Cheese. Photo by Stephanie

Cheese. Photo by Stephanie.

Stephanie Stiavetti (@sstiavetti) writes The Culinary Life blog. Her first book, Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese, will be published next year by Little, Brown.

by Stephanie Stiavetti

If you’re a regular reader of Michael’s site, then you’re probably one of a class of people that thinks a lot about food. You might make it a point to buy quality ingredients, mostly prepare your meals at home, and generally spend a fair amount of time thinking about what you put in your body. What baffles me, though, is that despite all the grass-fed beef and produce carefully selected at the local farmers’ market, a huge number of the people in this food-conscious demographic still buy crappy, industrially produced cheese. These folks have educated themselves about many other aspects of what they eat, but are seemingly unaware that these cheeses are on par with the same processed foods they spend so much money and energy avoiding.

Then there’s an interesting class of in-betweens, somewhat cheese-savvy individuals who consciously go out of their way to buy specialty cheeses for a cheese plate, but when it comes to the cheese they’re putting on a burger, in a casserole, or on top of their pasta, they still reach for the dairy equivalent of a Pop Tart. Pisses me off. And it’s a big part of why I wrote a whole book dedicated to cooking with “real” cheese (with friend and fellow writer Garrett McCord, out from Little, Brown this fall).

Why is it that the quality and origin of one’s cold cuts warrants so much critical thought, yet not nearly as much attention is paid to the cheese that’s slapped on top of food before calling it dinner? If you notice a difference when you eat fresh, locally sourced meat and vegetables, I guarantee that you’ll find a huge difference between high- and low-quality cheeses.

So listen up! School’s in session. Today I’m going to give you a quick primer on basic cheese vocabulary. These terms will help you to become a better cheese buyer and, consequently, a healthier, more satisfied cheese eater.

Artisan, Specialty, or Mass-Produced Cheeses?

There are many ways to classify cheeses, but some would argue that it’s most important to properly categorize varieties by how they are produced. Cheeses generally fall into one of four production categories: industrially producedspecialtyartisan, and farmstead. How can a novice cheese buyer tell the difference between a mass-produced cheese and a farmstead cheese? Here’s how:

Industrially produced cheeses are made in large factories, often employing huge teams of workers to create the cheese. The milk comes from any number of places, including factory farming operations. The taste and texture of industrially produced cheeses are usually very consistent from one package to the next. They come wrapped in sealed plastic, often pre-sliced or in huge blocks, and are sold prolifically across the country. These are the cheeses you’ll find in the cheese aisle at your local Safeway, Kroger’s, Costco, etc. Think brands like Kraft, Sargento, President, Laughing Cow, and generic grocery store cheeses.

Specialty cheeses are produced with less mechanization than industrially produced varieties, and are usually created in somewhat smaller amounts. Specialty cheese makers pay attention to flavor and texture profiles, keeping a relatively close eye on the cheeses they produce, though these cheeses are not considered “handmade.” You can find specialty cheeses at regular grocery stores, where they’re often a little pricier than their mass-produced counterparts. Specialty cheeses are a good intersection between quality and ready availability—brands such as Kerrygold, Beemster, Parrano, and Cabot Cheese Co-op. for example.

Artisan cheeses are handmade in small batches, often by just one or a small handful of passionate individuals who pay close attention to the tradition of the cheesemaker’s art. Artisan dairies employ as little mechanization as possible, adhering to more traditional methods (while working within the limitations of health and sanitation laws). You can usually find these cheeses at small local cheese shops manned by knowledgeable cheese staff. While artisan cheeses are not usually found in the huge cheese aisle at the supermarket, many big grocery chains are implementing cheese counters with a trained cheese person standing by. Brands to look for: Cowgirl Creamery, Vermont Creamery, Coach Farms, Laura Chenel, and Cypress Grove.

Farmstead cheeses are made using milk from the cheesemaker’s own animals, meaning the cheese is produced on the farm where the animals live. A cheese can be classified as both artisan and farmstead if the cheese is made by hand and the milk comes from the farm where the cheese is made. These are cheeses you’ll find in small local cheese shops, or at the specialty cheese counter of your local grocery store (not in the cheese aisle). Think: Fiscalini, Redwood Hill, and Vermont Farmstead.

