Holy cow, goat, sheep and buffalo! We'll admit it. We're obsessed with cheese. You may have already guessed it, though, judging by the size of our cheese counters. Walk into our stores and you'll find anywhere from 250 to 1,000 of the best cheeses we can get our hands on from all over the world.
Because we always have your best interests in mind, many of the cheeses we sell are organic and most of them are free of rBST (recombinant bovine growth hormone, that is). And we don't sell any cheese that contains artificial flavors, colors or preservatives either. Hungry for more?
We personally visit farms around the world to choose our international selection of cheeses, whether it's locally made chevre or delectable manchego from Spain. Leading the charge is our Big Cheese, Cathy Strange, Whole Foods Market's beloved Global Cheese Buyer. (Learn more about Cathy and her cheesy talents.)
Like bread or wine, cheese falls into basic categories based on its texture and the process with which it's made. Luckily for cheese heads like us, the categories are simple:
Fresh: Think of these cheeses as the ones without rinds. This category is where you'll find casual favorites like goat cheese, fresh mozzarella, ricotta and cream cheese.
Semi-Soft: If you're making a grilled cheese sandwich, consider these guys. Semi-soft cheeses—ones like Gouda, Provolone, Havarti and Jack—are great for eating out of hand and even better for melting.
Semi-Hard (a.k.a. Semi-Firm): Cheddar is the king of this category, which includes tasty favorites like Edam and Gruyère.
Hard (a.k.a. Firm): Grating cheeses (see Cheeses that Grate) and cheese tray stand-outs like Mimolette and aged Asiago rule this category.
Washed-Rind: Cheeses like Tallegio, Limburger and Muenster bathe in salty brine, sometimes with a little beer, wine or liquor added to gild the lily. The brine in turn helps cheese to form an edible rind around its soft or semi-soft interior.
Bloomy-Rind: These cheeses are purposely exposed to mold spores to create a gently fuzzy rind on the outside. The rinds on these cheeses, like those of Brie and Camembert, are generally edible, though some folks choose to skip to the creamy insides.
Blue: Love it or hate it, blue cheese is here to stay. These pungent, delicious cheeses are marked with blue mold, introduced when mold spores are injected or added to the cheese. Stilton and Maytag Blue are stand-out examples of blue cheese done right.
Q: Some goat cheeses are covered in black ash because:
A.) they've been playing too close to the volcano
B.) a spark from the bonfire hit the dairy barn
C.) they refuse to take a bath
D.) that's a traditional means of preserving cheese
A: The answer is D. Before refrigeration, cheeses were covered in wax, salt or ashes to keep them fresh. The tradition remains today, though cheese makers now commonly use vegetable ash instead of wood ash from a fire.
Q: True or False: It's illegal to sell raw milk cheeses in the US.
A: Man, we hope not! Thankfully, the answer is false. By law, all raw milk cheeses—essentially cheeses made with unpasteurized milk—must be aged for 60 days in order to be sold in the US. Our mouth-watering selection always meets this standard.
Q: One ½-pound block of cheese makes about ____ cups of grated cheese.
A: The answer is D. Nah, just kidding! (But wouldn't that be great?) The answer is A, 2 cups. Keep this handy number in mind when you're shopping for ingredients to make pasta dishes like macaroni and cheese, or our flavorful blue-cheese variation, Macaroni Sings the Blues.
Q: The enzymes listed on cheese labels are:
A.) lazy good-for-nothings
C.) vegetable- or microbial-based
D.) from a variety of sources
A: The answer is D. Most often, "rennet" is animal-based and "enzymes" are vegetable- or microbial-based. Bottom line? If you're a strict vegetarian, always contact the manufacturer for details.
Champion the Cheese Course
Planning: Putting together the perfect cheese course or cheese tray is magical, and thankfully, so easy. There really aren't any rules to it; just aim for a variety of flavors and textures. Try combining a blue cheese, a washed- or bloomy-rind cheese, a fresh cheese, a hard cheese and a unique locally-made cheese. (Wonder which cheeses fall into these categories? See Cheese 101.)
Buying: Need an easy rule-of-thumb for deciding how much cheese to buy? Allow for about 2 ounces of cheese per person. Simple.
