When I was a kid, if you asked me to name my favorite cheese, I probably would have answered “pizza.” Eventually — like, very eventually — I edged my way into grilled cheese with American or even cheddar, but it probably took longer than it should have for me to appreciate cheese on its own and in more of its many delightful, wide-ranging varieties.
These days, I’m making up for lost time, and even though I’m up for pretty much any type from anywhere, I can still find myself turning to familiar favorites. Standing in front of an array at the local cheese shop can be as paralyzing as it is exciting.
But first, there’s nothing wrong with the classics: cheddar, mozzarella, brie and other staples. “They are delicious,” says Amanda Parker, managing director of Cowgirl Creamery, the California-based cheese producer and family of shops. There’s no shame in staying within your comfort zone, and you’ll find plenty of room for a little experimentation within those categories.
Even if you’re interested in expanding your palate, it’s easy to feel intimidated by the options and stick with what you know. Parker attributes that in part to the fact that Americans typically haven’t grown up with the European experience of eating lots of cheeses lots of times.
There’s also this, according to Scott Freestone, cheese and charcuterie manager at Arrowine in Arlington, Va.: “People don’t want to feel stupid.”
The good news is, you don’t have to have all the answers. Here’s how to pick a new cheese to enjoy — or let someone else pick the right one for you.
Know what you like — and don’t: Freestone says Arrowine has 200 cheeses in its store, so often the first thing a customer gets asked is what they don’t like. Eliminating options from the start can be useful. But then be prepared to talk about what you do like. If you favor a particular cheese, great. It doesn’t have to be specific, though. Parker says you can talk about whether you like the flavor mild or funky, the texture creamy or crumbly or the milk to be from cows, sheep, goats or a blend. Also helpful is talking about how you plan to use it: whether you will eat it as is, eat it with a favorite condiment or cook with it.
Think about how to branch out: After you have your starting point, you can go any number of paths, according to Lauren Toth, training and curriculum manager at New York-based Murray’s Cheese. You can stick with something in one family (i.e. fresh, semisoft, washed-rind) by trying a new cheese with a different age, production process or flavor profile. Or stay in the same family but expand your geography to a different country or region. “Different countries/regions have different approaches to making cheeses, so try branching out to see how a different country does it,” Toth says.
You can also choose to explore the variations within a single country. Lastly, Toth says, “If you like a particular style of cheese, look out for varieties from that family that have a similar texture but different milk type, which will affect the aroma and flavor.”
Sample, sample, sample: The best place to get cheese is somewhere you can not only talk to a person, but also actually try before you buy. “If the monger’s not willing to give you a taste of something, you should walk out,” Freestone says. After figuring out what a customer might like, his staff will typically offer two cheeses to sample. At that point, no need to overthink. “It really only matters how you react to it in that moment,” he says. Do you like it or not? If you do, congrats. If not, keep on trying.
Remember that your opinions one day might be different if you try the same cheese another day. “Cheese is seasonally driven, and artisan cheeses will generally taste and even look different at different points during the year,” Toth says. “That’s why it’s important to always taste the cheese when you can — even if you know it well. What you liked last week, last month or six months ago might not taste the same this week.”
Consider these suggestions: I picked the brains of the cheesemonger at my go-to local shop, Cheesetique, as well as those of Parker and Toth for ideas on alternatives to the classics.
- Cheddar: I was steered toward an aged (more than 2 years) Dutch Gouda, which boasted the vibrant color, crumbly texture and crunchy crystals I love in cheddar. Cheddar is native to England, but within the country, you can find all kinds of territorial options, Parker says. For a similar intensity of flavor, you could go with an Alpine-style cheese, such as Comte or Gruyere, Parker says. Toth recommends Lincolnshire Poacher, a raw cow’s milk cheese that is like a cross between the cheddar and Alpine styles.
- Mozzarella: This is one of the most accessible cheeses. For an even more decadent experience, go with burrata, which boasts a creamy center. Or Toth says you can skip right to that creamy center by trying stracciatella (make it yourself even!). Parker says you can move on to other fresh cheeses such as ricotta or Cowgirl Creamery’s Fromage Blanc. If you’re mostly used to cow’s milk mozzarella, trying buffalo mozzarella is a must, according to Toth.
- Brie: My colleagues and I were blown away by Cheesetique’s recommendation here, which was Brebirousse. Boasting a funky orange rind and nuttier flavor thanks to sheep’s milk, it was gooey to the point of being almost liquefied, in the best possible way. Taleggio and Camembert are typical next steps up from brie, but for other more specialized recommendations, Parker likes Harbison, a spruce-wrapped soft-ripened cheese from Vermont’s Jasper Hill Creamery and, of course, Cowgirl’s triple cream Mt. Tam. Toth recommends two hybrid cheeses: New York’s cow-goat Nettle Meadow Kunik and Italy’s cow-sheep Robiola Bosina.
- Chevre: Take chevre and wrap it in the gooey center and surface rind of brie, and you get Bucheron, my pick from Cheesetique. Rather than something more aged, you can go very fresh with Westfield Farm’s Capri, a fluffy, delicate, one-week-old goat cheese from Massachusetts that Toth suggests. For something really different, she recommends River’s Edge Up in Smoke from Oregon, which is smoked and wrapped in bourbon-misted maple leaves.
- Blue: You’re probably familiar with whatever gets crumbled over salads. For a greater appreciation of blue cheese, try a creamy cambozola or Saint Agur, a French variety I enjoyed that manages to be buttery and spicy at the same time. For crumbly and potent, a British Stilton is Parker’s pick, although Colston Bassett is a creamy Stilton option. Toth advocates for Roelli Cheese Haus Dunbarton Blue, which is primarily a cheddar, but with the veining of a blue cheese.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano: Cheesetique didn’t steer me wrong with Piave Vecchio, which has a lot in common with Parm. Parker says you can branch out into pecorino, from sheep’s milk, and not just Romano — there are varieties that are bathed in olive oil (Oro Antico) as well as balsamic vinegar and juniper (Ginepro). Toth recommends Roomano, which is actually a very firm, very aged Gouda.
Do you have a favorite cheese to recommend? Share in the comments below!
More from Voraciously: