A Guide to Grocery Store Cheese Selection

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Learn how to buy the highest-quality cheese from the store with our guide.
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Cowgirl Creamery makes its award-winning Red Hawk triple cream cheese with wild bacteria native to its northern California home.
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Hard cheeses such as Parmesan are good for grating onto pasta, pizza and salad. Superior brands can be served on a cheese plate with apples, pears and nuts.

If you are reading this, there’s a good chance you love cheese—so much so that you hope to become more knowledgeable about choosing the best cheeses and maybe even want to make your own. Different things lead people to cheesemaking. For me, it was a desire to return to my self-sufficiency roots, a love for dairy animals, and the desire to provide healthy, affordable cheese for my family. My goal is to help you become an enthusiastic, educated buyer and maker of truly great cheeses. If you’re the type of person for whom deep understanding of a subject brings enhanced enjoyment of the process, my book, Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking, is for you. But let’s first take a glimpse into the world of cheese. We’ll look at some of the basics, plus an easy recipe anyone can try.

More About Cheese

Quick and Easy Paneer Recipe
Easy Tips for Making Cheese

The Beauty of Milk

To understand cheese, it’s important to understand milk. The milk of every mammal, every species and every breed is unique. Milk varies based on the animal’s diet, her health, the season and how long it’s been since she gave birth. The milk’s taste, texture and color will change based on these factors. Milk is composed of sugar, fat, protein, minerals, vitamins and enzymes. It is the unique combination of these components, and then what the cheesemaker does to them, that creates a superior (or not) cheese.

? Milk sugar provides food for the bacteria in the starter culture; the starter culture digests the sugar and produces acid. Acid production begins the process that turns milk into cheese.

? The role of milk fat is to provide an appealing texture, a well-rounded flavor, and—through the changes it will experience during aging—wonderful aromas.

? Cheese needs milk protein to create its structure. Protein traps the fat and transforms the milk into curd. Protein also supplies nutrition. Cheese normally contains all of the essential amino acids necessary for human nutrition.

? Milk contains quite a few minerals, calcium being the standout. Calcium assists in forming a firm curd that holds up to pressing, stretching and so on.

? Milk’s vitamins play a role in cheesemaking. For example, carotene turns cow’s milk cheese yellow. Carotene levels are higher in summer if fresh grazing is available. That golden summer milk inspired the addition of orange coloring to milk at other times of year, making many cheeses artificially golden.

? The action heroes of cheesemaking are the enzymes. Of milk’s 60 enzymes, the two most important groups are those that help break down fat and protein.

If you are making your own cheese, milk selection is among your most important decisions. Unless you own your own cow, goat or ewe, your best option is local farm milk. But if you are like many home cheesemakers, you will use store-purchased milk. Select the least processed variety available—this means no ultrapasteurized milk, as it will not form a good curd (the high-heat treatment denatures a good portion of the proteins). Ideally, you should choose nonhomogenized milk, often labeled “cream top.” In a perfect world, certified organic milk is a superior choice, but read the label; organic milk is often ultrapasteurized to extend its shelf life. Finally, buy the freshest milk possible. Ask the dairy case manager when fresh milk comes in or look for the latest expiration date.

Learn to Choose High-Quality Cheese

Walking into a cheese shop for the first time can be a bit intimidating—the high counter stacked with rustic wheels and the display case full of tiny white-mold cheeses with unpronounceable names and odd shapes. The grocery store cheese case isn’t much easier—do you choose the most expensive cheese or the one with the fanciest name in the hopes of tasting a new treasure? Whether you are just beginning your epicurean fromage adventures or already are a dedicated turophile, here are some tips for making the most of your cheese dollars.

Find a Friendly Cheesemonger: In his iconic book Cheese Primer, Steven Jenkins writes that “the biggest favor you can do yourself is to find a reliable, impassioned cheesemonger and benefit from his or her knowledge.” The right cheese professional will be able to guide you through a variety of tastings, even if you’re not sure what to ask. On your first (or even subsequent) visit, don’t be afraid to say “I am new to cheese tasting and want to learn.” You can help by letting your monger know of cheeses you have liked in the past. Keep your mind open to tasting those you might not have liked in the past, as the quality of the cheese will vary and your palate will expand.

Grocery Store Guidelines: Many grocery stores have quite respectable cheese selections, but know that cheese suffers some when confined to plastic wrap and placed under harsh, fluorescent lighting. Look for far-off expiration dates, local cheeses and products that appear “fresh.” For example, a cut piece of aged cheese should not look as if the surface is oily (meaning it has been too warm at some point) or dried out. Soft, fresh cheeses should not show signs of separation. Delicate mold-ripened cheeses, such as Camembert, should not be flattened or oozing in the package. If you can, talk to the department manager and ask if any of their cheeses are directly sourced from the producer (most will come from a centralized distributor).

