Simple and tangy as morning yogurt, fresh goat cheese is a creamy contradiction: rich and light, mild and bright. Its tartness revs up the palate and also acts as a welcome refresher between bites of headier, stinkier cheeses. In the supermarket, find tasty, affordable goat cheese (also called chèvre) shrink-wrapped in 4- to 8-ounce disk or log shapes. A pristine white color means the fresh goat cheese is indeed fresh.
Our Picks: Herbs enhance the flavor: Roll a log in any combination of peppercorns, tarragon, chives, thyme, fennel seeds, orange zest and mint. Or buy one already gussied up: Flecked with fragrant lavender and fennel pollen, Cypress Grove Chevre Purple Haze ($6.50 for 4 oz., cypressgrovechevre.com) is the cheese equivalent of a day spent running through wildflowers.
Cheddar is everyone's chum: So uniformly liked, so utterly dependable, you almost take it for granted. Naturally, nicely aged cheddar's full flavor shines on a cheese plate. (Look for varieties labeled "aged" or "vintage.") For an even deeper, earthier taste, seek out an english-style cheddar. You'll find the hunks looking like a flock of veiled brides, shrouded in the muslin or cheesecloth that allows the cheese to breathe and develop its fabulous taste.
Our Picks: Choose aged cheddars with complex flavors: Grafton Village Premium Vermont One-Year Cheddar ($7 for an 8-oz. wheel, graftonvillagecheese.com) goes down sharp but ends mellow; english-style Cabot Clothbound Cheddar ($25 for a 1-lb. wedge, shopcabot.com) is rich with grassy flavors and has a caramel finish; and Kerrygold Aged Cheddar ($10 for an 8-oz. wedge, at grocery stores) has a velvety texture with a hint of butterscotch.
Three words: Embrace the funk. Like anything truly interesting, blue cheese has its detractors. The big, bold thwack of round, sweet-sour, thank-you-mold flavor scares some people off -- and attracts ardent fans. Newbies can start slow with the creamiest looking ones, which are generally the gentlest -- but note that a surplus of blue veins doesn't necessarily indicate a strong cheese! For a balanced plate, blue is essential: It's the tangy yin to the yang of milder crowd-pleasers.
Our Picks: BelGioioso creamy gorgonzola ($10 per lb., at grocery stores) is a good starter blue -- mild, with warm brown-butter notes. Both creamy and crumbly, with a slightly tart flavor, Point Reyes Original Blue ($16 per lb., at specialty markets) tastes a lot like the solid form of blue cheese dressing. For something a little sweeter, try gorgonzola dolce (dolce means "sweet" in Italian). Magnifico!
Sheep's-milk cheese is the best friend you may not know yet. Cheddar and brie are cheese-plate stalwarts, but these buttery, snackable varieties are often overlooked. Shame, because cheesemongers consider them nearly perfect for their mellow yet complex taste. The words "aged," "vecchio" or "curado" indicate aging, which results in a sharper taste than younger, more floral sheep's-milk cheeses. If cheddars are the reliable violins of the cheese orchestra, sheep's-milks are the soulful cellos. The concert wouldn't be the same without them.
Our Picks: An aged manchego is firm and salty, while a younger manchego is sweet and mild. French petit basque ($28 for a 1.2-lb. wheel, dibruno.com) has aspects of young and aged cheeses -- both nutty and mellow. Cypress Grove Lamb Chopper ($25 for a 16-oz. round, cypressgrovechevre.com) is in a class all its own, made in the style of a gouda and sweet as salted caramel.
To make an ultrarich triple-crème, cheesemakers pour in a hefty dose of cream. Think of it like a croissant that you slather with butter -- sure, the pastry's good on its own, but why stop there? Indeed, the butterfat in this cheese (75 percent minimum) is almost as high as that in butter itself. Brie, at a relatively lean 45 percent, is a decent substitute. But for total decadence, look for "triple-crème" on the label, as well as a pure white exterior. We suggest attacking this brie-on-steroids with a spoon.
Our Picks: The creamy center of Saint André ($7 for a 7-oz. round, at grocery stores) has a slight tang, while Mt Tam ($18 for a 10-oz. round, cowgirlcreamery.com for info) is butter in cheese's clothing, with an earthy flavor. Explorateur ($14 for an 8-oz. round, at grocery stores) is a little milder and creamier.
Long Live Cheese!
When the party's over, take good care of your leftovers.
Soft cheeses: Leave them unwrapped in an airtight container, with all but one corner closed.
Semi-firm and hard cheeses: Wrap first in parchment or wax paper, then cover with plastic wrap.
Store all cheeses in the fridge drawer. They like a more humid environment.
Wrap each cheese separately. Resist the temptation to throw all of them into one bag after the party and call it a night.
The Cracker Myth: Contrary to popular wisdom, not every cheese should be eaten with bread or crackers. Harder cheeses don't have much moisture, so the combination can be unappetizingly dry. Eat those on their own and save the carbs for creamier cheeses.