Cheese is a delicious (and healthy!) item to add to your grocery cart and your diet. But picking the right one at the grocery store can get challenging.
Once you’ve graduated beyond bags of shredded cheese, there’s little to guide you through the many options at the cheese counter. Rather than just guessing at what’s going to taste the best or which cheese is likely the freshest, you can learn a few useful tips that will help you zero in on the best option.
Whether you love mozzarella, prefer feta, or favor another variety of cheese altogether, these are the most important things to keep in mind when you head to the grocery store.
1. How to buy the best cheddar
Let’s start simple! Cheddar is equally at home on a grilled cheese sandwich, in a delicious batch of macaroni and cheese, or sliced up and paired with crackers. But most people don’t really know what good cheddar looks or even tastes like. As the Independent learned, a good cheddar should feel firm and have a “slightly flinty texture.” And, for the record, a good cheddar will taste creamy, with sweet and savory notes and “a general tanginess.”
The Kitchn reports that designations for how “sharp” a specific cheddar tastes are unregulated. That varies across brands. Nonetheless, the term alludes to how cheddar changes in flavor — and texture — as it ages. Mild cheddars get aged two to three months. Sharp cheddars age for six to nine months. Extra sharp cheddar gets aged for 1.5 to 2 years. As cheddar ages, its flavor goes from mild to tangier, and its texture develops hard, salt-like crystals. Taste aside, mild or sharp cheddars are easiest to melt, while aged cheddars behave more like parmesan cheese.
2. How to find the best mozzarella
Wondering how to buy mozzarella for your pasta, pizza, or caprese salad? The Huffington Post learned that you should look for fresh mozzarella that isn’t dazzling white, but a pearl or porcelain color instead. The texture should feel compact but elastic (not rubbery). And when you press or cut it, a few drops of white liquid should come to the surface. Epicurious reports that another thing to know is the varieties of mozzarella, because you’ll want to choose the one that works best for your recipe.
Fresh mozzarella typically takes the form of balls of various sizes, packed in water. “The largest are ovoline, which are good for slicing and topping pizza, sandwiches, casseroles, and toast,” Epicurious explains. “Bocconcini are about the size of golf balls, ciliegine are cherry-sized, and perline aren’t much bigger than pearls. Use these in salads and pastas.”
3. How to buy feta cheese
Feta can add delicious flavor to your tons of different dishes — if you know how to buy the right kind. The Spruce recommends going with Greek feta. You want varieties made from sheep or goat milk (or a combination of the two). Additionally, The Kitchn learned that if you want high-quality feta, you should avoid crumbled cheese and buy feta wedges instead. When the cheese is crumbled, you can’t tell at the grocery store how good it really is.
Fine Cooking concurs and notes, “Buying feta in whole blocks, bricks, or wedges makes sense for the same reasons that you buy Parmesan in big chunks: It stays fresher for longer, it doesn’t dry out, and its flavor packs more punch.” You’ll get the best flavor if you go for a block held in brine. Additionally, you should try to opt for a store-wrapped piece of feta, instead of a vacuum-packed wedge.
4. How to shop for Swiss cheese
Just as feta tastes so much better in its non-crumbled form, real Swiss cheese tastes nothing like the pre-sliced cheese you buy at the back of the grocery store. Or even, as Serious Eats explains, the kind of Swiss cheese you see in a block at the deli counter. The Swiss cheese you see in the U.S. is typically manufactured to resemble Emmentaler cheese. This western Swiss cheese has a distinctively sweet flavor and round “eyes” or holes.
Serious Eats explains that “block cheese with holes can be made anywhere (and is, in great quantity, in Austria, Germany, and Finland, not to mention the U.S.) and called Emmenthaler.” Cook’s Illustrated notes that most of the Swiss cheese found stateside “may be fine as a gooey layer in a Reuben but would never star on a cheese plate.” If you want a Swiss cheese with a nuanced flavor, you’re going to need to look for genuine Emmantaler cheese from Switzerland.
5. How to find the right Parmesan
Most Americans only use Parmesan grated, as a topping for pasta or pizza. However, Serious Eats notes that you’re missing out if you’ve never experienced Parmesan another way. Though people usually think of Parmesan as a hard, grating cheese, its texture is only slightly firmer than that of an aged cheddar. Another misconception? That anything labeled “Parmesan” at the grocery store is authentic Parmigiano Reggiano. This long-aged cheese includes only milk, salt, and rennet (the natural enzyme that makes milk curdle and is used in most aged cheeses).
