April 25, 2018
The phrase American cheese used to mean only one thing: that floppy, pale orange plastic-wrapped slice of processed perfection. But when I use the phrase American cheese now, that’s not what I’m talking about (save for this great grilled cheese recipe and the occasional hamburger). Instead, I’m referring to the incredible range of cheeses handcrafted in America—from young, tangy goat cheeses in Indiana to aged, nutty cow’s-milk cheese in Wisconsin; dessert-like blue cheeses from Oregon and complex, caramel-y clothbound cheddars from Vermont.
We’re living in a dairy renaissance, people! The golden age of American cheese! What a time to be alive!
But the cheese counter can be an intimidating place; good cheese does not come cheap. So I asked seven of the country’s leading cheese experts (see their bios at the end) to share what they think are the most important (and most delicious) cheeses that define American dairy today. Beyond just how good these cheeses taste, many of them also serve as models for responsible dairy farming and helping local communities.
While this list is a great starting point, don’t make it an ending point. Chat with your cheesemonger, find out what your nearby dairies are producing, and—best of all—always ask for samples. But, you know, then go buy something; think of your cheese purchase as not only supporting your desire to sit on the couch and eat cheese for dinner, but also as a way to support small businesses. Now that’s a cause I can get behind.
THE RAW COW CHEESESThese cheeses are made with non-pasteurized milk, meaning they need to be aged a minimum of 60 days to be legally sold, per the FDA. As a result, there are a lot of harder, aged cheeses in this category, with the exception of Dancing Fern right below.
Sequatchie Cove Creamery, Tennessee
Age: 60 days
Tennessee husband-and-wife team Nathan and Padgett Arnold are among an elite group of grass-based, raw milk, farmstead makers pioneering a new era of Southern cheese. Farmstead French Reblochon has been unavailable in this country for 15 years [Editor’s note: It’s a raw milk cheese, aged under 60 days, so banned for import by the FDA] but a bite of Dancing Fern is as milky and glorious. It may be hard to find but it’s cheaper than a flight to Paris. —Matt Rubiner
Uplands Cheese Company, Wisconsin
Age: 61 days (Rush Creek), 12-18 months (Pleasant Ridge)
Note: Only Pleasant Ridge Reserve is pictured since Rush Creek Reserve is a seasonal cheese made in the cooler months. Rush Creek is a soft, bark-wrapped cheese with a great gooey center, as in, it looks nothing like Pleasant Ridge Reserve but is equally delicious.
The make schedule of Uplands’ two cheeses is dictated not by the calendar, but by the seasons, the availability of fresh grass, and, therefore, the natural diet of their animals. Though stylistically quite different, each cheese takes advantage of specific seasonal variation in milk composition. Summer milk, leaner and with a higher percentage of water, lends itself better to firmer cheeses like Pleasant Ridge Reserve that have a longer shelf life and provide sustenance and joy year-round. Autumn milk has a higher fat content and is much better suited for transformation into silky, gooey, funky cheeses like Rush Creek Reserve. —Elizabeth Chubbuck
Rush Creek is crafted in the style of a Vacherin Mont d’Or—it’s made only with rich, heavy autumn milk. It has a thin, slightly sticky washed rind that’s wrapped around its edges in spruce-wood band and aged for about eight weeks so that it’s nice and creamy and sort of prototypically unctuous inside. Rush Creek is hard to make but easy to eat. The truth is you could just spoon it out of the rind and eat it as is, but in the winter I really like to eat it atop potatoes cooked till they’re really tender, then cracked open. Drop on a bit of butter, sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and then spoon on the Rush Creek. Eat it with a couple good slices of country bread. A darned delicious cheese! —Ari Weinzweig
If cheese could be pudding, it’d be Rush Creek Reserve. I’m a texture queen and this is my jam. Upland has given us two generations of cheesemakers who have made and make some of the best cheese in the country. —Tia Keenan
Buy Pleasant Ridge Reserve here and Rush Creek Reserve here (when it is holiday season!).
