Getting to Know: Cooking Cheeses
Whether crystalline or creamy, sharp or mild, blue or orange, cheese shows up in too many recipes to count here in the test kitchen. We’re profiling a dozen that we reach for often.
Whether British or American, all cheddars are made by a process called cheddaring, in which curds are cut into slabs, stacked, and pressed. American cheddar may be white or yellow, depending on the region it’s from. We blindfolded our cooks and tasted both; no one could reliably tell the difference. The yellow (it’s actually orange) is dyed with annatto seeds. Mild, young cheddar is moister and a better melter than its older siblings.
As cheddar ages, its texture firms and dries, and its flavor concentrates. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has no guidelines for aging and labeling, extra-sharp cheddar (at the far end of the cheddar spectrum) is usually nine to 18 months old. Older cheddar can curdle when melted. To prevent that, we shred it and toss it with cornstarch or combine it with better melters, such as Monterey Jack or American cheese.
When it comes to creamy melting and mild flavor, Monterey Jack sets the gold standard. A California native, it’s also called Cali Jack, or just Jack cheese, and is rarely aged. Pepper Jack is its spicy cousin. Cabot makes our favorite Monterey Jack, which we use in everything from enchiladas to stuffed meatloaf to scalloped potatoes. For easier shredding, spray your grater with vegetable oil spray.
The USDA labels it “process cheese product” for a reason: Most American cheese is only part cheese. Stabilizers and emulsifiers account for the remainder. Eating it showed patriotism during World War II, and we remain fond of it in a grilled cheese sandwich or melted over a cheesesteak. For the best flavor, look for brands with “cultured pasteurized milk” as the first ingredient.
Heat brings out the best in this low-moisture mozzarella, which, though rubbery when raw, melts beautifully. You can use part skim and full fat interchangeably in recipes for calzones, lasagnas, and pizza, but avoid preshredded. Our favorite product is Sorrento Whole Milk Mozzarella, which we’ve found “clean” and “mellow,” “practically like drinking milk.” Don’t confuse block-style with fresh mozzarella, which is usually packed in water.
True Parmigiano-Reggiano is a cow’s-milk cheese made in Northern Italy by strictly governed methods that have been around for 800 years. We love its “buttery,” “nutty” flavor and crystalline texture, a product of up to two years of aging. (American Parmesans are younger and use different rennet and pasteurized milk so may be sour, salty, and rubbery.) Save the rinds, storing them in a zipper-lock bag in the refrigerator or freezer, to flavor soup, such as minestrone.
Fluffy, buttery, and slightly sweet, ricotta is versatile enough to use both in savory classics, like lasagna and manicotti, and in desserts, such as cheesecake and cannoli. Our taste-test winner is “creamy,” “clean” Calabro Part Skim Ricotta. If you can’t find it, look for a brand of fresh ricotta that has no gums or stabilizers. In the test kitchen, we sometimes smooth out ricotta destined for pasta dishes with hot pasta water.
No need to beware of this salty, sharp, and deliciously crumbly Greek gift. In Greece, real feta must be made from at least 70 percent sheep’s milk (goat’s milk is also traditional). In the United States, though, feta often uses cow’s milk and may come from France or Romania, among other places. The test kitchen favorite is from Greece—Mt. Vikos Traditional Feta. To keep feta moist and fresh, store it in its brine.
Supermarket Blue Cheese
Blue cheese is made by treating cow’s-, goat’s-, or sheep’s-milk cheeses with a (harmless) mold. Bacteria grows in the ripening cheese, giving it a pungent, distinctive flavor and smell. Use the tines of a fork to crumble wedges of cheese and toss it in salads, stir it into dips, or mix it with softened butter and chives to melt over grilled steak or burgers. Blue cheese pairs well with grapes, apples, and pears.
Fresh Goat Cheese (Chevre)
Just 30 years ago, America was a land largely bereft of goat cheese. Today, thanks in part to pioneering Californians Laura Chenel (cheesemaker) and Alice Waters (restaurateur), goat cheese is produced (and eaten) all over the country. Precrumbled is often dry and chalky, so buy it in logs and use unflavored dental floss to slice it into neat medallions.
The name aside, many Swiss cheeses you’ll find in the supermarket are actually made in America. The real deal is Emmentaler Swiss cheese, which is nutty and complex when eaten out of hand and a classic for fondue. The holes, or “eyes,” in Swiss cheese are formed when (good) bacteria release carbon dioxide as the cheeses age. Older cheeses have a stronger flavor—and larger eyes.
Dense, creamy Gruyère, produced in France and Switzerland, is made from raw cow’s milk and aged for about a year. Tasters described it as “assertively salty” and “nutty.” Our favorite is the Reserve Wheel from Peney-le-Jorat, Switzerland (but we liked every import we tasted). Domestic Gruyères pale in comparison.