– Artisanal cheese is often thought of as healthy. Is it true? –
If you enjoy this site, then you’re probably one of a class of people that thinks about food, home cooked meals, and how to make dinnertime a lot more enjoyable. Perhaps you think about cheese, too. You might make it a point to buy quality ingredients, mostly prepare your meals at home, own some interesting toys like a pasta maker, and generally spend a fair amount of time thinking about what to cook for dinner.
What baffles me, though, is that despite all the grass-fed beef and produce carefully selected at the local farmers market, a huge number of the people in this food-conscious demographic still buy crappy, industrially-produced cheese and call it dinner tonight. These folks have educated themselves about many other aspects of what they eat, but are seemingly unaware that these cheeses are on par with the same processed foods they spend so much money and energy avoiding. The cheapest cheese almost never equals the healthiest cheese, dont’cha know.
Then there’s an interesting class of in-betweens, somewhat cheese-savvy individuals who consciously go out of their way to buy artisanal cheese for a cheese plate, but when it comes to the cheese they’re putting on a burger, in a casserole, or on top of their pasta, they still reach for the dairy equivalent a Pop Tart. Ugh. I just wrote a whole book dedicated to cooking with “real” cheese, so I’ve got a strong opinion on this topic.
Why is it that the quality and origin of one’s cold cuts warrants so much critical thought, yet not nearly as much attention is paid to the cheese that’s slapped on top of food before calling it dinner tonight? If you notice a difference when you eat fresh, locally sourced meat and vegetables, I guarantee that you’ll find a huge difference between high and low quality cheeses.
So listen up! School’s in session. We’re all in this lifelong journey of learning to cook and eat, so today I’m going to give you a quick primer on basic cheese vocabulary. These terms will help you to become a better cheese buyer, and consequently, a healthier, more satisfied cheese eater.
Ed note: for the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the terms ‘artisan cheese’ and ‘gourmet cheese’ interchangeably to mean “cheese that has not been made in a large factory.”
Artisanal Cheese, Specialty Cheese, or Mass-Produced Cheese?
There are many ways to classify cheeses, but some would argue that it’s most important to properly categorize varieties by how they are produced. Cheeses generally fall into one of four production categories: industrially-produced, specialty, artisan, and farmstead. How can a novice cheese buyer tell the difference between a mass-produced cheese and a gourmet cheese? Here’s how:
Industrially-produced cheeses are made in large factories, often employing huge teams of workers to create the cheese. The milk comes from any number of places, including factory farming operations. The taste and texture of industrially-produced cheeses are usually very consistent from one package to the next. They come wrapped in sealed plastic, often pre-sliced or in huge blocks, and are sold prolifically across the country. These are the cheeses you’ll find in the cheese aisle at your local Safeway, Kroger’s, Costco, etc. Think brands like Kraft, Sargento, President, Laughing Cow, and generic grocery store cheeses. These are not what I would consider healthy cheeses, as they are often made with dyes, modified starches, artificial flavorings, chemical coagulants, and hydrogenated fats (read: trans-fat).
Specialty cheeses are produced with less mechanization than industrially-produced varieties, and are usually created in somewhat smaller amounts. Specialty cheesemakers pay attention to flavor and texture profiles, keeping a relatively close eyes on the cheeses they produce, though these cheeses are not considered “handmade.” You can find specialty cheeses at regular grocery stores, where they’re often a little pricier than their mass-produced counterparts. Specialty cheeses are a good intersection between quality and ready availability. Think brands like Kerrygold, Tillamook, and Jarlsberg.
Artisan and/or artisanal cheese is handmade in small batches, often by just one or a small handful of passionate individuals who pay close attention to the tradition of the cheesemaker’s art. Artisan dairies employ as little mechanization as possible, adhering to more traditional methods (while working within the limitations of health and sanitation laws). You can usually find these cheeses at small local cheese shops manned by knowledgeable cheese staff. While artisan cheeses are not usually found in the huge cheese aisle at the supermarket, many big grocery chains are implementing cheese counters with a trained cheese person standing by. Brands to look for: Cowgirl Creamery, Vermont Creamery, Coach Farms, Laura Chenel, Cypress Grove, and Cabot Cheese Co-op. These are very healthy cheeses to eat, as they’re not processed at all in a large factory.
