Try to imagine a creamy tiramisu without rich mascarpone, a cheesecake without the subtle tang from cream cheese, or a breakfast bowl of berries without that extra protein boost of some cottage cheese.
Exactly… none of them would be the same!
The range of products that belong to the group of soft, fresh cheeses is large and versatile. But they all have some basic characteristics in common.
The most important aspect that differentiates them from other categories of aged varieties is that they do not require a long maturing process in order to be sold and eaten.
Fresh and unripened, they are all intentionally ready to eat within a few days or weeks, if not hours, directly after production.
Because of this short maturing time, soft and fresh varieties do not develop a rind, and typically fall within the spectrum of having mild, lactic flavors.
And with the highest moisture content out of all the categories, the majority of fresh options have a limited shelf life, especially after you open any form of a vacuum-sealed package.
To maintain the best quality of your purchase, keep your unaged dairy products in the fridge, dispose of them after the expiration date or when they show signs of deterioration like molds or foul smells, and consume them within a couple of days once opened.
But, as you’ll soon discover, not all fresh cheeses are created equal!
While they share some foundational characteristics, there is a world of difference in style, flavor, texture, production, and culinary application.
Let’s take a look at six popular types of fresh cheeses, to help you decide which one to feature on your menu next.
1. Cottage Cheese
Light, fluffy, and curdy, this type is typically made with pasteurized skim milk with the addition of lactic acid bacteria, rennet, and/or high-acid liquid like citrus or vinegar to quickly set the milk into fragile curds.
In production, the curds are usually given a cold-water bath to wash away any continued development of acidity. After washing and draining, the curds can be salted and mixed with cream or milk.
When you’re feeling crafty, opt to make it from scratch at home! It’s actually easy to do, and only requires just a few ingredients.
Our method is for a quick-setting cottage cheese, made by heating whole milk to a high temperature and mixing in white vinegar.
For a savory spread or dip, you can flavor the base with fresh herbs like chives or parsley, or mix in your favorite spices. Serve with cucumber, bell peppers, or other raw vegetables for a spot of color on your plate.
The mild, milky flavors also do well with a sweeter interpretation, topped with maple syrup, granola, and fresh berries or other fruit. You can also enjoy it on toasted bread with some jam or honey on top.
And I’ve made some really moist and fluffy pancakes when I mix some in my batter for a delicious breakfast treat!
2. Cream Cheese
A ubiquitous symbol of all-American industrialization, cream cheese in the United States is an incredibly soft and smooth pasteurized cow milk style.
The addition of stabilizers such as guar gum and carob gum is common in order to standardize its rich, thick consistency and to extend its shelf life.
As long as the total amount does not exceed .5% of the weight of the finished food, stabilizers are an approved ingredient in the commercial production of cream cheese, as explained in the United States Code of Federal Regulations of the FDA.
Lauded for its tangy taste and homogeneously creamy texture, it is an essential component in thick and delectable American-style cheesecakes.
3. Fromage Blanc
Literally translated to “white cheese,” fromage blanc is native to northwestern France, and is usually made with pasteurized cow milk, but can also be made with goat milk.
Traditionally using the skimmed milk that is left over from butter production, cream is often added back in to improve the flavor and support a richer consistency.
High-quality fromage blanc is allowed to acidify overnight – this longer, slower acidification process yields a tartness that perfectly balances the milk’s creaminess.
This incredibly smooth and silky Italian cow milk product is a sultry melt-in-your-mouth creation!
The unique quality of mascarpone is that it starts with a base of full-fat cream rather than milk.
But there’s no need to limit mascarpone’s full potential – it isn’t just for sweet treats!
Quark has a widespread popularity in Europe, particularly in German-speaking and other northern European countries.
Quark has a longstanding presence in Germanic history, and is traditionally made by manually draining naturally coagulated soured cow milk.
However, commercially-produced quark can now be made through industrialized practices, such as adding rennet to facilitate coagulation and using centrifuges to separate the whey from the solids.
There are many regional differences in its production, and it can be referred to by different names depending on the location.
The most notable commercially available style is called Schichtkäse or Handkäse, produced in northern parts of Germany. This style of quark is made up of layers – the top and bottom layers use a skim milk curd, while the middle uses a whole milk curd.
Quark is an essential ingredient in German-style cheesecakes, and it can also be popularly found in pierogi, pancakes, strudel, and other desserts.
Although it has many uses, quark is simply excellent topped with fresh berries or other fruit.
Italian ricotta is a versatile product with a light and fluffy texture. It can be made of cow, sheep, or buffalo milk.
The name loosely translates to “re-cooked” in Italian, indicative of the original process for making ricotta:
Liquid whey that is left over from cheesemaking was recooked at a high enough temperature to separate any remaining fats and proteins, which were then skimmed from the water to make a secondary batch of fresh cheese.
In modern production, ricotta can now be made with a blend of milk and whey.
Its fat content can vary, and there are many commercially available products – you may see a few different options at your grocery store for low-fat or whole-milk selections.
Ricotta has a completely different consistency when allowed to age – ricotta salata is a popular aged version, which is a drier, firmer product suitable for crumbling.
It is also available in a baked format, called ricotta infornata, which develops a thin, toasted rind and a soft, crumbly center.
Fresh ricotta is often used as a filling for many savory dishes, like stuffed peppers, calzones, ravioli, and eggplant rollatini. Together with spinach or fresh herbs, it makes an unbeatable addition.
It is also an ideal ingredient in a sweet cannoli filling – you can try our fun variation of this classic Italian dessert with our recipe for einkorn cannoli cupcakes!
A Fresh Perspective
These six examples only graze the surface of an entire category of fresh, soft cheeses!
Talk to your local cheesemonger to discover even more varieties – lactic, soft, milky, sweet, lemony, herbal, citrusy, and acidic, fresh cheeses are boundless, all with their own unique personalities.
With their youthful spirits, untouched by age, they represent one of the most refreshing and most versatile varieties of cheese you can easily use in your everyday entertaining.
What’s your favorite variety we discussed in this article? Is there another style we didn’t discuss that you love to buy… or even make from scratch?
Share your thoughts, comments, and ideas below!
Dive deeper into the delectable world of dairy – there are so many products out there to learn more about, ones that you often see when rushing up and down the aisles of your grocery store! Take a look at three more of our own informational articles:
About Nikki Cervone
Nikki Cervone is an ACS Certified Cheese Professional and cheesemonger living in Pittsburgh. Nikki holds an AAS in baking/pastry from Westmoreland County Community College, a BA in Communications from Duquesne University, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University. When she's not nibbling on her favorite cheeses or testing a batch of cupcakes, Nikki enjoys a healthy dose of yoga, wine, hiking, singing in the shower, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.