When Large Production = Small-Time Quality

While it may appear that some cheeses are created on an industrial scale, in reality they may be the combined intimate efforts of many farmers working together to create very consistent results. Take Gruyère, for example. Because of its protected origin designation, only cheese made in a very specific region of Switzerland can be called Gruyère, but there’s not just one enormous factory creating all the Gruyère that exists in the world. Many smaller dairy farms within the region work together to help produce the cheese, all of them adhering to the same specific requirements for a uniform product. If you’re curious about the original of your specific wedge of Gruyère (or any other protected cheese, such as Emmentaler, Parmigiano Reggiano, etc.), feel free to ask the staff of your local cheese shop who made, aged, and distributed the cheese you’re buying.

Other popular kinds of cheeses, such as brie, are not protected by any sort of designation, and therefore may be made on any scale without any sort of specified quality control. This means that while officially titled Gruyère will be fairly consistent, it is not necessarily the case for brie. Artisan brie can be amazing. Mass-produced brie that you find for $3 at Walmart tastes vaguely of salted pressboard and packing peanuts. Same goes for camembert, cheddar, “Swiss” cheese, and others. (Fun fact: Swiss cheese doesn’t really exist as a type of cheese. It’s the generic name for Emmentaler-like cheese produced outside the designation.)

It’s also worth noting that not all large-production cheese tastes like crap. Some big-name brands manufacture cheese at a dizzying rate while still maintaining high standards of quality. Two such examples are Tillamook and Black Diamond, both of which create very good cheddars and are available in huge grocery store chains. But the point of this post is to show the merits of selecting specialty and artisan cheeses over their factory-generated cousins, and I make it a point to select small-production cheeses because I prioritize independent producers, non-factory-farmed ingredients, and artisan-level quality. Huzzah!

How Do You Find Out?

Learning about the cheese you eat is no different than learning about the meat you’re buying. Do some research. Your best source for cheese information is a staff person at your local cheese counter. A good cheesemonger is well trained in the way of the milk and can answer your questions about the origin, content, and quality of the cheeses they stock. Given the growing popularity of handmade cheese, many large-scale supermarkets are outfitting their locations with well-stocked cheese counters. Even if your regular grocery store doesn’t have a cheese counter, you can probably find at least a few specialty brands in the cheese aisle. If all else fails, look to online cheese vendors such as Murray’s or Artisanal.

What About Price?

Quality cheeses are more expensive than their processed counterparts, as is most of the food you put in your mouth. I’m continuously hearing the complaint that good cheese is too pricey, yet these same people plunk down $10 for a dozen organic, free-range eggs. News flash: you’re digesting it all, and it all needs to be high-quality. Crappy cheese is just as bad for you as any other crappy food.

What About Fat?

Sure, there’s the argument for eating low-fat foods, and a huge number of Americans still buy fat-free cheeses, which are generally not available from anywhere but industrial brands. Cheese is composed primarily of fat. Fat-free cheese isn’t really cheese. But much like the stance Michael has taken on salt—that if you don’t glut yourself on sodium-laden processed food, you don’t have to worry a whole lot about the salt you use to season your homemade dishes—I take a similar position on fat. If you cut out processed high-fat foods, the fat you consume from a moderate amount of real cheese isn’t going to hurt you. In fact, there’s a whole cookbook dedicated to the idea of fat as a healthy, necessary part of your diet.

Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about cheese and where it comes from, there are a few awesome books on the topic:

Stephanie Stiavetti

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46 Wonderful responses to “Stephanie’s Cheese Rant”

  • David Tucker

    Stephanie, excellent post. Once you find good sources for cheese, what is the best way to store it?

    • Stephanie

      Well, it really depends on the cheese, though it’s generally good practice to wrap them tightly in cheese paper (parchment makes a good stand-in) and store them in the environmentally controlled part of your fridge (ie, the crisper).

  • Allen

    If you want ice cream, and you buy ; low fat, low sugar, frozen yogurt…. Etc, then you don’t get ice cream.
    Same thing with cheese, get the real stuff with all the fat or don’t f#*king buy cheese!

