How to shop for cheese, according to an expert

Know which questions to ask, when to splurge and more

Published August 7, 2021 1:30PM (EDT)

 (Rocky Luten / Food52)
(Rocky Luten / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

That Cheese Plate is a column by Marissa Mullen — cookbook author, photographer, and Food52's Resident Cheese Plater. With Marissa's expertise in all things cheddar, comté, and crudité — plus tips for how to make it all look extra special, using stuff you probably have on hand — we'll be crafting our own cheesy masterpieces without a hitch. This month, Marissa is sharing how to make the most out of shopping for cheese.

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Shopping for cheese can be an intimidating process. There are countless styles to choose from, wide price ranges, different milk types, and many countries of origin. In my years of cheese plating, I've learned to always invest in good cheese, specifically cheese from a farmstead or small-batch dairy farm. Typically at these smaller operations, the animals are treated sustainably, and the cheesemaking process isn't completely mechanically produced. The cheese is the base of your creation, acting as the founding flavors to build pairings upon. With high-quality cheese, the sensory experience is much more impactful.

To that end, I love supporting local cheese shops with my plate purchases. Cheesemongers are a gift to this world, brimming with dairy-based knowledge to help you craft your perfect cheese board. If you don't have access to a local cheese shop, that's OK — grocery stores can have a great selection as well. The question is, where should you start? I asked my friend Erika Kubick to weigh in with some advice. Kubick is a Cheese Educator and Advocator, Chicago cheese blogger and author of the forthcoming book, Cheese Sex Death: A Bible for the Cheese Obsessed.

Tip 1: Learn how to navigate the cheese case 

Upon entering a cheese shop, you will be greeted by a glorious case of cheese. From creamy blues to stinky taleggios, the cheese case has something to offer for all cheese lovers. Kubick recommends entering with a plan. "Are you looking for something to cook with or snack on yourself? Are you making a cheese plate? How many people are you trying to feed? Once you answer those questions, try to decide on a budget for yourself. That will narrow things down for you. It also helps to make a mental list of the cheeses that you know you already like, so you can look for something similar." For a cheese plate, she recommends selecting 3 to 6 types and a variety of textures, milk types, and ages to keep things interesting.

Tip 2: Ask questions 

Over my years of cheese-plating, I've learned that you should never hold back while asking questions — cheesemongers are here to help. Kubick loves asking cheesemongers what cheese they're excited about in their store. "Nobody knows their cheese selection the way they do, so they'll always steer you in the best direction. They're usually happy to share stories about their cheeses, which is always fun. Definitely ask for pairing recommendations, too."

Tip 3: Know when to splurge 

A common topic of discussion around cheese is the price. Some cheese can weigh in at over $30 per pound, which can be a bit out of the budget for many people. Which cheese is worth the splurge? Kubrik recommends shelling out the extra bucks for farmstead cheeses. "Farmstead means that the maker owns their animals and makes the cheese, so they oversee the whole process. These cheeses can be expensive, because taking care of animals and the land in a sustainable and humane way is expensive. But these cheeses are really special, and so are the people who make them."

Tip 4: Understand the price of cheese 

So why is some cheese so expensive? Is there really a difference between a $20 wedge of farmstead cheddar and a $5 package of a pre-sliced grocery store brand? Typically, artisanal operations have smaller margins, which affects the ability to mass produce for a cheaper price point. This ensures a higher quality cheese, though. Kubick explains the overhead costs behind the best cheese: "You have to pay for premium transportation, account for the time that the cheese has to age, and care for the animals year-round, even when they aren't milking. Cheesemakers work so hard, and don't get a lot of days off. When all is said and done, they really don't make a lot of money either, because the whole production is so expensive as it is. When you spend money on artisan cheese, you're supporting small businesses and keeping the art of cheesemaking alive. And that's amazing."

Tip 5: Know how to buy cheese for a crowd 

Say you're hosting a big party and can't push the envelope with a plate exclusively made of expensive, high-quality cheese. What kinds of cost-effective cheese can you supplement from the grocery store? Kubick recommends splurging on a few special wedges from a cheese shop, and filling the rest in with grocery store finds. "Cow's milk cheeses like Gouda, crunchy aged cheddars, and Parmigiano are always great and not too expensive."

Tip 6: Support your favorites! 

If you have the ability and the budget, it's always nice to support your local favorite cheesemongers. Check to see what farms or cheese shops are around your area and pay them a visit. Kubick is constantly looking for new cheese shops when she's traveling and racked up some favorites. "In Detroit, I love Mongers Provisions. They have wonderful cheesemongers, and an incredible selection of artisan chocolate. One of my other favorite shops is The Cheese Shop of Salem in Massachusetts. I really think that they are just perfect: from the mongers to the selection of accompaniments to their epic grilled cheese sandwiches. I also adore DTLA Cheese in California, Saxelby's Cheese in New York, Antonelli's Cheese Shop in Austin, and, of course, both All Together Now and Beautiful Rind here in Chicago."

With these tips, you'll be a pro cheese shopper in no time.

By Marissa Mullen

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