WatchChopped Dinner Salad
Meadow Creek Dairy, Virginia
Age: 2-4 months
A two-generation cheesemaking operation produces this meaty washed rind cheese [Editor’s note: Yep, it’s a little stinky.] only with milk coming from their own herd of cows. They produce milk seasonally for cheesemaking when the animals are on pasture. —Carlos Yescas
Buy Grayson here.
Jasper Hill Farm, Vermont
Age: 3-4 months
Generations of Americans have grown up on blue cheese as a wet, salty crumble. Bayley Hazen Blue emerged in 2003 as America’s answer to Stilton: fudgy and dense, minerally and sweet but never metallic. In the past 15 years, Jasper Hill has learned to control the variabilities of salt and seasonality, delivering a cheese that changes the minds of blue cheese haters—all while remaining committed to unpasteurized milk and handmade cheese. —Liz Thorpe
This is a cheese that is shaping the economic and agricultural landscape of Vermont and also making inroads into positive environmental impact as well. As demand for this cheese increased, Jasper Hill maxed out the production capacity of its creamery and expanded production into the Vermont Food Venture Center. Jasper Hill’s use of this space helps anchor it financially. This not only creates new jobs, but also opportunities for other new businesses to spring up. —Elizabeth Chubbuck
Buy Bayley Hazen Blue here.
Spring Brook Farm, Vermont
Age: 9-12 months
One of my favorite American-made mountain cheeses. The folks at Spring Brook do a lot of good work for the world through their Farms for City Kids foundation. They also do good work for cheese lovers. Tarentaise was originally developed by their neighbor, John Putnam at Thistle Hill Farm, who was inspired by the French mountain cheese Abondance. The cheese is made from the milk of the farm’s herd of Jersey cows, done in traditional copper kettles. It’s got a great nutty, buttery, creamy flavor with a relatively firm texture that makes it terrific for sandwiches, salads, snacking, and just about anything else. —Ari Weinzweig
Buy Tarentaise here.
The Grey Barn and Farm, Massachusetts
Age: Minimum 60 days
This blue cheese, made on Martha’s Vineyard, is briny, creamy, but above all aromatic. The rind reminds you not only of wet cellars but also of the ocean breeze on the marshes. The best word to describe it is petrichor—think damp mineral and organic matter. It has a smell so unique it can only come from ambient molds, yeasts, and beneficial bacteria alive in the maturing rooms of its Massachusetts coast creamery. —Carlos Yescas
Buy Bluebird here.
Parish Hill Creamery, Vermont
Age: 6 months minimum
Cornerstone promotes a new eco-microbio-political craftsmanship. Three U.S. cheesemakers have collaborated to create a collective recipe for one raw milk cheese. Together they are following one set of standards to each make cheese with their own native cultures. The result is a cheese that is connected to the land that produced it and an experiment in the creation of a new American original. —Carlos Yescas
Buy Cornerstone here.
THE PASTEURIZED COW CHEESESThis is the largest category of cheese here, no doubt because it’s the most common kind of cheese made in the U.S. If you’re only starting to get into cheese, chances are the cheeses you are most familiar with are pasteurized cow cheeses. But, within the category, there’s quite a range, from young cheeses like mozzarella to cheeses that age for well over a year.
Jasper Hill Farm, Vermont
Age: 6-13 weeks
American cheesemakers, unlike their European counterparts, are not bound by regional tradition; this Vermonter exhibits that benefit. It’s a bark-wrapped soft-ripened cheese that offers the creamy texture and root vegetable flavors you would expect from a great Brie but with a twist. The spruce bark on the rind lends a campfire-like undertow to the flavors. It’s a combination of culinary traditions from different parts of France, resulting in pure bliss. —Martin Johnson
Buy Harbison here.
