Staff Picks: The Cheeses We Go Crazy For

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Vicky Wasik

What's your night cheese? You know, the cheese you snack on before bed, or wake up in the middle of the night craving—the cheese you love so much you throw shade at whomever so much glances at it on a cheese plate?

We asked ourselves that very question and came up with answers high and low—stinky, fudgy, sharp, and unapologetically trashy. Meet our spirit cheeses.

The Fresh

Marinated Canterbury from Edgwick Farm is the fresh goat cheese to end all goat cheeses. It's covered with extra virgin olive oil and herbs. Yes, it's around $10 for a half deli container's worth, and it only keeps a few days. But it's a special thing, best eaten unadorned but for some sea salt flecks, with toasted baguette slices. This is what summer in upstate New York tastes like to me, and it's the epitome of what a cheese bought at a farmer's market should aspire to. In fact, I'm really sad that I can't get my fix at the New Amsterdam Market anymore. — Tracie Lee

Remember the first time you had burrata, the mozzarella-like ball split open and oozing the richest, butteriest cream you could possibly imagine, and you thought, damn, this might be better than mozzarella! Cut for sure it can't get any better than this? Take one bite of stracciatella, the delicious creamy burrata center minus the outer casing of cheese, and I swear you'll have that feeling all over again. It gets right down to business, just the best part with nothing extraneous, as much as you can eat, preferably, if you're a glutton like me, with a spoon. — Daniel Gritzer

The Cowgirl

Cowgirl Creamery's Mt. Tam.

Cowgirl Creamery's Mt. Tam when I'm feeling like something mellow, and their Red Hawk when I want a little more funk. Both are triple cream (and plenty rich), but the Red Hawk has a washed rind and much more pungent flavor. — Maggie Hoffman

Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk.

It's been true for many years now that there are cheese produced in the United States that can rival anything made in the Old World. But I remember just a couple years ago when I first tasted the Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, CA, and how if ever there were a cheese that could turn a doubter into a believer, this was it. It's a triple-cream cheese, meaning it has an extra-high butterfat content, but, unlike the white rind on most triple-creams, this one is washed to produce an orange-tinged rind with extra layers of complex flavor. — Daniel Gritzer

The Mediterranean

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Kasseri.

You're hanging out on the beach and you get hungry. So you head to the kumru stall and ask for a sandwich, whereupon the sandwich guy splits a sesame seed-covered loaf that looks like a demi baguette, paints both sides with fat schmears of butter, and starts grilling them over charcoal. Just as the butter permeates the bread's every pore and the charcoal toasts the cut sides, the sandwich guy slaps some thick squares of kasseri onto the griddle. Young kasseri, please, the kind that oozes and sputters when it hits the heat but also picks up a mahogany crust. The melty-chewy cheese gets layered on that bread, topped with thin slices of impeccable tomato, and you eat it, swearing to the old gods and the new that this is the greatest grilled cheese of your life. So it goes in the southern Turkish beach town of Cesme. Kasseri, an unpasteurized Greco-Turkish sheep cheese, puts sheepy funk and a puckering dryness in the body of something halfway between gooey low-moisture mozzarella and squeaky halloumi. It's a wildly underappreciated "everyday" Mediterranean cheese, and perfect grilled cheese is only the beginning. — Max Falkowitz

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Feta.

The Greeks will tell you that they absolutely, hands-down, how dare you even suspect otherwise, make the best feta. All respect to the Greeks, but I have to say nuh uh! Give me a fat hunk of Romanian or Bulgarian feta any day of the week, maybe a crumbly slice so packed with brine and sheepy funk that it makes my mouth water and brings salty tears to my eyes, or a softer variety, creamier than cream, to smear on flatbread with some peppery ajvar. Not only will you find extreme variety in fetas from countries beyond Greece, but also incredible value—some of these amazing cheeses retail for as little as $4 a pound. — Max Falkowitz

The ratio of price to pleasure doesn't get any better than with Bulgarian feta. Every time I buy it, I look at the price tag and think, "wow, that was a steal!" I find it to be more versatile and a bit more creamy than regular feta, but still crumbly enough that you can make a good grain salad with it. I especially like getting it from Sahadi's on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, but it's still a steal at Whole Foods. It's what I turn to when I need "healthy and cheap garnish" for workweek lunches. — Tracie Lee

The Mushroomy

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Sottocenere.

