It’s hard to be enthusiastic about most Swiss cheese sold in the markets. The pallid slices often pale by comparison with the real deal: genuine Emmenthaler from Switzerland. The original cheese with the famous holes (called “eyes”), imported Emmenthaler is prized for a subtle flavor profile of sweet, nutty, fruity, and slightly pungent notes, as well as a texture that’s firm but gently giving. By contrast, Swiss cheese—the generic name for Emmenthaler-style cheese sold in the United States—gets a bad rap for being little more than a bland, rubbery layer of dairy that takes up space in uninspired ham sandwiches.
A preliminary tasting convinced us that the varieties called “baby Swiss” and “lacey Swiss” are too different from regular Swiss cheese to be included in the main tastings. In the end, our panel sampled eight nationally distributed supermarket Swiss cheeses: five domestic brands; a popular brand of Emmenthaler-style cheese made in Norway; and two Finnish imports. Finally, we included a genuine imported Emmenthaler. Tasters tried the cheeses raw and cooked in grilled-cheese sandwiches. The results? Unexpected. The cheese that won our raw tasting fell precipitously in the grilled-cheese tasting.
How could the same Swiss have dropped from first place to dead last? It’s all about temperature. Typically, we prefer eating cheese at about 65 degrees or a little warmer—room temperature, if you will—just to bring out flavors. But go from a little warmer to a lot warmer, and you risk amplifying some of the flavor notes that might best remain faint voices in the background. Certain volatile flavors that wouldn’t if you just ate the cheese at 65 or 70 degrees.
That explained how interesting, balanced complexity in a raw cheese could bloom into gamey, over-the-top pungency once heated. Still puzzling, however, was why our raw winner had made such a steep drop when heated while almost all of the rest of the samples barely shuffled order. To find out, I needed a better grasp on how Emmenthaler-style cheeses get their flavor in the first place.
The Eyes Have It
Swiss-cheese making is a complex process, but it very roughly breaks down like this: Starter bacteria are added to partially skimmed milk (about 2.8 percent milk fat, compared with whole milk’s 3.6 percent), which is cooked, worked, then placed in a temperature-controlled room to ripen. In Switzerland and Finland, cheesemakers generally use unpasteurized milk; in Norway and the United States, they use pasteurized milk to achieve a cleaner—though potentially less complex—flavor profile. Then there’s the cow’s diet: Some cheesemakers swear by particular combinations of grass and grain (or one or the other) to get their product’s flavor profile just so.
Proprietary and regional differences aside, the bacteria responsible for flavor development in all Emmenthaler-style cheeses release carbon dioxide, which forms rounded air pockets in the gradually hardening cheese—the source of the trademark holes, or eyes. Longer aging leads to larger eyes, as does a warmer aging environment. Generally speaking, the larger the eyes, the more pronounced the flavor: It means the enzymes and bacteria have had more time to work their magic.
To ensure generous eye development, the Swiss government dictates that Emmenthaler cannot be exported until it has aged for at least 90 days. (The two Finnish brands in our lineup proudly advertise being aged “over 100 days” before reaching the deli display case.) But that’s not the case in America.. Not only do we require just 60 days’ aging, but the aging temperature is much lower. The cheese is held at a colder temperature—which limits the size of the eyes—so less flavor develops.
Do American cheesemakers imagine the U.S. cheese-eating public can’t handle strong-tasting Swiss? Not necessarily. It’s actually the big eyes they’re trying to avoid. The logic is simple. Because most Swiss cheese made in the United States is sold presliced, sturdiness is a major consideration. Cheese with large holes has a tendency to fall apart in high-speed, automated slicers. The more slices that must be discarded along the way, the costlier the process. So American manufacturers let the eyes grow to a certain limit, and then they transfer the cheese to a cold environment to stifle further development.
Armed with this new knowledge—and a ruler and pen—we returned to our cheeses. Measuring dozens and dozens of cheese holes, we calculated average eye diameter for each sample. Sure enough, the best-endowed cheeses were three of the European samples, the ones aged longest. All were described as strongly flavored, and all but one tanked in the grilled-cheese round. The eyes of the U.S.-made cheeses hovered around 1 centimeter. The smallest eyes? Like clockwork: a very mild sample at 0.7 centimeter.
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
For complete access to the results,
start a 14-Day Free Trial.
Start Your 14-Day Free Trial Membership
Every Recipe. Every Rating. Every Video from
Every Magazine & Every Episode!
- 8 years of Cook’s Country Foolproof Recipes
- Complete Cook’s Country TV Video Library
- 2,900+ Equipment Ratings and Ingredient Taste Tests
- Step-by-Step Technique Photos
- Save Favorites, Create Menus, Print Shopping Lists