Roelli Cheese Haus, Wisconsin
Age: Minimum 90 days
Dunbarton Blue is the sort of hybrid that only a cheeky American would invent; it breaks all the rules. It’s a cheddar-style cheese inoculated with blue mold, pressed, and then pierced. (Blue cheeses are always inoculated with blue, pierced, and never pressed.) Blue mold is an aerobic mold—it needs oxygen to thrive. Piercing opens up little oxygen highways into the cheese. Pressing collapses those highways, restricting the blue development. By piercing the wheels after the pressing, Roelli turns out dense cheddary wheels of cheese with a few contained spikes of blue. The result? A toothsome morsel that tastes of Cheez-Its with just a hint of gorgonzola crumble. I like to refer to it as the jazz of blue cheese. —Elizabeth Chubbuck
Buy Dunbarton Blue here.
Rogue Creamery, Oregon
Age: 14-17 months minimum
Among the many wonderful American blues, this one stands out. The cheese is aged for about 8 months, then finishes maturing in local grape leaves that have been macerated for a year in a pear spirit. It’s then put back to age another six to eight months. The flavor of the finished cheese is big, buttery, almost smoky, sort of mushroomy, with a hint of hazelnuts or hickory nuts. It’s kind of meaty, actually—not strong but very rich and very good. Eat with fresh fruit and a bit of bread. —Ari Weinzweig
Buy Rogue River Blue here.
As an Italian-American, I’m fascinated by the important role Italian-style cheeses have in the historical cheeseways of this country. BelGioioso makes these cheeses on a large scale in Wisconsin, but the quality and even the family-business tradition is still there. —Tia Keenan
Buy BelGioioso fresh mozzarella here.
Jasper Hill Farm, Vermont
Age 9-14 months
Sweet, crystalline cheddar swaddled in cloth, in the English manner. Cabot’s reach for the stars with this cheese, produced for Cabot by Jasper Hill Farm, triggered a cloth-binding craze among American cheddars—consumers are obsessed with this cheese. Shows you what happens when the big guys put their mind to something good. —Matt Rubiner
Bonus! A case for the supermarket Cabot cheddar as well (not pictured):
Not the cloth-bound stuff, the supermarket staple: orange, white, flavored, whatever. This is cheese that feeds America, supports 400 New England/NY dairy farms, and helps fund the artisan staple: Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. It’s also my go-to cooking cheddar. —Tia Keenan
Buy Cabot Clothbound Cheddar here.
Beecher’s Cheese, Seattle
Age: 15 months; 18 months
No cheese is as American as cheddar. Seattle’s Beecher’s introduced a new flavor profile that has become the gold standard for how good cheddar should taste. It’s sweeter, like buttered white toast, which makes it more like a Gruyère-cheddar hybrid. The commitment to higher fat cow’s milk creates a moist, velvety texture. It melts beautifully, unlike most cheddar, and tastes great enough that cheese snobs can serve it without fear of losing street cred. —Liz Thorpe
In a moment when many American cheddar makers were getting back to traditional styles, binding their cheeses in cloth for maturation, Beecher’s went a step further. Flagsheep is a variation on the creamery’s esteemed Flagship Reserve, and as the name implies, the difference is the substantial presence of sheep’s milk in the vat. This gives its cheddar both a richer texture and a creamier mouthfeel, plus a woolier flavor to blend with the grassy horseradish notes of a classic cheddar. —Martin Johnson
Buy Flagship and Flagsheep here.
Creamery 333, Wisconsin and Crown Finish Caves, New York
Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, New York and Murray’s Cheese, New York
Age: 4 months; 10-12 months
As American cheesemakers continue to push the boundaries of tradition, new types of collaboration are happening around developing, making, and aging new cheeses.
Trivium is an example of a French affineur, a French cheesemaker, and a cheese specialist (French-born, U.S.-based) collaborating to develop a recipe for a natural rind cheese that is aged in Brooklyn at Crown Finish Caves, then sent back to Creamery 333 to sell.