But Parmesan cheese sold in the United States doesn’t have to abide by any of those rules — or any requirements at all. Serious Eats concludes that instead of buying domestic Parmesan, you’re better off buying an imported Parmigiano Reggiano. At many grocery stores, even the Parmigiano Reggiano that costs the same as a domestic Parmesan will taste a lot better than the American version.
6. How to buy ricotta
Ricotta makes a delicious addition to pizza, pasta, and even pastries. Serious Eats reports that old-fashioned ricotta is made by taking the curds left over from producing a cheese like Parmesan, adding an acid, then heating them until the proteins coagulate. The curds then get strained and drained. Modern ricotta typically gets made with fresh whole or skimmed milk, to which the acid is added directly.
Serious Eats notes that good ricotta should taste “foremost of fresh dairy.” The publication adds, “Any sort of sourness or off flavors are a turn-off. Sweet and creamy is what we’re looking for.” A chalky or grainy textures signals that the milk was heated too hot, or agitated too much during production. You should detect a slight graininess to the texture. However, the grains should be soft, creamy curds, not “little rubber balls.”
7. How to shop for gouda
The Kitchn reports that “there’s no other cheese” quite like gouda. “Great Gouda is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the red waxed disc you find in most large-scale supermarkets, which is an industrial, often American-made cheese inspired the original,” The Kitchn explains. Instead, real gouda — properly pronounced “how-da” — tastes both sweet and savory. It gets aged for years, and the cheese ends up very dense.
The younger the gouda, the creamier its texture. Young gouda gets aged between one and three months and tastes sweet and mild. It often has a red wax rind. Cured gouda gets aged from four to nine months and becomes sharper. Aged gouda gets aged for 10 to 14 months and is sharper still. Extra aged gouda gets aged for 18 months or more and has a more nuanced sharpness with a distinct sweetness. Smoked gouda gets smoked over hickory chips in brick ovens. And goat gouda includes goat’s milk instead of traditional cow’s milk and has a tangier flavor.
8. How to find the right provolone
Many Americans have only had a mediocre version of provolone cheese on their sandwiches or subs. And The Kitchn reports that “if you’ve never had the tasty versions — from large, aged, Italian wheels — you’d have no reason to understand why it can be so snackable.” The publication adds, “In Italy, provolone is considered to be among the most vital of cheese staples. And in American-Italian food traditions, it’s a necessity.”
To find a good provolone, you want to look for authentic Italian provolone. It’s closely related to mozzarella. So, like mozzarella, it has a more intense flavor when melted. Pre-packaged and pre-sliced provolone “is about as far from authentic provolone as it gets,” according to The Kitchn. Look for provolone dolce, which has a mild nutty flavor. Or look for an aged provolone, called provolone piccante, which has a sharper and saltier flavor.
9. How to buy blue cheese
Not everybody loves blue cheese. However, you have a better chance of appreciating this cheese — or acquiring the taste for it — if you buy good cheese. (It may also help if you ignore the fact that blue cheese gets its blue spots thanks to the growth of mold!) Serious Eats notes that even people averse to the flavors associated with blue cheese “can find something to love” among the many blue cheeses on the market.
The publication reports that a good blue cheese will be “a cheese first, and a blue second.” (Unlike mediocre blue cheeses, which are “blues first, second, and third, relying on salt and mold entirely at the expense of depth and complexity.”) If you want a milder, sweeter blue cheese, look for one with fewer pockets of blue mold. Also opt for one with a softer, creamier texture. Avoid anything with brown edges or pink slime. Avoid overripe blues by steering clear of anything with an acetone flavor.
10. How to shop for goat cheese
Goat cheese makes the perfect topping for crackers. It also works well on salad or pasta. You can add it to pizza and to many other dishes. Cook’s Illustrated reports that you want your goat cheese to feel smooth and creamy. It should also have “a distinctly tangy, grassy taste.” Some issues to look out for? You don’t want a chalky or spackle-like texture. You’ll also want to avoid goat cheeses with a “too-neutral flavor” that seems more like cream cheese than goat cheese. Just as bad? An excessively gamy taste.
The flavors in goat cheese correlate with the animal’s diet. As Cook’s Illustrated notes, “cheesemakers aiming for a tangy but still grassy-sweet profile make sure to source the goats’ milk from animals on a restricted diet of mild-tasting grains, grasses, and hay.” The freshness of the milk also plays a role in the flavor of the resulting cheese. Finally, the curdling method also affects the taste. Quick-set cheeses, which use citric or lactic acid added directly to the milk, often end up slightly grainy or chalky.
