And what you might not realize is that knowing a bit about a cheese's color can inform your palate, as well. Herein, a cheat sheet divulging the why's behind those oranges, whites, blues, and yellows.
I remember growing up with a preference for white cheddar. I probably didn't realize that what makes an orange cheddar orange actually has no flavor; perhaps I just distrusted the color?
Orange cheeses-- like cheddar, gouda, and mimolette-- are orange because of the addition of annatto, a natural food-dye derived from the seeds of the achiote plant. Its shades range from bright yellow (think American singles) to deep orange (think English cheese great Double Glouchester). There's no reason for the addition other than tradition and aesthetic. The small quantity of annatto necessary to color a vat of cheese has no flavor.
Yellow cheeses with a buttery hue (not the brightly-colored yellow cheeses, described above) are largely cow milk cheeses. Even more specifically, they're probably grass-fed cow milk cheeses, and probably from the milk of a breed of cow (like the Jersey breed) with super-high fat content. Butterfat in milk, in conjunction with the beta-carotene in an animal's diet, makes a cheese deeply yellow. Beta-carotene (think carrots) translates directly from the milk to the vat to that final wedge of cheese. A cow that munches on grass intakes significantly more beta carotene than one that's eating hay or grain. A few American greats come to mind that typify this phenomenon: Meadowcreek Dairy's Grayson, Upland Cheese Company's Pleasant Ridge Reserve, and Cato Corner's Hooligan. Furthermore, a cheese that's left to age will deepen in color, so a cheese that's ripened for 9 months will be significantly more intense color-wise than a fresh cheese.
Bright white cheeses, and I mean stark, blinding white, are always goat milk cheeses. Goat milk, unlike cow milk, contains no beta carotene. Any beta carotene consumed by a goat gets immediately converted into Vitamin A, which has no color. It's as simple as that. Even an aged goat cheese will be white, though perhaps just slightly less bright as a younger, fresh version.
Blue cheese, how we love you. Why oh why are you blue, though? It's a pretty simple explanation. The mold that's innoculated into a blue cheese-- typically Penicillium Roqueforti or Penicillium Glaucum-- turns blue when it starts to grow. All blue cheeses actually start off white, and only when oxygen meets the mold do those eponymous blue veins appear. Veining actually occurs only when air is introduced with the pricking of wheels with long, narrow needles. It is along these paths where those precise, straight lines of blue mold grow. You can often see these perfectly formed paths in a slice of blue, or circular blue pricks which represent where the wheel was pricked.
The best cheese platters always showcase a wide range of colors. Choosing a slew of different-colored cheeses isn't only visually appealing, it'll ensure that you've picked cheeses with varying tastes, ages, and textures.
Nora Singley used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
Related: Why is Goat Cheese Always White?
(Images: Nora Singley)