Sottocenere tastes like dirt—and that's wonderful! It's earthy, loamy and full of mushroomy funk. I'm not normally into cheeses that have weird gimmicky additives (why would you wash a rind with absinthe??), but Sottocenere is one of those exceptions. It has a soft texture that's pleasingly rich but not overly indulgent like a Brie. — Tracie Lee

If you take a truffle cheese and make it more adult and refined, you get Sottocenere. Made from real black truffles rather than truffle oil like its cheaper counterparts, Sottocenere tastes like the genuine article—deeply complex, earthy, and ashen. Best of all, as a semi-soft it melts incredibly well; perfect for pizzas a la Paulie Gee. — Leang Chaing

Most truffle cheeses taste more of petroleum products than actual truffle, but Moliterno con Tartufo is the most inexpensive way I know of actually getting a real truffle hit. It's easy to tell, because you see the veins of black truffle, and the real truffle smell is unmistakable. It's an aged Pecorino from Sardinia made by the producer Centrale. The black truffle comes by way of the Marche region on the Adriatic coast. The aging (nine months according to the Italian cheese maven Louis DiPalo) gives the cheese a saltiness that plays well with the nuttiness of the black truffles. When I serve it at parties, people eat so much of it they often don't eat the main course. — Ed Levine

The Cheddars

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Cabot clothbound Cheddar.

I like my aged cheddars sharper than a Brit's wit. I want to see granules of crystalized calcium lactate that act as umami land mines, bursting upon contact. I want my cheese wedge to look like unpolished granite with layers of striation and ridges of flakes. Really, when I want aged cheddar, I want Cabot Clothbound. — Leang Chaing

Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar is my everyday go-to cheese. I pick it up in the same aisle as my eggs, and I'm not ashamed at all. The genius of it is how you can use it for practically everything: Slice it onto a sandwich, melt it onto tortilla chips, make it into a grilled cheese, grate it into an omlette; the possibilities are endless. Or you open the cheese drawer and slice a giant hunk off and plop down and start an episode of The Good Wife because you're snacky and not quite ready to actually make dinner yet. — Tracie Lee

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Dorset Red.

I really love the smokiness of Dorset Red; it makes me feel like I've been at a bonfire after eating it. It's a little crumbly, not as smooth as some other semi-hard cheeses—it breaks apart. It's a rough-and-tumble kind of cheese.Vicky Wasik

Cracker Barrel sharp Cheddar, in classic orange cube-log form, is the cheese of my youth and my nostalgia for that youth. I could work through an entire package on Ritz crackers without even noticing. In a more decadent mood, nuggets of Cracker Barrel wrapped in slices of white bread and mashed into doughy balls were good both as snacks and for baiting fish. — Chris Mohney

From Dairyland

Widmer's is one of the finest cheesemakers in the Dairy State. They boast a wide range of flavors, from Jalapeno Pepper Brick to Vegetable Colby, but the award-winning four-year-aged cheddar is the best, the perfect blend of rich, nutty, sharp and slightly crumbly. — Sebastian Mei

Henning's also makes incredible Wisconsin cheeses. My favorite are their curds, especially the garlic and dill variety, which are squeaky and delicious all by themselves. You can also melt their two-tone (orange and white) curds on a pizza with some smoked brat slices, sauerkraut, and mustard and have the most Wisco-style pizza imaginable. — Sebastian Mei

The Stinky

Epoisses de Bourgogne.

Epoisses de Bourgogne is the epitome of a stinky cheese, powered by a flavor so intense sometimes your clothes end up smelling like it. In its idealized form in France it's made from unpasteurized cow's milk in the town of Epoisses in the Cote d'Or region, where it has been made since the 16th century. It's a soft washed-rind cheese that comes in a round wooden box. How creamy and melty is it? You usually have to eat it with a spoon. Of course that makes it really hard to find in the U.S. unless some enterprising cheesemonger has smuggled it in. The version imported to the US is made with pasteurized milk. It's still good, but it loses a bit of its funky wonderfulness. How smelly is it? According to some sources it's banned on public transportation in France, sort of like the way durian is treated in Asia. Epoisses kind of separates serious cheese lovers from their more casual counterparts. When it's perfectly ripe I would eat it like a dog eating its food from a bowl, if only my wife would let me. Ed Levine

Pungent and so runny it's often served with a spoon, Epoisses de Bourgogne isn't for everyone. But if you're the type who walks into a cheese store and asks for the softest, stinkiest cheese they've got, this is THE one to revel in. Intensely creamy and rich, it has a funky meatiness that calls to mind the love child of a dry-aged steak and fancy Spanish ham. The cow's milk cheese is typically sold in a small round wooden box that I'm pretty sure is French for dinner for one. That, or I have one hell of an addiction. — Niki Achitoff-Gray

The Blues

Roquefort.