Serving: Give cheese about 30 to 45 minutes out of the refrigerator to come to room temperature before serving, then keep these 5 Dos and Don'ts in mind. (You can thank us later.)
Do spread fresh cheese on bread or crackers.
Don't wear a cheese head hat while serving cheese. Contrary to popular belief, everyone doesn't think they're funny. (We do, but that's beside the point.)
Do serve dried or ripe seasonal fruit (dried cranberries or fresh pears are perfect), olives or nuts alongside your cheese tray. It makes for great flavor combos and gives tasters a chance to relax their taste buds on other foods in between cheeses.
Don't serve semi-hard and hard cheeses in huge chunks. Cut them into wedges, cubes or shards instead; it exposes them to the air and broadens their flavor.
Do consider serving wine with your cheese. Ask a Team Member in our wine department for suggestions.
Ooey-Gooey: How to Cook with Cheese
Eating cheese out-of-hand is certainly satisfying enough. But keep these tips in mind when cooking with cheese and you'll find yourself in the lap of lactose luxury:
The more aged a cheese, the grainier its melted texture. The younger, the creamier—you get the idea.
Cook cheese as briefly and gently as possible (no flames leaping out of the pan, please) or incorporate it into a stable base like a cream sauce.
Combining cheese with other ingredients tends to mellow its flavor, so use flavorful cheeses in cooking, even if they're a little stronger than what you might munch on.
Cold cheese is easier to grate, crumble and slice. Cheese that's been allowed to reach room temperature is much easier to mash or spread. Plan accordingly.
Cheeses that Grate
Not on our nerves, of course! If the idea of grated cheese brings to mind a shiny green can filled with salty, powdery cheese, then something's gotta give! Luckily, there's a laundry list of venerable cheeses—aged to perfection and busting at the seams with flavor—waiting to be grated over pasta, salads and meats.
Quick Tip: Don't throw away the rind from a hard, grating cheese. Instead, toss it into a pot of stock, soup or tomato sauce for a dose of unrivaled, rich flavor.
Parmigiano Reggiano may be the granddaddy of all grating cheeses, but there are loads of other delicious choices that are ready for their close-ups, too. Check out a few of our favorites:
Parmigiano Reggiano (Italy): a creamy but grainy winner with a warm, golden sheen and a flavor that's spicy, fruity and full all at once
Pecorino Romano (Italy): a sharp and salty part-skim sheep's milk cheese
Grana Padano (Italy): an all-purpose grating and cooking cheese with rich, sharp flavor
Crottin Poivre (France): a small, black-rinded French wheel studded with peppercorns
Sbrinz (Switzerland): a nutty, slightly sweet cheese that's particularly yummy with vegetables
Argentine Parmesan (Argentina): a salty (and worthy) parmesan imitation
Sonoma Dry Jack (US): a piquant and spicy stateside treasure
Aged Gouda (Holland): a well-rounded, richly spicy cheese
Manchego (Spain): a sheep's milk cheese with smooth, creamy flavor
Rennet and Enzymes and Cheese, Oh My!
We think it's important to know what you're eating. A little education never hurt anybody, right? If you're curious about how milk becomes cheese (you know we are), read on:
What are enzymes and how are they used to make cheese? In order for milk to coagulate (i.e. separate into curds and whey) and eventually become cheese, enzymes are added to break down the proteins that keep milk a liquid.
What are rennet, rennin, and chymosin? Take a deep breath. According to Webster's Unabridged Dictionary rennet is "the lining membrane of the fourth stomach of the calf (and/or) a preparation or extract of the rennet membrane, used to curdle milk, as in making cheese…." In layman's terms, rennet is essentially a broad term used to describe any enzyme used to coagulate milk, and rennin and chymosin are enzymes found in rennet.
How many different types of enzymes are used to make cheese? Animal, vegetable, microbial and genetically engineered rennet can all be used in cheese making.
Is the use of rennet in cheese making controversial? At times, yes. Because it's an animal by-product, rennet sparks discussions on the issues of animal rights, vegetarianism, bioengineering and even religion (some animal-based rennet isn't considered "halal").