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Laura Werlin's Tips for Buying Cheese, Serving Cheese and Making Grilled Cheese

Cheese guru Laura Werlin—author of multiple books on the topic including The New American Cheese and The Great Grilled Cheese—chats with F&W Facebook fans about her favorite subject.

Cheese Recommendations

What’s a good cheese for beginners?
I’m happy you’re starting your cheese journey. There’s a fairly widely available cheese these days from France called Comte that fits your parameters—not too strong and definitely not bland. You might also look for a cheddar that says "aged" rather than "sharp." And, one of my very favorite cheeses in the world is a goat cheese called Humboldt Fog. It may not be a starter cheese, but if you’re open to eating goat cheese, then that’s a great place to start.

What’s your favorite smoked cheese?
There are a couple of lightly smoked Italian cheeses I like—Scamorza and a sheep’s milk cheese from Sardinia called Pecorino Fiore Sardo. From Spain, I like a sheep’s milk cheese called Idiazabal (say that three times!), and from the U.S. I like a smoked chevre made by a small dairy in Oregon called River’s Edge. On a larger-scale, I’m always happy to eat a little smoked gouda or the smoked cheddar from Grafton Village Cheese Company in Vermont is really nice—not too smoky, just enough.

What would you put on a cheese tray in winter?
In general, I tend to go for the mountain and blue cheeses at that time of year. There’s an absolutely AMAZING cheese made in Wisconsin called Rush Creek Reserve. It’s so creamy you have to eat it with a spoon. That’s similar to a cheese from France called Vacherin Mont d’Or. Both are excellent. Some of the Swiss cheeses coming over here now are great—Heublumen, Scharfe Maxx (I know—strange words) are particularly good, and you can never go wrong with an aged English-style cheddar (Cabot Clothbound is one of the best) and definitely a blue cheese. Stilton is THE winter blue cheese (get the one made by Colston-Bassett) or go local and find a blue cheese near you.

Any suggestions for cheeses that are lower in fat and still have great flavor?
In general, only cheeses labeled "low fat" are actually that. There aren’t many cheeses that are naturally low fat. That said, a cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano is made with part skim milk, which means the fat content is lower. Also, with that cheese, a little goes a long way. So, I’d recommend grating that over food to give the food flavor (pasta, salads, etc.) and/or, to get your cheese fix, just break off a small 1-ounce chunk, and you’ll be happy. One other suggestion: Coach Farms in upstate New York makes a delicious low fat goat’s milk cheese. If you can get that, do it!

I’m not a big fan of goat cheese. Do you have a suggestion of either a mild goat cheese or another type of cheese I can use as a substitute?
I usually recommend using ricotta as a substitute for goat cheese. You can also use a wonderful product called Fromage Blanc, which has a similar consistency to both ricotta and goat cheese but is a little milder and often a bit more tart.

Cooking with Cheese

I always hesitate to serve cheese with seafood. However, is there a cheese you can suggest that would pair well with shrimp?
You’re so right about not pairing cheese with FISH, but SEAFOOD, as in shellfish, is a different matter. I happen to really like the combination of shrimp and feta, whether in a salad or a warm application, and I also often like goat cheese with either shrimp or crab. To me, though, scallops and lobster are way too rich for cheese (despite the famous Lobster Mornay dish, which is a cheese sauce over lobster. Yuck, in my book). I wouldn’t go for hard cheeses—cheddars, aged goudas, parmesan or anything else along those lines with any seafood—but the softer, creamier cheeses are definitely compatible with shrimp or crab. One other thing about that: I would gravitate toward cold rather than warm dishes overall in those cases. That’s my personal preference, though. You do what you like!

I know you’ve recommended using non-stick for grilled cheese, but what are your thoughts on cast iron?
Cast iron is absolutely fine IF it’s well-seasoned. A newer cast iron pan can create a bit of a challenge when it comes to getting the little melted cheese strands off the bottom of the pan. I do find that a cast iron pan cooks slightly less uniformly than a nonstick, but by all means use cast iron if you prefer. It’s as rustic as it gets, and that’s a very good thing when it comes to grilled cheese sandwiches.

Best cheese for grilled cheese sandwiches?
Best cheeses for a grilled cheese sandwich are the basics—Monterey Jack, cheddar (not aged), gouda, Fontina, Gruyère, and Comté. No need to get fancy, but some of my favorite "branded" cheeses for grilled cheese are Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Company Wisconsin and Wagon Wheel from Cowgirl Creamery in California. You can’t go wrong with either one—or both on the same sandwich!

Have you ever met a low-fat fromage that could still make a mean grilled cheese? My health kick is really wreaking havoc on my relationship with the beloved sammy.
Actually, the low fat cheeses made by Cabot Creamery in Vermont make surprisingly great grilled cheese sandwiches. The key is that the cheese melts well, and theirs really does!