Similarly, over the last four years, Murray’s Cheese’s Cavemaster and the SVP of Merchandising worked with a Cornell-trained dairy scientist to develop a cow’s-milk clothbound cheddar recipe specifically tailored to age in our caves in Long Island City. Stockinghall Cheddar was released in April 2017 and continues to be a crowd-pleaser. Old Chatham Sheepherding Company now makes the wheels at Cornell University. They arrive at Murray’s, where they are bandaged in cheesecloth, larded (with lard from Brooklyn butcher shop the Meat Hook), and aged for 10-12 months before release. —Elizabeth Chubbuck
Buy Stockinghall Cheddar here.
Bleu Mont Dairy, Wisconsin
Age: 12-20 months
When cheesemaker Willi Lehner returned to Wisconsin after studying cheese affinage in Great Britain, the first thing he built was an aging cave. He created a literal cave in the side of hill and began sourcing milk for his unique cheddars. The aging process is one of the most painstaking and least well understood parts of the cheesemaking process, but a master can set humidity and temperature settings that bring out vast new flavors. Lehner’s cheddar brims with nutty and caramel overtones alongside the traditional earthy ones. —Martin Johnson
Buy Bleu Mont Cheddar here.
Age: Minimum 9 months
Wisconsin’s Sartori has capitalized on our love of hard, grainy Parmesan and butterscotch-y aged Gouda to create a cheese called BellaVitano. It’s nearly ubiquitous, costs the same as the block cheese in the dairy department, and shows up in a variety of washes (some more successful than others). Merlot and Balsamic are two of the best, imparting tart fruit notes that add just enough acidity to you keep going back for one more bite. —Liz Thorpe
Buy Sartori Merlot BellaVitano Reserve here.
Vella Cheese Company, California
Age: 7-10 months
An American original that dates to the early decades of the 20th century. For me, Dry Jack is one of the most historically important cheeses America has—when other artisans gave up and folded their hand, the Vellas kept at it. Dry Jack has stayed the course, through the low point of the ’70s when craft cheese all but disappeared in the U.S. Happily, it was still there for us to appreciate in the ’80s and ’90s when American cheese began its big comeback. There’s really nothing like it anywhere in the world. Dry Jack is a delicious study in contrasts: full-flavored without being strong; firm-textured yet surprisingly soft on the palate; and great for eating as is but also for grating onto salads, pastas, or soups. —Ari Weinzweig
Buy Vella Dry Jack here.
Salvatore Bklyn, New York
Age: Made fresh daily
Sumptuous and seductive are words that are routinely applied to many cheeses but not often to ricotta. Yet, Salvatore Ricotta, developed by Betsy Devine and Rachel Mark in their Brooklyn kitchen, elevates the profile of this proletarian cheese skyward. Made with Hudson Valley Fresh milk, this cheese has a creamy texture more akin to mascarpone. This iteration is smoked by burning cherrywood, which gives it a hint of sweetness. It’s the ideal companion for a sweetbread, but some fanatics just spoon it out of its carton. —Martin Johnson
Find Salvatore Bklyn Smoked Ricotta at these shops.
THE RAW GOAT CHEESESThere are only 2 cheese representing the raw goat cheese category—these are not the easiest cheeses to track down, depending where you live. So, if you do, you know you’ve got something special.
Lively Run Goat Dairy, New York
Age: Minimum 60 days
Goat’s-milk cheeses and blue cheeses often have barriers to overcome toward acceptance, yet this classic from the Finger Lakes region clears both effortlessly. Rather than the sharp tang of some goat’s-milk cheeses or the undifferentiated wallop of some blues, the Cayuga is rich and fudge-like in texture. It is borderline sweet with overtones of nuts mixed into the conventional pepper and earthiness. —Martin Johnson
Buy Cayuga Blue here.