Farmstead cheeses are made using milk from the cheesemaker’s own animals – meaning this gourmet cheese is produced on the farm where the animals live. A cheese can be classified as both artisan and farmstead if the cheese is made by hand and the milk comes from the farm where the cheese is made. These are cheeses you’ll find in small local cheese shops, or at the specialty cheese counter of your local grocery store (not in the cheese aisle). Think: Fiscalini, Redwood Hill, and Vermont Farmstead. These are what I personally consider the healthiest cheese, because the milk comes from a single source and these cheeses don’t leave the farm until after it’s ready to age or ship.
Which Are the Best Cheeses? Or the Healthiest Cheese?
Learning about the cheese you eat is no different than learning about the meat you’re buying. Do some research. Your best source for cheese information is a staff person at your local cheese counter, also known as a “cheesemonger.” Cheesemongers are well trained in the way of the milk and can answer your questions about the origin, content, and quality of the cheeses they stock. Given the growing popularity of handmade cheese, many large scale supermarkets are outfitting their locations with well-stocked cheese counters. Even if your regular grocery store doesn’t have a cheese counter, you can probably find at least a few specialty brands in the cheese aisle. If all else fails, look to online cheese vendors such as Murray’s or Artisinal.
What About Price?
Quality cheese are more expensive than their processed counterparts, but how is that different from paying more for high-quality meat? Or vegetables? Or any other thing you put in your mouth? I’m constantly hearing the complaint that artisanal cheese is too pricey, yet these same people plunk down $10 for a dozen organic, free-range eggs. New flash: you’re digesting it all, and it all needs to be high quality. Crappy cheese is just as bad for you as any other crappy food.
What About Fat?
Sure, there’s the argument for eating low-fat foods, and a huge number of Americans still buy fat-free cheeses which are generally not available from anywhere but industrial brands. The thing is, if you cut out processed high-fat foods, the fat you consume from a moderate amount of gourmet cheese isn’t going to hurt you. In fact, there’s a whole cookbook dedicated to the idea of fat as a healthy, necessary part of your diet. It’s just like if you don’t glut yourself on sodium-laden processed food (*cough*coldcuts*cough*) you don’t have to worry a whole lot about the salt you use to season your homemade dishes. I’m taking a similar position on fat.
If you’re interested in learning more about artisanal cheese, where it comes from, and how to cook with it, there are a few awesome books on the topic:
- Mastering Cheese: Lessons for Connoisseurship from a Maître Fromager by Max McCalman – An epic cheese tome, this book will teach you everything you everything you could ever possibly want to know about artisan cheese.
- It’s Not You, It’s Brie: Unwrapping America’s Unique Culture of Cheese by Kirstin Jackson – A great book on American cheese by one of America’s up-and-coming cheese goddesses. Here you’ll find a lovely narrative-style compendium that winds its way through fifty different American cheeses and the people who create them.
- Di Bruno Brothers House of Cheese – A fabulously well photographed book about artisan cheese, including some wonderful recipes on what you can do with it. Tenaya’s descriptions of the cheeses she includes are so entertaining that this was my bedside reading for a few weeks. For those new to cheese and looking to enjoy the learning process, this is the book for you.
- The Cheesemonger’s Kitchen: Celebrating Cheese in 75 Recipes by Chester Hastings – This book will teach you about the beauty of gourmet cheese, and how you can incorporate it into your daily cooking repertoire. Remember: real, small production cheese is the healthiest cheese! This means you can and should cook with it!
- Melt: the Art of Macaroni and Cheese by Stephanie Stiavetti (me!) and Garrett McCord – Another book that outlines how to cook with real cheese, taking it from the cheese plate and into a number of diverse dishes, including salads, casseroles, and desserts.
This content was originally posted on FearlessFresh.com.