Expand your Horizons: One of the best things you can do to increase your cheese-shopping expertise is to pick up a couple of publications on cheese. I highly recommend the aforementioned Cheese Primer. I especially love that it gives pronunciation guides for many of the world’s great cheeses. The recently published Cheese for Dummies by Laurel Miller and Thalassa Skinner has an entire chapter devoted to tips on purchasing great cheeses. The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese is an excellent resource for food adventurers looking to try new gems. And if you really want an inspiring and enlightening glimpse into the luscious world of fromage, check out the gorgeous and information-packed quarterly magazine Culture.

The Myriad Ways to Categorize Cheese

Academic cheesemaking and dairy science books use several ways to divide cheese into groups. One of the most common defines a cheese by its finished texture: extra-hard, hard, semihard and semisoft (sometimes used interchangeably), and soft. Another approach groups cheeses based on the method of coagulation—acid, heat and acid, and rennet. I have divided the family tree by both of these sets of criteria and added a third—the method of ripening: unripened, surface mold, surface bacteria, internal mold and internal bacteria. Some cheese types are very easy to put into a strict category, while others cross boundaries, break rules and act as hybrids. Don’t get too caught up in the “need” to put cheese into a category; instead, use the family tree as a way to grow comfortable with understanding cheeses on different branches of the family tree. 

Classifying Cheese Based on Finished Texture

Even if you don’t know how a cheese was made, you can easily determine its texture just by feeling it, tasting it or cutting it. Extra-hard cheeses are perfect for grating. Hard cheeses (they might fall into the extra-hard category someday, if aged longer) are nice to slice. Semihard cheeses bulge and slump a bit when sliced, while semisoft cheeses can barely be sliced. And soft cheeses, you guessed it, are spreadable and spoonable.

Classifying Cheese Based on the Method of Coagulation

For the cheesemaker, dividing cheese types by their method of coagulation is an easy division to understand; it is something totally under the cheesemaker’s control very early in the process. Cheeses can be made by adding rennet (or another enzyme that coagulates milk); acidifying the milk to the point of curdling; or combining high heat with acid. But dividing by method of coagulation alone might mean grouping cheeses such as blue and cheddar or feta and Camembert in the same category, so using this method by itself is a bit unsatisfactory.

Classifying Cheese Based on the Method of Ripening

Since a cheese is greatly altered by the method of ripening and aging, sorting cheeses into categories based on the ripening techniques that were employed can be a great way to sort them. From fresh, unripened cheeses (such as fromage blanc and cream cheese) to those ripened by molds and bacteria (such as blues and stinky washed-rind cheeses), the environment and conditions surrounding aging have a profound influence on the final appearance and characteristics of the cheese. Therefore, this category of classification is a very important one.

You can divide methods of ripening into four categories: unripened, in which no aging occurs and no organisms are added that would improve or change flavor if aging did occur; internal bacteria ripened, in which bacteria are used to produce specific flavors and textures over an aging period; surface ripened, in which bacteria and mold are used on the surface of a cheese to produce changes; and, finally, internal mold ripened, in which molds are used to change the interior of a cheese. Obviously, even with this method of grouping cheeses, you cannot draw distinct lines between each category. Consider Gruyère, an aged hard cheese ripened by internal bacteria, with a rind that is ripened by washing with surface bacteria.

American Cheese

If “American cheese” makes you think of a cellophane-wrapped orange slice of something semi-cheeselike, you’re in for a great surprise. Artisans all over the United States are making exceptional cheeses that rival the best and most storied cheeses of Europe. Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont makes incredible farmstead cheeses from heritage breed dairy animals, and in the grand European tradition, also ages the cheeses of nearby producers at its cellars. Cowgirl Creamery in California makes similarly memorable and award-winning aged cheeses with the milk of nearby dairies. In the middle of the country, Green Dirt Farm makes artisan sheep’s-milk cheeses at its Missouri farm.

To tap into the burgeoning American artisan cheese movement, look for local products at your grocery store and farmers’ market and support independent cheese shops. If you can’t find a shop near you that sources American cheeses, try Lucy’s Whey, an American-only artisan cheese shop in New York City that also fulfills mail orders.

Cheesemaking Resources

Making Cheese

Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking by Gianaclis Caldwell

Home Cheesemaking by Ricki Carroll

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cheese Making by James R. Leverentz

Artisan Cheese Making at Home by Mary Karlin  

Cooking With and Serving Cheese

The Cheesemonger’s Kitchen by Chester Hastings

The New American Cheese by Laura Werlin

The All American Cheese and Wine Book by Laura Werlin

Cheese and Wine by Janet Fletcher  

The Cheese Plate by Max McCalman and David Gibbons

In a Cheesemaker’s Kitchen by Allison Hooper

General Cheese Knowledge

Cheese Primer by Steven Jenkins

Cheese: Exploring Taste and Tradition by Patricia Michelson

Mastering Cheese by Max McCalman and David Gibbons

Cheese and Culture by Paul S. Kindstedt

Starter Culture, Ingredients and Supplies

Fromagex (Canada)


Glengarry Cheesemaking and Dairy Supply (Canada)

Midwest Supplies

New England Cheesemaking Supply


This article is excerpted in part from
Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking by Gianaclis Caldwell. To learn from her in person, attend one of her hands-on demonstrations at the Mother Earth News Fairs.

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