11. How to shop for Halloumi
Everybody loves a grilled cheese sandwich. But have you ever tried cheese that can actually be grilled on its own, with no bread involved? You can if you buy Halloumi. Bon Appétit reports that Halloumi is a sheep’s cheese from Cypress that’s primarily known and loved for its high melting point. “This baby can be pan-fried, seared, and grilled,” Bon Appétit notes. Serious Eats adds that even if Halloumi carries a high price tag at your local supermarket, you’ll definitely want to give it a try.
The Kitchn reports that Halloumi is traditionally made either with sheep’s milk or with a blend of sheep and goat milk. As Halloumi has gained popularity outside of Greece and the Middle East, cow’s milk Halloumi has grown more popular. If you want a tangier twist in this cheese’s mild flavor, you should look for a variety made with sheep or goat milk. And prepare for a relatively salty flavor that falls somewhere between mozzarella and feta.
12. How to buy Gruyère
As we’ve already discussed, most people have something very specific in mind when they think “Swiss cheese.” But Gruyère should jump to the top of your shopping list if you want to try a Swiss cheese that tastes almost nothing like its hole-filled fellow citizen. Cook’s Illustrated characterizes Gruyère as “pleasantly firm and dense” and “slightly crumbly.” It also boasts the “faint crystalline crunch” you’ll also experience with a good cheddar or Parmesan.
Good Gruyères taste both nutty and sweet. And according to Cook’s Illustrated, Gruyère numbers among the few cheeses that work just as well in cooked dishes as on a cheese plate. To get the best flavor, look for a Gruyère that carries the Appellation d’Origine Protégée seal. (That guarantees that the cheesemaker followed strict government-mandated rules and quality standards.) These will taste more intense, complex, and even caramel-like than American varieties — at least in part because they’re aged longer.
13. How to find the best Manchego
Manchego is Spain’s most popular cheese, but plenty of Americans have never given it a try. Serious Eats characterizes this sheep’s milk cheese as “the ideal culinary ambassador, as representative of Spanish culture as Parmigiano-Reggiano is of Italian or Roquefort is of French.” A good Manchego won’t taste excessively sweet nor excessively salty. They’ll also have a distinctive tanginess.
Manchego comes in industrial, supermarket versions and raw-milk, artesano production varieties. Serious Eats advises, “Industrial Manchego is fantastic for grating over vegetables, for folding into biscuit dough, or for marinating in olive oil and herbs. Artisan wheels warrant a few sweet or salty accompaniments, a friendly Spanish wine, and more thoughtful nibbling.”
14. How to find the best brie
The Kitchn reports that brie numbers among the most popular kinds of cheese. However, you can find “so many just plain bad bries out there, with thick, rubbery rinds and bitter, off flavors.” Cook’s Illustrated explains that brie sold in the United States has changed over the years. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the original versions for using raw milk. Most brie varieties found at the supermarket are produced domestically, so many taste bland and rubbery.
However, you can find flavorful bries at the grocery store, as well. Factors like origin, price, and format don’t necessarily predict the flavor. Instead, it’s the culturing process that matters most. Ideally, you want a brie that uses mesophilic cultures, which are more reactive to milk proteins than the alternative (thermophilic) and yield traditional brie with a fuller flavor, gooier texture, and thinner, spottier rind. Labels don’t indicate whether the cheesemaker used this traditional process, so you may need to taste a few to find what you’re looking for.
15. How to shop for Camembert
Tasting Table reports that because the U.S. has banned the domestic production and the importation of cheese made with raw milk that’s been aged less than 60 days, you can’t get authentic Camembert de Normandie stateside. You can find what the publication characterizes as “pasteurized milk knockoffs.” However, the law requires real Camembert to be made with unpasteurized milk. (That’s led to a “black market” for cheeses.)
However, in the case of Camembert, The Kansas City Star reports that “Even though they are technically not the real thing, some cheesemakers are taking a shot and making Camembert-style cheeses that stand up to it.” A few to consider if you want to get close to real camembert, without resorting to smuggling it in illegally? Bent River, made by Alemar Cheese Co., Camembert dell’Alta Langa from northern Italy, or Green Hill from Sweetgrass Dairy.
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