Twig Farm, Vermont
Age: Minimum 90 days
A firm, rough-hewn little tower of raw goat’s-milk cheese from (mostly) ex-artist Michael Lee and Emily Sunderman and their 36 Alpine goats. It is technically based on the great cow’s-milk tommes of the French Savoie mountains, but like all of Lee’s cheeses, it’s wilder, free-form, and bucking the rules. So American. —Matt Rubiner
Buy Twig Farm Tomme here.
THE PASTEURIZED GOAT CHEESESWhen you think of goat cheese, you probably think of something tangy and creamy. These are some of the best examples across the country.
Vermont Creamery, Vermont
Age: 11 days
Vermont Creamery has long been a darling of the American cheese scene. More than a decade ago as I was finding my way in cheese, I discovered Coupole and my whole world shifted. That cakey center, oozy outer layer, and clean lactic, lemony, yeasty flavor instantly shifted my expectations for what goat cheese should and could be. Allison Hooper, cofounder of Vermont Creamery, has long been a cheese hero to many and was true pioneer for artisan cheese in the United States. Allison did such a good job that butter titan Land O’Lakes decided to buy her out. It is clear that they want her secret sauce. —Elizabeth Chubbuck
This producer of goat’s- and cow’s-milk cheeses has succeeded in replacing an entire segment of soft French cheeses that used to define American cheese counters. If you used to see Crottin, Chevrot, Chabichou, and Saint-Marcellin, they have now been supplanted by Vermont Creamery’s Crottin, Cremont, St. Albans, and, most gloriously, the wrinkle-rinded, dome-shaped Coupole. —Liz Thorpe
Bonus! And this is why Vermont Creamery's Chevre is so amazing:
Great chèvre reminds me of Phyllis Diller’s cackle: It’s so bright and full of life, I just want to be near it. Vermont Creamery’s is consistently great, and as a company, it’s a model for positive, sustainable growth with integrity. I think their cheese has gotten better as they’ve grown. —Tia Keenan
Buy Vermont Creamery Coupole here.
Age: 7-10 days
This cheese is a wrinkled ingot of moussey mold-crusted goat cheese, dusted and struck through with ash…and that’s a good thing. From Judy Schad—one of the godmothers of American cheese—made in the spirit, and to the quality, of the whimsically shaped chèvres of the Loire Valley, of which we are generally deprived by our hygienic authorities [Editor’s note: a.k.a., those raw-milk cheeses aged under 60 days and, thus, illegal for import]. —Matt Rubiner
Buy Capriole Sofia here.
Mozzarella Company, Texas
Age: 1-6 months
Hoja Santa goat cheese proves American creativeness. This Texan original is wrapped in native Hoja Santa leaves. The flavor is lactic (milky) with some acidity and a smoky finish from the plant. This cheese is inspired by a French goat’s-milk cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves. Cheesemaker Paula Lambert has studied her surroundings to create a cheese that is as unique as it is delicious. —Carlos Yescas
Buy Hoja Santa here.
(This cheese is currently out of season, thus why a non-matching backdrop!)
Lazy Lady Farm, Vermont
Age: 2 weeks
Both Laini Fondiller and her cheeses embody the quirky, irreverent, pioneering, can-do, powerful female roots of American artisan cheese. When I have her goat and/or cow’s-milk cheeses, I know I'll have something delicious, even if I’m not sure what form that deliciousness will take. LLF cheeses aren’t made to dominate the market—they're made to express the spirit of the milk and the cheesemaker. It’s not a scalable model, but she’s made it work for her. I hope we always have cheesemakers like Laini. She makes too many cheeses—about 20 different ones, seasonally—but the cheese doesn’t suffer from her constantly making different ones. So I usually buy whatever I can find, knowing that anything she makes, using any kind of milk is going to be good. La Petite Tomme is her bloomy goat’s-milk round and a particular favorite. —Tia Keenan