    Sorry about the rant, great post.

  • Mike Draper

    You should have a section on cream cheese, am I wrong?

    • Stephanie

      Cream cheese, like other mass-produced cheeses, vary in quality. Some smaller dairies make their own gorgeous, locally produced cream cheese, creme fraiche, ricotta, etc. If you have a local cheese shop or a Whole Foods with a cheese counter, they’ll be able to point you in the right direction. Otherwise, consider calling Murray’s or Artisinal (online cheese shops).

  • Kelly M

    Tillamook is so darn great because it’s run by a co-op. I’ll only use their dairy products. Nothing beats a slice of their cheddar with apple pie.

  • MonkeyBoy

    I’ve noticed something strange when I make a cheese hollandaise sauce (melt cheese with butter before combining with yolk & lemon mixture).

    If I use cheap supermarket cheddar it always comes out grainy while if I use a more expensive cheddar (cut from a block not prepackaged at the factory) it is much smoother.

    The ingredients of both cheeses appear the same. Any explanation for the difference in textures?

    • Stephanie

      Hey there, it could be something as simple as additives in the cheese gumming up the emulsion. If you look at your cheap cheddar, are there a bunch of random things on the ingredients list? Like preservatives, added oil, etc?

    • Mantonat

      Probably the length of the protein chains. Minimal heat and processing keeps the protein from the milk more intact. That’s why it’s really difficult to make a good homemade stretchy mozzarella from store-bought milk. I think some cheeses make up for this with additives like carrageenan.

  • Brenden

    I’m actually not a fan of Tillamook. Maybe they are okay, but I just had a bad first impression. My wife and I were touring their facility in Oregon a few years back and tried their cheese curds since people were raving about them. They did not squeak. They were not in the same ball park as the ones we get here in Wisconsin. Not even close.

  • Brette

    Excellent points! I think a lot of people kind of blindly shop by buying anything labelled organic and thinking that’s the answer. Buying good cheese requires a bit more thought than this, which may be why people don’t yet know how to do it.

    • Stephanie

      I believe that cheese is one of those things that intimidate people, given it’s such a vast world. But really, it’s all about finding what you like, what’s good for you, and sticking with it!

  • Jeannie

    I really appreciated all the great info. Since I tend to go on rants myself and some of my favorite Ruhlman posts have been when he rants because they are usually subjects that I completely agree with. Next time, if I find myself about to pick up some of the other “stuff” because of the price or accessibility or laziness on my part, I will ” just say no”!

    • Stephanie

      That’s great news, Jeannie! I’m of the belief that small production cheeses are a lot more satisfying, taste-wise. They can be more complex, making for a much more engaging experience. :)

  • Anita Figueras

    I’m excited to see you list Cabot as a high quality product. I live in Northern NY, where Cabot’s coop Agrimark buys milk from local producers and where Cabot cheese is abundant and reasonably priced. Tasty, too! And nearly the only brand of cheese in my refrigerator.

  • Des

    I’m glad you mentioned Tillamook because man oh man I love it, it is the only cheddar I will buy.

  • Miss Kim @ behgopa

    Fabulous and insightful post on cheese! Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I love cheese. This post actually reminds me of a friend from elementary school. Whenever we came across any kind of cheese, she went bananas..she got so excited. She was a mini cheese expert of her time. It wouldn’t surprise me if she grew up to be a cheese connoisseur like you!

  • Ryan

    I find it odd that several paragraphs are dedicated to explaining how people’s cheese standards are not up to par. Is there any data backing this up, or is this just your opinion based on what your friends buy? I don’t know any foodies who would put a kraft single on their burger.

    “Crappy cheese is just as bad for you as any other crappy food.” — By crappy cheese, do you mean crappy cheese-like product? Or do you mean industrial-scale cheese, which is still real cheese? I personally usually buy specialty cheese, but there’s a big difference between mass-produced cheddar and processed cheese-like product. The former is uninteresting and somewhat bland, but is still cheese and doesn’t contain mystery ingredients. I wouldn’t argue that it’s terribly bad for you. The latter is the processed stuff that I think we all can agree we should avoid.

