How to Tell if a Cheese is for Cooking or Just Eating

Here’s a conversation that happens at least once every hour at the cheese counter:

Cheesemonger: “Let me know if I can answer any questions for you.”

Customer: “Yeah, I’m looking for a cheese that will go well on crackers.”

Cheesemonger: “Well, you’ve come to the right place. Everything you see is good with crackers.”

[Customer stares blankly at cheesemonger.]

While we tend to associate some cheeses with cooking and other cheeses with cheese plates, there is actually no cut-and-dry rule for which cheese you are allowed to eat on a cracker and which cheese you must consume by melting.

I think it blows a lot of people’s minds when they walk up to the cheese counter and we are sampling out Ricotta with jam and cookies.

“Ricotta?” they ask. “Doesn’t that go into lasagna?”

Yeah, but not only—and maybe not this particular Ricotta, which is like manna from heaven.

Or how about eating Parmigiano Reggiano on a cheese platter? The king of cheeses is not just for grating on pasta, y’all.

You might be familiar with a story from 2017 about a British ex-pat, Ben McPartland, living in France who was trying to buy cheese for a Fondue. The cheesemonger with whom he was working refused to sell him some aged Beaufort when he found out it would be melted, because the cheese was “just too good for Fondue.”[i]

I remember cheesemongers laughing about the story at the time. There were two viewpoints on the story: (1) you tell him, French cheesemonger; customers don’t know shit; and (2) sometimes you just need to keep your mouth shut and sell the person whatever they want.

If you read the original article, McPartland points out the cheesemonger’s knowledge about the food he was selling and commends him for trying to educate his customer about a special product and how best to enjoy it. McPartland says this expertise about food is something we don’t know how to appreciate in English-speaking countries where customer service is king and the person behind the counter is expected to quietly meet all of the shopper’s needs. This is the best takeaway for the story, because it sets a precedent for how you should interact with a cheesemonger (or any expert, really): ask questions, listen, and then make an informed decision.

(I acknowledge that cheese purists might disagree with the direction this post is going, as they–represented perhaps by cheesemonger viewpoint No. 1 above–would find it sacriligious to use a fine cheese for a recipe–and likewise to nibble on a ‘budget’ cheese with a glass of good wine.)

The first thing you should think about when you are trying to decide what kind of cheese you want to snack on is “what do I like?” and “what do I want to eat?” When customers ask me what cheese they should snack on, I always ask them first if they like milder or stronger cheeses, and second if they want a hard cheese or a soft cheese. Then I come out of my lair behind the counter and we go from there.

Likewise, when someone is cooking and needs a cheese for a recipe, I first ask if the recipe calls for a specific cheese, then what kind of flavor profile the customer is looking for. Do you want the cheese to just kind of blend in with the other ingredients, or do you want it to stand out?

There are some cheeses that fall into the ‘budget’ price range; those cheeses are the first place we will go for a recipe cheese. More often than not, a customer will say, “I’m just cooking with it,” which is code for “give me the cheapest stuff you’ve got.” And that is totally fair—after all, some recipes can get really pricy if you have to buy all 15 of the ingredients.

Some cheeses, like Gruyère and Comté, don’t have a cheap version. In my cheese case,  we have a traditional Cave Aged Gruyère and a loaf-cut (slightly lesser quality and flavor, but still Gruyère) Gruyère, and they differ in price by one dollar per pound. When a customer balks at the price of both and does not appreciate why this cheese might cost so much, we look for a cheaper alternative—like generic Swiss.

But if that customer cares about the flavor of the dish he is cooking, he can usually be persuaded to go for at least the cheaper of the two Gruyères, or perhaps for another cheese in the Alpine family that is a few dollars per pound less expensive, like Emmentaler. I will not necessarily suggest a more expensive cheese to a customer who is cooking unless that person seems really passionate about the flavor of the cheese.

(Plus, it also depends on “what’s good” that week—a question you really have to rely on the cheesemonger for, since he should have been tasting through the cheeses in the case as they are cut each day. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.)

As for a ‘snacking’ or ‘eating’ cheese? The answer is always to eat what you like. Do you like mild Cheddar? Then get mild Cheddar! Do you go nuts for flavored or smoked cheeses? Then eat them!

I may have my own private opinions about cheese, but I am never going to judge you for liking what you do. As I tell people all day long pretty much every day, we all have different tastes and different likes. I may tell you that I don’t particularly care for a cheese, but I will also explain to you what I don’t enjoy about it as well as what other people do enjoy about it—and I will probably make you taste it so you can decide for yourself.

Now, if you don’t know what you want, you should expect to have a pretty detailed conversation with your cheesemonger to narrow down your options. In a good cheese selection, there should be no cheeses that would be unsuitable for eating on a cracker or a piece of bread. We need to stop thinking about cheeses that we cook with as sub-par and cheeses that we nibble on as better quality cheeses than those with which we would cook.

Certainly, there are some cheeses that are very complex and would be better served by reverent snacking than by melting, shredding, or stirring into brunch or dinner. Those are the cheeses I recommend people buy a little more of when they want to cook with them, so that they can nibble on the excess as they cook. At the end of day, does it really matter how you enjoyed a food so as long as you appreciated and took pleasure in it?

No matter what you are looking for, ask your cheesemonger for samples as you decide on the best cheese for your platter, and please be open to her recommendations. I have some customers come in who ask for help and then disregard every advice I give them. If you don’t really want help, don’t ask for it; when the cheesemonger asks if you need anything, just say “no thank you, I know what I am looking for.”

You can absolutely ask the cheesemonger what is good this week, what she or he is most excited about, or what’s new in the case. If you ask what the monger’s “favorite cheese” is, be prepared to get a whole list: most cheesemongers have a favorite cheese in every family of cheeses. (Also, my favorite cheese may not be a cheese you would enjoy eating, so I will immediately turn the question back on you and ask what kind of cheeses you like.)

The moral of the story is this: eat what you like, however you like, and don’t be afraid to ask for help in figuring out what it is that you like.

If you want to cook with the most expensive cheese in the case, be my guest. But also don’t be afraid to try a new cheese with crackers, even if it’s a cheese you thought you could only enjoy as an ingredient. You might discover a new favorite that is even more worth the money because it is so versatile!

[i] McPartland, Ben. “Fonduegate and why the customer is not always right in France.” The Local. 20 December 2017, thelocal.fr/20171220/fonduegate-why-the-customer-is-never-right-in-france. Accessed 3 April 2019. << https://www.thelocal.fr/20171220/fonduegate-why-the-customer-is-never-right-in-france>>.

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