I’m a cheese fiend, and even I approach a cheese counter with trepidation. The sheer amount of variety can be dizzying. And I don’t know about you, but for every time I’ve blindly picked the perfect cheese, there’s another time I blindly picked something that smells like a foot. Which is cool, if you’re anticipating foot smell, and less cool if you’re at a party in an apartment the size of a shoebox where everyone is quietly deciding that you’re a stinky buzzkill.
Like wine or cocktails, it’s nice as an adult person to know what you like when it comes to cheese. So how do you choose a few go-to favorites for parties and platters, and where can you find them?
I gathered a brigade of experts to help us all track down our ideal cheeses. Between these four folks, we’ve got over one hundred years of cheese expertise to advise us.
Here’s the crew that will be guiding us on our cheese journey:
- Janet Tarlov, Co-Owner of Canyon Market, with over 25 years of cheese experience
- Gordon Edgar, cheese buyer at Rainbow Grocery, author of Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge and Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese
- Lynne Devereux, Founding President of the California Artisan Cheese Guild, co-founder of California’s Artisan Cheese Festival
- Kirstin Jackson, cheese educator and expert, author of “It’s Not You, It’s Brie: Unwrapping America’s Unique Cheese Culture”
Before diving into their cheesy wisdom, let’s familiarize ourselves with some basic terminology.
More About Milk
Typically, when you’re picking a cheese, you’re going to choose between three types of milk:
- Cow: This milk offers an earthier flavor and a more yellow hue (from the way cows process carotene in the grass).
- Goat: Goat’s milk cheeses can be acidic, bright, and “goaty.” Not sure what “goaty” means? Goat cheese has a more “animally” flavor—a particular kind of funk that’s connected to the diet of the goats.
- Sheep: With the highest fat content, sheep’s milk cheeses tend to be the most buttery and the least funky.
Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number
Like people, cheese is delightful when it’s old, young, or somewhere in between.
- Fresh: These are the babies of the cheese world. Though the textures vary, they typically lack a rind and have a flavor that’s full of milk and salt. Think mozzarella, ricotta, or feta.
- Medium-Aged: This is the vast middle ground between fresh and aged, where cheeses are usually aged from 3-5 months and can have a firm but creamy texture with complex flavors. Think a non-aged gouda, manchego, or provolone.
- Aged: An aged cheese has been kicking around for more than six months. Lactose decreases with time, which leads to concentrated flavors and a firmer, sharper texture. Think aged gouda, parmesan, or pecorino romano.
Let’s Talk Texture
When it comes to basic buying of the building-a-cheese-plate variety, here are the cheese textures that come up again and again.
- Double and Triple Creme: This butterfat-filled beauty is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Smooth, rich, and like eating a velvety wedge of pure bliss, everyone loves a double or triple creme. The difference between the two is the amount of butterfat: double creme clocks in at a minimum of 60 percent butterfat, while triple creme must have a minimum of 75 percent butterfat.
- Hard: Look, it’s your friend: hard cheese! You may recognize her as that triangle of Parmigiano Reggiano you pass around with a grater on pasta night or from her sophisticated turn as a salty, crystal-laced aged gouda.
- Blue-Veined: Blue-veined cheeses are tired of a humdrum life of topping salads and coating buffalo wings. With their stunning rivets of blue, they offer some funk and plenty of flavor. There’s also a pretty wide range, so dip your toe in, even if you’ve always thought you were a blue cheese hater. (I know you’re skeptical! But go get a Blue Castello. You’ll thank me later.)
- Washed Rind: These are our stinky cheese friends. Their rinds have been washed with some form of alcohol, inviting delicious (and smelly) exterior mold to the party. They have a soft or semi-soft center. Often their bark is worse than their bite…but not always.
Okay, at this point we’re informed and at least a little bit snacky. Time for the experts to weigh in.
Tips and Tricks for Tracking Down the Perfect Cheese
The secret to finding good cheese is chatting with your cheese monger.
“Go to an independent cheese shop where there is a person standing behind the counter. You want a knowledgeable cheesemonger, and you want them in a non-intimidating place. Find yourself a good, independent, friendly cheese shop.” —Lynne Devereux
“Really make friends with the cheesemonger and jump in. Pick a cheese that you’ve loved for years. If it’s Gouda, go in and say, “Can you introduce me to this style of cheese made with goat and sheep milk, or what’s an alternative cheese that you think I should explore?” Most cheesemongers have wedges that may not be on the counter that they would love to get in front of people who are curious.” —Kirstin Jackson
(Pssst! Feeling shy? If cheesemonger chatting isn’t your thing, Jackson also recommends looking a little bit to the left or right of your favorite cheese to see what’s near it in the case.)
A few key cheeses can kickstart your cheese knowledge.
“Aged gouda is a gateway cheese. It’s typically aged between 18 months and two years, and that’s long enough for it to get this kind of crystalline texture. Another one is a triple creme cheese, like Brillat-Savarin or Pierre Robert or Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam, which is a high butterfat cheese that will blow your mind.
A lot of people think they hate goat cheese. You expect it to be like cream cheese, but it’s so tangy and goaty, so if you’re not ready for it, try an aged goat cheese like goat gouda. In the blue cheese zone, go for something a little bit more high butterfat, like a Blue Castello or a Bayley Hazan Blue from Jasper Hill Farms in Vermont, which is a world-class cheese.” —Janet Tarlov
The Cheese Plate Chronicles
Step 1: Pay attention to the number of cheeses.