    • Stephanie

      Hi Ryan,

      This of the difference between a chicken breast that’s just, well, chicken, versus a chicken breast that’s been injected with sodium, coloring, etc. It’s the same with cheese. Think of cheeses that are just milk and rennet, versus cheeses that are made with coloring, emulsifiers, added oils, etc.

    • Stephanie

      Also, yes, it’s true that some mass-produced cheeses can contain nothing but cheese and rennet, but part of this argument is that crap cheese contains ingredients of low quality, such as factory farmed milk… as opposed to milk from cattle that are treated well, live healthier lives, and therefore produce higher quality milk, potentially of higher nutritional value (I don’t have the numbers in front of me, though, and I’m not up to speed on the nutritional quality of factory versus small-production milk).

      And as you said, it can be bland and uninteresting. :)

  • Tasha

    Thought I’d throw in one of my favorites – Holland’s Family Cheese. Their gouda is sublime. One nice thing about living in northern Wisconsin is a decent selection of smaller-produced cheeses (and small local cheese shops), and some real gems like them!

  • Rachel

    People also don’t know that some cheese are amazingly easy to make at home, including cream cheese discussed above. Yes, it takes more milk than you think to make cheese, but experiencing the process helps me appreciate local small-batch cheesemakers even more.

    • Stephanie

      Agreed. I would LOVE to see more people making cheese at home. There’s a huge upcropping of cheesemaking classes all over the country, which is gratifying to see.

  • Zalbar

    I love all kinds of cheeses, and we are blessed with a plethora of choice here in Quebec not available in America due to no silly regulations about the milk used.

    THAT BEING SAID, a guilty pleasure I have is that slice or two of processed kraft singles over a burger. It’s a very specific taste that I enjoy.

  • Mantonat

    I think the major concern for most shoppers is price, even shoppers who are switching to organic vegetables and locally sourced meat. I buy an eighth of a cow when I buy beef, so I can keep the price of good grass-fed beef to about $5/lb for a wide variety of cuts. I buy whole organic chickens when they are on sale and freeze them, so I’m usually paying $3/lb. Same with pork – $4/lb is a pretty good deal for local, organic shoulder. Veggies can run a little more for organic, but if I buy in season, I can usually save money, and I supplement by growing my own in the summer. Cheese on the other hand jumps drastically in price when you get into local, hand-made products. It’s not uncommon to see $20-25/lb. Haystack Mountain has pretty good chevre at reasonable prices, but their hard cheeses are considerably more. Like you said, I’m willing to pay more if I’m doing a cheese plate or making a specific recipe that features cheese as the main ingredient, and I try to buy Kerrygold or Tillamook when they are on sale, but it’s hard to resist the Sprouts Market bulk cheese (cheddar, jack, mozzarella, etc.) for under $5/lb, for everyday uses. The label still only lists 3 ingredients for the white cheeses (milk, rennet, culture), even if the milk is from unknown sources. I still don’t eat enough of this kind of cheese to make it a health concern. I just think the price jump from conventional to organic/local/small-batch/etc. is greater with cheese than with just about any other food that Americans buy regularly. Maybe with time and acceptance, the prices will come down, as I’ve noticed that high-quality cheeses are relatively cheap in Europe when I’ve visited. But then again, maybe all those small dairy operations are receiving government subsidies in Europe, whereas here it’s the other way around – Big Ag gets the government money and the little guys can’t compete.

    • Stephanie

      I absolutely see your point. If the cheese you’re buying is only listing a handful of basic cheesemaking ingredients, then you’re at least on the positive side of the spectrum with it comes to health. Sprouts tends to sell decent products, so it’s possible that their bulk cheese does indeed come from high quality milk sources – I’m not sure, but I’m sure they’d be forthcoming with information if you were to ask.

      Cost is definitely a factor in buying choice, and it’s a very intimate situation for every person. You’re way ahead of the game in the meat department, and it sounds like you’re making decisions based on conscious thought instead of reflexively grabbing what’s being marketed to you. I wish more people shopped like that.

  • Jordan Grossi

    Thank you for reminding me (as if I could/would forget) why i Love France and Love living here !!!
    Brilliantly written !!!!!

  • Monty

    If you think cheese is expensive in the US come up here to Canada. Ugh!!

