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A Quick Guide to Cheese Shopping: How to Understand the Differences Between Mass-Produced and Specialty Cheeses
When it comes to cheese, there are any number of adjectives that can be used to describe all of the gleaming packages before you at the cheese counter. You'll hear terms like washed rind, creamline, and curd, and you might hear about a cheese's bloomy rind or its penicillium mold. But before we go into all of the particulars of what makes up a cheese's personality, we have to cover one very important topic first: a cheese's method of production.
While there are many ways to classify cheeses, it's important to properly categorize different varieties by how they are produced. Cheeses generally fall into one of four production categories: mass-produced, specialty, artisan, and farmstead. How is a novice cheese lover supposed to tell the difference between a mass-produced cheese and a farmstead cheese? (Besides the prettier packaging?) To make matters worse, plenty of people mix up the terms, causing even more confusion.
For a solid definition of these categories, let's turn the the experts. When it comes to any cheese-related questions, you can always count on The American Cheese Society to know the answer.
Quick Primer on Cheese Terms
- Mass-produced cheeses are made in large processing plants, often employing very large teams of factory workers to create the cheese. The milk can come from any number of places, including large factory farming operations, and the taste and texture of mass-produced cheeses are usually very consistent from one package to the next. In fact, many would say that this consistency is a large producer's primary concern.
- Specialty cheeses are produced with less mechanization than mass-produced varieties, and are usually created in smaller amounts. Specialty cheesemakers pay particular attention to flavor and texture profiles and have a very close relationship with the cheeses they produce, but these cheeses are not considered "handmade."
- Artisan cheeses are primarily handmade in small batches, often by one or a few passionate individuals who pay particular attention to the tradition of the cheesemaker's art. Artisan dairies employ as little mechanization as possible, keeping things as close to traditional methods as possible under the limitations of health and sanitation laws.
- Farmstead cheeses must be made with milk from the cheesemaker and/or farmer's own animals, and the cheese must be made on the farm where the animals live. Milk used in the production of farmstead cheeses may not be obtained from any outside source. A cheese can be classified as both artisan and farmstead if the cheese is made by hand and the milk comes from the farm where the cheese is made. (In fact, you would have a hard time finding farmstead cheeses that are not artisan cheeses as well.)
Now that you've been informed, how does this all come into play when buying and enjoying cheese? Looking at a cheese, you may not be able to tell how large the production was that created it; artisan varieties can have very sophisticated labels, and mass-produced cheeses can easily employ terms that lead consumers to believe the cheese was made on a small scale. What can you do to find out the truth about how a cheese was made?
Befriend Your Local Cheesemonger!
Here's where cheese becomes a social activity: in order to learn more about cheese, start talking more to your local cheese purveyor. If you have a cheese counter in your area, get to know your cheesemonger behind the counter. Reputable cheese counters have a great relationship with the distributors who provide their products, and as such, they are very knowledgeable about the varieties they carry.
I cannot stress this enough: get to know your cheesemonger, and you will be well taken care of.
Unfortunately, some areas are not blessed with a local cheese counter. If you live in one of these cheese-less areas, don't despair. Specialty cheese shops are popping up all over as the artisan cheese movement takes hold in American culture. You can also order your cheeses from a respected online shop, such as Murray's or Artisanal. Reputable online cheese shops will also answer your questions if you want to give them a call or shoot them an email.
Here are some examples of cheeses in each of the above categories.
Some Examples of... Mass-Produced Cheeses
- Tillamook Cheese (tour the Oregon factory here!)
- President Cheese
- Vermont Creamery
- Bellwether Farms
- Tumalo Farms
- Redwood Hill Farms
- Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese
- Jasper Hill Farm
What cheeses have you tried recently that you love?
About the author: Stephanie Stiavetti is a writer and cookbook author in San Francisco. Stephanie's cookbook, Melt: the Art of Macaroni and Cheese, celebrates America's favorite dish by recreating it with small production, specialty cheeses. Her food blog, The Culinary Life, is a repository for all things comfort food related, from savory dinners to transcendental desserts.