“A couple of guidelines is to not overdo it with the number of cheeses. People are so happy just to have cheese in front of them that if you attack them with too many flavors, too many types, it’s hard to keep things straight. It’s nice to have a little time to consider the cheese and pair it with what you’re drinking. If you’re trying to do that with tons of cheese, you get a little lost.” —Jackson
“On my cheese plate there’s always going to be an odd number of varieties; those odd numbers make it really interesting.” —Devereux
“I always encourage people to not go for too many. One is plenty. Four is what I would say would be the maximum.” —Tarlov
Step 2: Vary your textures, milks, and ages like a pro.
“I’m going to have something from different styles. I might have a very soft cheese, I might have a medium or semi-soft cheese and a blue or a hard cheese. Vary between cow, goat, and sheep, so that there’s a variety in texture and eye appeal, and a variety in the milk source. “ —Devereux
“Know that people really like butterfat, so if you’re going to err to one side, bring more creamy stuff than more firm stuff. People always think they need a blue, but I can tell you, from the experience of retailing for twenty-some years, that blue is often the least appreciated cheese on the plate.” —Gordon Edgar
Step 3: Play with pairings.
“Quince jam is always great with especially firm cheeses, and any jams, jellies, or honeys work well. Add in a Marcona almond and a plain cracker, like the Rustic Bakery Sel Gris—which was made for cheese.” —Edgar
“If it’s an appetizer course, I do olives and salted nuts and onion jams. Cheese and salt are good friends. If it’s a dessert course, grapes are great, melon is wonderful, and a selection of jams or apple butters. Cheese is one of the few foods we eat with our hands, so you don’t want it to be fussy. You want all the accompaniments be easy to pick up and play with.” —Devereux
“Freeze-dried slices of oranges are so beautiful, and so are edible flowers, spiced nuts, whole nuts in their shell, membrillo, or plum membrillo. The bread is super important to me. I like a walnut bread or a bread with fruit and nuts in it—something dense that I can slice super thinly. Tarlov
Or skip the cheese plate and serve a cheese ball. Yes, you read that correctly.
“I love cheeseballs, but you have to make them with good cheese. A really, really good cheddar, a really delicious artisan fresh cheese. It’s not about buying the most expensive cheese you can get your hands on. It’s about buying really flavorful cheeses and treating them with respect” —Devereux
“I love cheeseballs! Homemade cheeseballs are a fun way to explore because you’re not using as much of the artisan cheese. Or if you have a cheese plate and you bring it to a party, and there are a lot of different bits and pieces afterward, you can combine them and make a cheese ball.” —Jackson
Mix it up and serve a dessert cheese.
“For dessert, I love a really good aged Parmigiano Reggiano. Or Brillat Savarin: it’s a triple creme; it’s French; and it’s very luscious, like whipped cream. You can serve it with a little honey and it would be a totally satisfying dessert. The hard cheeses and the blue cheeses are easier to pair with wine, so typically for dessert, you’re finishing off a bottle of red and bringing out a dessert wine.” —Devereux
Soothing words for stressed-out hosts.
“There’s too much concern about what to put on your cheese plate. People are just so happy to have cheese in front of them, period. It’s cheese; it’s going to be great, no matter what.” —Jackson
Bring on the Funk
What’s the funkiest cheese that’s worth the risk?
“Oma from the Von Trapp Farmstead, it’s got…a smell. You open it up, and you’re like, “Woah, what is this?!” But then you taste it, and it’s such a great balance of butter, pungency, and earthiness.” —Edgar
“Lorelai is a really beautiful cheese by Briar Rose. You can taste the beer and the funkiness, and there’s a little bit of stinkiness there, but it’s got this really beautiful, sweet, floral taste that I think is pretty unique.” —Jackson
“I would have to say Harbison from Jasper Hills Farm in Vermont. It’s a wash rind cheese with a spruce bark that they wrap around the outside of it, and it holds it together while it gets super soupy inside. Once you’ve eaten a lot of that stinky cheese, it’s really funny how you suddenly go, “Yum! Smells like feet!” —Tarlov
The Most Popular Party Guest
Want to bring cheese to a party, but not sure what to choose? Here’s how cheese-wielding guests have impressed our cheese experts.
“I would be impressed if they brought something that tastes really good right now. Cause things change, even from week to week, batch to batch. Is it something that they just picked out of the case randomly or something that’s perfect for this moment?” —Edgar
“The funkier the cheese, the more excited I am—especially if they smuggled it in their suitcase from another country. I would love it if they brought little things like honeycomb or a rosewood spiced jam, interesting things to play around with.” —Jackson
Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
…so if all else fails, turn to the favorites that are beloved by the pros.
“Aged Comte is a really special cheese. You get these incredible grassy, buttery, potatoey, nutty flavors, and it’s just incredible.” —Edgar
“There’s one that’s released in the fall and winter that’s called Rogue River Blue. It’s a super dynamic, fudgey, sweet cheese that’s wrapped in Syrah leaves, and then soaked in pear eau de vie from Oregon.” —Jackson
“I’ve always gone back to Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery. It’s organic. It’s the most pristine milk. It’s not expensive. It’s not scary. It’s just delicious.” —Devereux