I've always had a thing for stinky blue cheese. That funk that only comes from Penicillium- and Brevibacterium linens-infected aged salted cheese curds tickles my palate in a way that nothing else comes close to. And Roquefort is the one and only true king of blue cheese. Don't get me wrong—I'd bring a hunk of Gorgonzola to a Brie party any day, but Roquefort is the one I hoard for myself at home. It's made with sheep's milk, which automatically ups the funk factor, giving it those distinctly tart, barnyard-y notes. It's also saltier than most other blues and more concentrated. Like a good Parmesan or aged Gouda, it has those tiny grains of crystallized amino acids that roll along your tongue and crunch against the roof of your mouth, like tiny little umami grenades. Smeared onto a bit of good country bread with a drizzle of honey, there's nothing that I'd want more at the close of a meal (or any time at all, really). — J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Stilton.

Back in college, when I was studying in London, I developed an obsession with the great cheesemonger called Neal's Yard Dairy. I'd walk over to their Covent Garden shop every chance I got eat my way through as much of the great British cheeses as I could—Lancashire and Red Leicester, Coolea, and Cheddar—but the one cheese I bought every single time I went was a piece of Colston Bassett Stilton. So smooth and buttery, with just enough blue in it for flavor, but not so much to overpower. It's one of the great blues of the world. — Daniel Gritzer

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Gorgonzola dolce.

In my mind, if Stilton is one of the great blue cheeses of the world, Italy's Gorgonzola is the other. Specifically, Gorgonzola Dolce, the creamier, milder, sweeter type. Put a piece of it in front of me and I'll be mesmerized as it warms up, flowing gently, beckoning me to scoop up a piece, strands of it pulling as I lift. If I don't finish it all, I'm only being polite. — Daniel Gritzer

The Nutty

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Cypress Grove's Midnight Moon.

I'm a big-time fan of the American artisanal cheese movement, and California-based Cypress Grove's Midnight Moon is high on my list, though it turns out that the cheese is actually made in Holland. It's an ultra-smooth aged goat cheese with a surprising bit of crunch from the protein crystals that form from the ageing process. I love it because it's so nutty and caramel-ly I can pretend it's dessert without any sugar guilt. — Ed Levine

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Aged Gouda.

Remember Babybel gouda, the semi-soft puck wrapped in yellow wax paper, with a mild, sweet flavor? Yeah, that's the stuff that made me shy away from goudas for years. Then I met the real-deal aged Gouda. After a year or so of aging, the cheese reaches a deep orangey-gold, with the crystallized texture of great Parmesan cheese. Between those little crunchlets and the sharp, nutty, funky, caramelized flavor, it's become one of my favorite hunks of cheese to splurge on and then finish in a single sitting. — Niki Achitoff-Gray

The first time you try brunost is bound to be a startling, even baffling experience; it's simply so unlike the European and Latin American cheeses to which most of us are accustomed. The Scandinavian specialty has a smooth, dense texture and a flavor reminiscent of dulce de leche. Which makes sense, since it's essentially the result of boiling milk, cream, and whey, reducing the liquids until the milk sugars have caramelized and the concoction can cool into a solid brick. With its milk-chocolate color and pronounced nutty sweetness, brunost could easily be called the dessert course of the cheese world. — Niki Achitoff-Gray

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Fontina Val D'Aosta.

I have a thing for Alpine cheeses like Gruyere and Comte, and subtly sweet, earthy flavors, but perhaps the softest spot in my heart goes to Fontina, which hails from the Valle D'Aosta in the Italian Alps. It's got all those alpine qualities, with a wonderful mushroomy funk and fruity kick that I love so much. Just one word of warning: There are a lot of impostors out there, so make sure you get true Fontina Val d'Aosta. Accept no substitute. — Daniel Gritzer

The Meaty

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Weinkase Lagrein.

Cheese? GOOD. Meat? GOOD. Cheese that tastes like meat? GOOOOD. Peppery, garlicky, and rich, you wouldn't be wrong to say the Weinkase Lagrein tastes a lot like salami. It's worth a taste just for the novelty, but more than that, it's worth adding to your charcuterie board because it's so damn delicious. — Leang Chaing