If you want to understand the wide world of blue cheese, start by getting to know these four classic, flavor-forward styles.

IF YOU SEE SOMETHING labelled simply “blue cheese,” don’t trust it. Just think: If someone handed you a sandwich filled with “meat,” or your glass were poured high with “alcohol,” you’d recognize you were in trouble. Anonymous blue cheese isn’t so different.

Blue cheeses are indeed one big family—with a few uniting traits and idiosyncrasies, just like yours—but Fourme d’Ambert is not Maytag is not Picon. All do share the namesake blue (or green or indigo) streaks running through the curd. This colorful web is actually edible mold (typically Penicillium roqueforti), and it’s what gives the cheeses their signature mineral funk.

The world over, the myths surrounding blue cheeses’ origins have a similar ring. A careless shepherd forgets his fresh cheese sandwich in a cave. Or a distracted cheesemaker leaves in a hurry to meet his lover, neglecting an uncovered vat for too long. All come back to find their folly transformed into something surprising and delicious.

Blue cheeses can be anything from buttery and soft in character to stinging, hard-edged and metallic.

These days the process usually goes like this: Curds are gathered up into a large wheel, exposed to mold in a controlled fashion, and left to age in a cave or similarly dank and drafty environment for anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. Most are poked with needles to circulate oxygen through the cheese, which feeds and encourages more blue mold snaking through the curd.

As long as humans have tended cows, goats or sheep, cheese has been a natural byproduct, a way of preserving milk in its “leap toward immortality,” as the essayist Clifton Fadiman once said. But a blue cheese speaks particularly clearly of its home: the flock and its feed, the local caves and the invisible molds hanging in the air. Its terroir makes it what it is.

Because of this, blues can be anything from buttery and soft to stinging, hard-edged and metallic. So at the cheese counter, how do you know what you’re getting into? Start with a refresher course in four classic, widely available styles: French Roquefort, English Stilton, Italian Gorgonzola and Spanish Cabrales. All are protected to varying degrees by EU law, so they are still crafted in much the same way they have been for centuries. American blues, too, come in dozens of delicious styles made everywhere from Oregon to Vermont, but a better understanding of these begins with a survey of their old-world forebears.

According to Steven Jenkins, cheesemonger at New York’s Fairway Markets and author of the iconic “Cheese Primer,” “The Big Four are of unassailable quality, worthy of every accolade and certainly worthy of their prices.” Still, there are a few basic guidelines to keep in mind when purchasing and serving them (and most other cheeses, for that matter). Buy from a store that sells a lot of cheese, with high turnover—moldy or not, you want the fresh stuff. Always serve at room temperature; the flavors really come into their own when they escape the chill of the fridge. And store in wax paper or aluminum foil rather than plastic wrap, which will quickly suffocate the cheese. After all, one of the greatest things about these beautiful blues is that they are fully, pungently alive.

—Kristen Miglore

The Big Four

Below, a handy primer on what are widely considered the classic four blue cheeses. Take your pick, or sit down for a tasting of all four—in this order. You won’t want to return to the dainty nuances of Roquefort after fiery Cabrales has had its way with you.

1. ROQUEFORT

This raw sheep’s milk cheese is made in the caves of Mont Combalou, in southern France, using a formula that was legally codified over 300 years ago, long before modern AOC designations—the regulations defining where and how a cheese must be made in order to bear its name—came to exist. Its green pock marks, and perhaps its delicate flavor, have inspired the description persillée or “parsleyed.” Don’t choose this one for a heavy-handed steakhouse-style salad dressing. Instead, Jenkins suggests serving it alongside some lightly dressed greens, or with a glass of Sauternes.

———

2. GORGONZOLA

A supple cows’ milk blue produced near Milan, it comes in two distinct varieties: the younger, friendlier Gorgonzola dolce and a spunky aged version referred to as stagionato, di monte, piccante or naturale, depending on who’s talking. The buttery, gently haunting funk of Gorgonzola dolce makes it an excellent starter blue cheese. It’s great for cooking, too. At Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, Nancy Silverton layers it with fingerling potatoes, radicchio and rosemary on her signature charred pizza crust.

———-

3. STILTON

Many connoisseurs who prefer full-flavored raw milk cheeses make an exception for Stilton, made from pasteurized cows’ milk by order of the Stilton Cheese Makers’ Association. It’s an excellent and very flavorful cheese nevertheless: a thick golden cream with spidery green-blue bursts of mold and a rosy washed rind. Capitalizing on Stilton’s earthy, mushroom-like scent, British chef April Bloomfield serves an upscale version of the beef and Stilton pies of her childhood at The Breslin in New York.

———

4. CABRALES

Cabrales is so fierce, “not too many wines can wash it down,” warns Max McCalman in “Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best.” Crumbly Cabrales—made from cows’ milk, or a mix of cows’, sheep’s and goats’—is mottled with indigo mold that generates a spicy burn. Mr. McCalman recommends skipping it as a table cheese and harnessing its intensity by cooking with it in small doses. Marc Vidal, the Spanish-born chef at the Boqueria restaurants in New York and Washington, D.C., adds it to fried eggs and onions, tuna and piquillo pepper toasts, and cheese croquettes with membrillo sauce.