Whenever possible, cheesemongers recommend that people shop for cheese at independent, cut-to order stores. Cheese is a living thing, and its flavor and texture journeys don’t end when it reaches the counter.
It’s a cheesemonger’s job to keep products at their freshest and most flavorful. “Your mongers are your friends and are always ready to answer all of your questions and recommend the perfect cheese for your needs,” says Emilia D’Albero, cheese department manager and buyer at The Greene Grape in Brooklyn, New York.
Not everyone has a shop near them. And if they’re being honest, cheesemongers also buy cheese at the grocery store, just a bit differently than most of us.
“Sometimes you just need cheese and you don’t want to interact with any humans,” says Emma Harvey, lead cheesemonger at Salt & Bubbles Wine Bar and Market in Essex Junction, Vermont. “When that’s my mood, I skip on over to the grocery store for some uninterrupted cheese hunting.”
Not all grocery stores are created equal
If you’re on a tight budget, cut-to-order spots can be the best place for cheese. You can buy small pieces, with the minimum order generally around a quarter-pound. Your selection will often be fresher, and with the help of your monger, the cheese will more likely be to your taste.
“Sometimes you just need cheese and you don’t want to interact with any humans.”—Emma Harvey, lead cheesemonger at Salt & Bubbles Wine Bar and Market
“The mongers usually will cut pieces in what’s often the most popular size range,” says Michelle Vieira, cheese director at Carfagna’s Market in Columbus, Ohio. “Generally here in the Midwest, it’ll be in the $5–7 range, depending on the cheese.” But they’re generally happy to cut any size for you.
Another cheese shopping budget trick? Vieira loves the “baby bin.”
“Most counters have what’s called a ‘baby bin,’ or something along those lines, which are going to be itty bitty pieces that are less than $5,” says Vieira. “Those are a great way to try different things without much financial commitment, or you can make a board or a mix for dishes like mac and cheese easily from this.”
Read the label
“Real cheese is made with milk/cream, salt, cultures and enzymes,” says Lilith Spencer, lifestyle editor at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro Bend, Vermont. “If you’re looking for a flavored cheese, stick with natural sources like actual herbs and spices, real fruit, chilies, etc.”
Mongers also take note of whether the cheese has been made with pasteurized milk, which has been heat-treated to kill potentially harmful bacteria, or raw milk.
“Most counters have what’s called a ‘baby bin,’ or something along those lines, which are going to be itty bitty pieces that are less than $5.” —Michelle Vieira, cheese director at Carfagna’s Market
“Raw milk cheeses aren’t automatically better than pasteurized cheeses,” says Spencer. But raw-milk cheeses are generally made in a more traditional manner and “often develop more complex flavor profiles,” says Spencer.
A cheese label has valuable information to offer beyond ingredients. According to Vieira, who also worked as a cheesemonger for Whole Foods for nearly five years, cheeses are cut generally on a weekly cycle. Softer, more perishable cheeses are cut twice a week.
“Check the date on the back, a lot of grocery stores now will even tell you down to the date and time it was wrapped to ensure the freshest piece,” says Vieira.
Check the cheese
First, there should be no visible mold or discoloration. At a counter, the standard is clean pieces.
Discolored pieces mean the monger hasn’t cared for the products properly. You may not be buying cheese at it freshest.
After your purchase, however, mold is not a dealbreaker on most cheeses. You don’t have to throw away a cheese if it grows a bit of white, blue, green or grey mold.
“I’m a total sucker for grocery-store blues.”—Emma Harvey, lead cheesemonger at Salt & Bubbles Wine Bar and Market
Second, consider the packaging. Pre-cut pieces take on a plasticky flavor after a few days. If your grocery store has a monger, it’s always best to ask them to cut a fresh piece for you. If you’re buying a plastic wrapped piece, D’Albero recommends keeping some cheese paper or cheese bags at home to repackage before you store it.
But ultimately “if a hand-cut, hand-wrapped piece is going to sit in the grocery cooler for days or sometimes weeks, it’s not going to measure up to a pre-packaged piece processed by the producer themselves,” says Spencer.
“While I understand why these sorts of products can come across as less ‘fancy,’ the reality is that these packaging materials are carefully designed by the cheesemakers themselves, with the goal of keeping their cheeses as delicious as possible for as long as possible,” says Spencer.
Our Cheesemongers’ Grocery Store Picks
Emilia D’Albero calls Cabot Cheddar “one of my favorite snacks.”
“Cabot Creamery is a co-op and they also have a B Corp certification, meaning that they are farmer- and family-owned, and that they work hard to make sure their products are sustainable and respectful to the environment as well as their animals and employees.”
Recommended pairing: “My favorite pairings are green grapes, with pickles and butter crackers. Classic and simple, but delicious.”
“I’m a total sucker for grocery-store blues,” says Emma Harvey. There is something so simple, yet refined about both of these.”
“It’s such an inexpensive and versatile option,” says Michelle Vieira. “It’s made with sheep milk, so it’s better quality than cheap feta in most grocery stores.”
Recommended pairing: “I really love it with watermelon in the summertime, or in eggs in the morning.”
Lilith Spencer goes for Pecorino Romano, “because it’s consistent, affordable and it’s a workhorse in the kitchen.”
With Calabro Ricotta, “They don’t use any stabilizers, they use local milk, and they’re environmentally conscious, but their products are very affordable and always taste fresh.”
Recommended use: Spencer likes to drain ricotta before they use it, especially in hot dishes to concentrate the flavor and keep it from being watery. It’s recommended to line a colander with muslin (a cotton-weave fabric) and let the ricotta drain over a bowl, occasionally wringing out the muslin.