are blue, Gouda, and even cheddar varieties. It's great on crackers or on a salad, or try it for breakfast with Honey and Goat Cheese Muffins.

Making It Last

Keep cheese in its original wrapper in your refrigerator's vegetable drawer. It's warmer there than in the meat drawer. Once opened, secure tightly with plastic wrap, parchment, or wax paper to protect it from air and moisture, which can make it go bad faster. If you find a moldy spot, don't throw the whole thing away. Cut 1/2 inch away from the moldy area and toss. The rest of the cheese is still safe to eat. Throw away moldy soft cheeses.

Safety First

Artisanal cheese making has blossomed, and now you can find fun varieties at farmers markets and even online. But is it safe? Most are made with pasteurized milk, but some could contain raw milk. If you're pregnant or have a weakened immune system, you could have a higher chance of getting listeria, which can sometimes be found in unpasteurized soft cheeses. To be safe, ask the maker or check the label for pasteurized milk.

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Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on March 20, 2014