When shredded, which type of cheese melts best?
Interesting question. In general, a higher-moisture cheese such as Fontina, Havarti, Mozzarella, and Monterey Jack, Colby, Gouda (not aged) and Cheddar (also not aged) melt best. The harder the cheese, the less likely it is to become ooey-gooey.

What’s your favorite recipe for cheese fondue? Also, what do you prefer: raclette or fondue?
I have a fondue recipe in one of my books (The All American Cheese and Wine Book) that calls for Gruyère, bacon, and caramelized onions. What’s there not to like, right? As for raclette versus fondue, these days I think I’m more inclined to go for the raclette. I like the theater that surrounds authentic raclette-making—holding a half-wheel of cheese up to a heat source and scraping off the cheese right onto a plate or your finger—whichever is closest!

Wow, bacon and caramelized onions IN fondue? Which alcohol do you use in it?
As I recall I used just a dry white wine. You can use beer too. Also, if you look in the April 2011 issue of Food & Wine you’ll find my recipe for Gouda and Caramelized Onions with Pretzel Dippers. I made that one with beer, and it’s beer-y good!

Serving Cheese

What are the rules regarding keeping the rind on or off when serving cheese. I know many rinds are suitable for digesting, but I really don’t enjoy them. Is this wrong? Bad cheese etiquette to remove the rind?
Oh, great question! When SERVING cheese, you always want to keep the rind on UNLESS it’s an inedible rind like wax or cloth. Now, when EATING cheese, it’s up to you whether or not to eat the rind. However, if you’re enjoying cheese at a party, do not cut the piece of cheese and leave the rind behind. Everyone does that with Brie, right? They dig out the center and leave the sagging bloomy white rind behind, looking rather unappetizing. Instead, cut off a piece and eat what you want. Throw away the rest. Otherwise, I promise—you won’t look like you’re not sophisticated if you don’t eat the rind. In fact, many rinds make a cheese taste worse, so it’s up to you whether to taste it or not.

Wine and Beer Pairings for Cheese

Is there a difference between pairing cheese and wine and grilled cheese and wine? I’d love to throw a "Grown-up Grilled Cheese" party at home.
Not a lot of difference. Just start with the cheeses and pair the wines with those. Don’t worry about the rest of the ingredients. That said, whenever you can use bubbles—Champagne, Prosecco, California or Oregon sparking wine—then that’s ALWAYS good with grilled cheese!

I love blue cheese but have had trouble pairing it with a reasonably priced wine. Ideas?
I really like sparkling wine with blue cheese, and there are quite a few on the market that are not expensive. Look for Cava from Spain or Prosecco from Italy, and you’ll be a happy camper. Otherwise, I also like Sauvignon Blancs with blue cheese. You did not see me say anything about red wine did you? I don’t really care for red wine with blue cheese BUT, Beaujolais is perfectly fine with blue cheese and often inexpensive.

I am interested in pairing some of the many fine Colorado brews with cheese. Do any particular pairings stand out?
Good idea! You live in the land of some great dairies—Windsor Dairy (small farm near Boulder), Avalanche Cheese Company in Aspen, Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy in Niwot, James Ranch near Durango, and MouCo Cheese Company in Fort Collins, to name just a few. If you want to stay local, grab some gouda from James Ranch and maybe a limbic, the aged goat’s milk cheddar from Avalanche maybe with a stout(?), the Red Cloud from Haystack with an IPA and anything from MouCo with an Amber Ale, and start pairing. Have fun!

Making Cheese

What would be a good starter cheese to make at home?
Starting with basic ricotta is the way to go. As easy as it is to make, it’s a little tougher to perfect. Once you get the feel for curds and whey, you can move on. There are lots of great cheesemaking books these days as well as sources for cheesemaking ingredients and equipment. I’d simply start googling. You may also check out the American Cheese Society site for resources—cheesesociety.org

What is rennet in cheese and how does it relate to animals?
Well, rennet is an enzyme that comes from the third stomach of the animal. And no, there’s no way to extract the rennet from a live animal. That said, animals aren’t killed for their rennet. However, there is a rennet called microbial that the vast majority of American cheesemakers are using now, that acts like animal rennet but is made in the lab.

Cheese Pilgrimages

What are your recommendations for dairies/farms to visit in Sonoma?
Oh wow. There are lots! There’s a cheesemaker map that guides you to the cheesemakers of Sonoma County, so you should definitely get a hold of that. Many are places where you have to make an appointment, so don’t plan to just show up. Just over the border from Sonoma County is Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes. It’s a must-see —you can watch cheesemaking, and they have a great cheese retail store. Likewise, contact the folks at Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. They have an incredible facility that visitors can see—farm tour and all!

How do you find a good cheese monger?
If you live in a place where there is more than one store to choose from, then go to each one ’til you find one where you feel comfortable asking questions AND like the answers you get. Otherwise, I’m afraid that learning about cheese is something of a self-taught endeavor. A tasty one, though!

Video: Cheese Tips from Laura Werlin

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