Ingredient: Cheese
Uses: food, happiness

What is cheese?

Cheese is (usually) a dairy product that, at its simplest, is made by coagulating the proteins in milk (casein) with an acid (like citric acid or lemon juice) and removing the liquid whey. From there, it can be served fresh (like quark or farm cheese), packed into molds and pressed into wheels, ripened and/or aged.

Cheese is usually categorized by its moisture content (from soft to hard), the fat content (part skim to whole), and the ripening or curing method used (e.g., cave-aged, brined, etc.). Processed cheese (like American or cheese spread) gets a bad rap, but it is still technically a dairy product! It’s just been processed with extra fats to melt more smoothly.

Why is cheese healthy?

Cheese is nutritionally (and calorie) dense. It’s an excellent source of calcium and protein and, for some, can be tolerated better than milk because of its lower lactose content. Studies suggest that the calcium and conjugated linoleic acid in full-fat cheeses can lower risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, especially when choosing grass-fed and organic.

Cheeses are also great sources of other bone-supporting nutrients such as vitamins A, D, and K, and zinc. Since many cheeses are also fermented, those types provide the probiotics that support a healthy gut.

What does cheese taste like?

Considering there are more than 1,800 varieties of cheese around the world, it’s impossible to summarize what “cheese” tastes like. It can be dry, crumbly, sharp, and salty; it can be oozy and creamy with a chewy rind; it be smoky or sweet, sharp or mild; it can have barnyard pungency or be redolent of cave mold (or both). If it’s gjetost, it might taste like caramel. Vegan cheeses tend to have a very similar consistency and melting quality to processed cheese and don’t share much in common, flavor-wise, with dairy cheeses.

How do I use cheese?

Use cheese to add umami flavor and a bit of protein to just about any dish. For snacking and cheese boards, cheese is usually most flavorful after it’s come to room temperature. Dry and brined cheeses like cotija and ricotta salata can be shaved or crumbled, and pretty much any non-soft cheese can be grated or sliced. If you use a lot of grated cheese, it’s better to shred it yourself rather than buying it pre-shredded (you can speed this up by using the grater attachment on a food processor), but harder cheeses like Asiago can be finely shredded as needed.

What does cheese pair well with?

There is a cheese for nearly every cuisine. Feta goes beautifully with olives/olive oil, lemon, and Mediterranean herbs; brie goes with flaky pastry and fruit (especially cherries and berries); cheddar is for sturdy bread, sharp mustard, apples, and pears; Parmesan was made for garlic, tomatoes, cream, and basil. Even Korean cuisine, which did not traditionally include much (if any) dairy, has demonstrated that a gooey, melted mozzarella is the perfect topping for spicy-sweet tteokbokki.

Where is cheese made?

Cheese has been made around the world for so long that anthropologists aren’t sure where it originated — it could’ve been the Middle East, Europe, or Central Asia (though the earliest archaeological evidence of cheesemaking came from Poland). It was made throughout ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece, eventually spreading through Europe. Today, the United States produces most of the world’s cheese (as of 2023), followed by Germany, France, and Italy.

How to buy cheese:

If you can, buy cheese from a reputable cheese monger — especially if you’re trying a new one. Most cheese mongers will happily provide a sample. For everyday cheeses, mainstream grocery stores typically have a fairly wide selection, with more imported cheeses on offer than ever before.

For long-term storage, keep cheese in the dairy drawer or crisper of your refrigerator; it’ll stay fresh longer if you tightly wrap it in wax or parchment paper before wrapping it in something more airtight. Cheeses that come in a tub of water or whey, like buffalo mozzarella or burrata, should be kept in their liquid until you’re ready to use them, and use any leftovers within a day or two.

Fun cheese fact:

If you ever found yourself unable to put down that exquisite slab of Comte, don’t beat yourself up about it — cheese triggers the brain’s opioid receptors, just like drugs. (Don’t worry, it’s not that addictive.)