Think French pedigree and words like “triple crème” indicate the best examples of this cheese plate favorite? So did we—until we learned that good Brie is a matter of culture.
How We Tested
A few decades ago, Brie was the pinnacle of sophistication on American cheese plates. Its longtime French reputation as the “cheese of kings,” coupled with its lush, buttery, not-too-pungent profile and velvety edible rind, made it at once fashionable and approachable. But Brie sold in America has changed over the years. The original name-protected versions have been banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for using raw milk, and these days most products found in supermarkets are produced domestically. You’re also increasingly likely to find specimens that are bland, rubbery, and encased in rinds as stiff as cardboard. And yet, if there was a creamy, satiny, richly flavorful Brie available in the average grocery store, we wanted to know about it. So we gathered 10 nationally available brands that ranged broadly in price (from $5.92 to $19.98 per pound), purposely selecting cheeses that spanned a variety of traits that we thought might affect flavor and texture—in particular, fat content (we included standard-fat, double, and triple crème cheeses), nationality (American or French), and format (some are sold as small wheels, others as wedges cut from larger wheels). We sampled the Bries plain at room temperature (the ideal serving temperature) and also baked into phyllo cups with dollops of red currant jelly to see how the cheeses behaved when heated.
Process of Elimination
We could tell just by handling the cheeses that their textures varied considerably: Wheels and wedges alike ranged from soft and pliable to almost rigid. When we tasted the cheeses, we found that their flavors varied just as much—some were “boring,” with “almost no flavor,” while others tasted “mushroomy” and “nutty-rich.” Heating the cheeses only underscored these differences: Fuller flavors intensified and creamier textures became even plusher, while bland cheeses tasted the same and barely melted at all. When we tallied the scores, we were pleased to find that we could recommend without reservation four out of the 10 cheeses—in particular, a standout wedge that embodied everything we want in Brie: a lush, buttery, full-flavored interior encased in a pillowy rind.
But surprisingly, factors like origin, price, and format had no bearing on our preferences. Though our favorite was a wedge from France, our runner-up was an 8-ounce wheel made in California. And a bargain wedge from Michigan outranked French Bries costing two or three times as much.
We also assumed that Bries labeled triple and double crème would taste richer and creamier than standard-fat cheeses—but that wasn’t always the case. Though cream is generally added to the milk when making both double and triple crèmes, the amount can vary substantially within each category. (Triple crèmes contain upwards of 75 percent butterfat while double crèmes range from 60 to 75 percent.)
It wasn’t until we dug deeper into the Brie-making process that we uncovered the key factor explaining what gave a cheese the lush texture and earthy flavor we liked best: the culturing process. Cultures in the milk and on the exterior of the Brie react with the milk proteins as the cheese ages—a process called proteolysis—and cause the proteins to break down. This results in a rind forming on the wheel and its interior softening and developing flavor from the outside in, a process known as surface-ripening.
According to Dean Sommer and Mark Johnson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research, the nature of that ripening—and the flavor and texture of Brie—largely depends on the type of cultures a cheesemaker uses. French appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) Bries are made exclusively with raw milk, which can contain enough natural bacteria to culture the cheese. But Bries made with pasteurized milk need added cultures. These fall into two main strains, mesophilic or thermophilic. Mesophilic cultures are more reactive with milk proteins and lead to so-called traditional Brie that more closely mimics the AOC raw-milk cheese with fuller flavor, gooier texture, and a thinner, spottier rind. Thermophilic cultures are less reactive and create milder, firmer cheese with a thicker, more uniform rind. Such cheeses are referred to as “stabilized” in the industry.
Since labels don’t indicate whether a Brie is traditional or stabilized, we asked each manufacturer directly—and among those that answered, we saw a pattern. Most of our top-ranking cheeses were traditional, which correlated with our tasters’ preferences for Brie with creamier body and somewhat fuller flavor, while stabilized cheeses dominated the middle and bottom of the pack. What’s more, the makers of our top two Bries add Geotrichum, a yeast-like fungus that is naturally present in raw milk, which contributes to a gooey, silky texture, more delicate rind, and rich, earthy flavor with less bitterness.
So why would a manufacturer make a stabilized Brie? For one thing, there’s a market demand for blander cheese both here and in France (where stabilized Brie is often fed to schoolchildren). Another more compelling reason is quality control: As long as a wheel of traditional Brie is left uncut, it will continue to soften and develop flavor, so makers must rely on supermarket staff to handle and rotate the stock appropriately. Stabilized Brie, on the other hand, will remain consistently firm and mild as it sits at the store.
The makers of our winner wouldn’t confirm that their cheese is made with mesophilic cultures but its silky body, buttery-rich flavor, and downy-soft rind are the qualities that we associate with traditional Brie. It’s a double crème that we’ll happily seek out for our cheese plates.
Twenty-one Cook’s Illustrated staff members tasted 10 nationally available Brie-style cheeses served plain at room temperature (the ideal serving temperature) and then baked with red currant jelly in phyllo cups, rating each sample on flavor, texture, and overall appeal. We obtained information about the age, butterfat, and style of cheese (either traditional or stabilized, dependent on the type of cultures used) from manufacturers. Products are listed in order of preference.