  • Lara Christenson

    Totally agree on squeaky cheese curds. Stephanie, when I was in the UK, certain cheeses at the grocery had a number denoting the “funk” factor. Do you think that systems like this help cheese novices, or simplify it to the point where the unique aspects of each cheese are glossed over?

    • Stephanie

      Heh, that’s hilarious! I think it would definitely help cheese novices, or maybe it would hurt them by scaring them away. ;)

  • Emmet Klocker

    What would you recommend I buy as a good cheeseburger cheese for kids. Is there an orange, melty, American style cheese out there with some integrity? I buy Tillamook cheddar or other artisan cheeses but the kids like the gooey texture of the cheap stuff. Any ideas?

    • Stephanie

      You might try Vella Dry Jack, or another dry Jack cheese – they tend to be saltier and more “American” tasting than other cheeses. Otherwise there’s always a a mild cheddar from any one of a number of artisan cheesemakers.

  • derek

    Who is buying eggs at $10/dozen? I have never even seen this offered!

    Also, I second Emmet Klocker’s request.

  • ATN654

    This will sound odd, but I need to defend Costco’s cheese selection. Maybe it’s just a characteristic of the area that I’m in (San Fran Bay Area), my local Costco doesn’t seem to carry a lot, if any, Kraft and Sargento cheeses and their kind. What I have seen (and purchased) there is Manchego, Petit Basque, Parm Reg (yes, the real stuff), Laura Chenel chevre, Maytag blue, Point Reyes blue, Brie de Meaux, Black Diamond cheddar, Comte, just to name a few. And the prices are amazingly reasonable for these specialty cheeses. If only, I could eat the huge portions.
    I wish that they could carry more artisan cheeses like the Bonne Bouche from Vermont Creamery or Fiscalini or my new favorite Meredith Dairy (an Australian artisan cheesemaker). But I’m grateful for the good selection that they do have and it’s not all mass industrially produced cheeses, thank G.

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    Cheese curds, cheese curds I could eat them breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner…there is something abou the taste of them and from what I can see where I live they are produced by artisan cheese makers and not wholly available everywhere. I love my cheese curds.

  • Mary Kay Higgins

    Generally speaking, I dislike goat cheese. That was, until I tasted goat cheese made by the goat farmer. She shared a part of a particularly fine batch with a friend of mine who “paid it forward” to me. YUM!! So, I see your point.

  • Susie D

    Any of Laura Werlin’s books on cheese would also be great reading. Her first “A New American Cheese” was way ahead of its time.

  • Carolyn Z

    I enjoy the cheese selection of Trader Joe’s. Some of the varieties are local and a lot come from Canada. The size of the chunk is smaller than Costco. I like to buy Comte and Spanish almonds. But now I’m being a snob. Yum!!

  • David

    I live in Canada in BC. It’s not a big dairy place, not much going on in cheese. Almost all the “extra old” cheddars are like rubber.
    Sadly, the only commonly-available exception I have found, (unless going into the very expensive high end product), is Kraft white extra-old, which actually has appropriate texture and flavour.
    It doesn’t crumble – you need to go to the 3,4,5yr-old stuff for that.

  • Melanie

    I’m lucky to live in a land where all the cattle are grass-fed, cheddar is white and big wobbly blocks of neon-coloured pseudo-cheese foods are unheard of. I do wish I could get the occasional bit of Monty Jack, but I’ll just have to put up with that and pop down to the artisanal cheese place and get some Very Old Gouda instead. It tastes a bit of pineapple.

  • Alexandra

    Thanks for this lesson. Cannot wait to read your book. One note. I have found Costco does have incredible cheese sometimes. So you should put it in the Speciality Cheeses section, rather than Industrially Produced.

  • Vera Marie Badertscher

    Doing some research on the Swiss settlers in Ohio, who were predominantly dairy farmers and cheese makers, I discovered that Baby Swiss was invented in the 1970′s a few miles from where I grew up. We were blessed to live in Swiss Ohio and have access to really, really good food.
    While people are praising Costco, I have to put in a word for Sam’s Club. Mine has an imported cheese counter that even carries Irish butter–the best in the world.

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