From Mild to Strong: How to Select the Best Blue Cheese
Who Likes Blue Cheese?
There's no doubt about it: Blue cheese—also known as "bleu cheese"—is not for everyone. With its bold, sharp, and tangy flavor, this cheese may be an acquired taste for a discriminating palate.
I grew up eating blue cheese, always Roquefort, as it was my grandmother's favorite. Some of my fondest memories were the "cheese and crackers hour" as I described it (the grown-ups referred to it as the “wine and cheese” hour). Sometime around 5:00 p.m., Grandma would set out an assortment of cheeses, from the bold (for the older generation) to the mild (for the youngsters). My cousins and siblings would be digging into cheddar or Swiss while I was heaping mounds of Roquefort on top of the Carr crackers.
As a youngster, I thought all blue cheese was called “Roquefort.” We even had Roquefort salad dressing, by golly. It wasn't until my teens that I learned there is a wide variety of blue cheeses and they're not all made in France.
What Makes Bleu Cheese “Blue”?
I'm relatively certain if my grandmother taught me why this cheese is blue, it would have ended my love affair quite abruptly. Fortunately, she kept that a secret from me, and it was something I came to learn on my own when I was old enough to handle it.
People theorize blue cheese was a serendipitous discovery, and stories abound as to how this coveted food came into being. A popular legend has it that a young shepherd, caring for his sheep in the hills of Roquefort, France, spotted a beautiful maiden far off in the distance while having his lunch. He hastily turned his sheep over to the care of his dog dashed to the closest cave to leave his lunch of bread and ewe's milk curds in a safe, cool place. He ran as quickly as he could to chase after this fair lass. He searched tirelessly for days but alas, he could not find her. Exhausted, despondent, and starving, he returned to the caves where he'd placed his lunch. He was taken aback when he saw his bread and cheese had grown quite moldy. However, hunger overtook the shepherd, and he ate his old, moldy lunch anyway. He was pleasantly surprised by the delicious flavor! And so it's said this was the birth of Roquefort cheese.
Whether you choose to believe this legend or not, blue cheese is ancient. At the start, cheeses were aged in caves, and if just the right conditions existed, certain strains of a mold called Penicillium grew. As is evident by the name, this mold is a cousin to the penicillin antibiotic we're all familiar with. The cheese is given its characteristic appearance by the streaks of the Penicillium culture. The cultures are injected either into the curds or into the formed cheese: Penicillium won't grow properly unless it has oxygen, so the cheese is pierced with pins and air is intentionally blown into it, giving it that desirable crumb-like texture.
My Top Picks for Blue Cheese: How They're Made
My list contains blue cheeses that are popular, readily available, and sure to please a variety of tastes.
Danish Blue (Danablu)
This cheese was created in the early 20th century by a Danish cheese maker by the name of Marius Boel. This was his attempt to mimic the ever-popular Roquefort cheese in terms of appearance, flavor, texture, and taste.
Danish Blue is a semi-soft, creamy cheese made from cow's milk. Compared to the powerful flavor of a Roquefort, this is considered a mild blue cheese. It's commonly sold in wedges, drums, or blocks. The needling process takes place in the curd phase, and Penicillium Roqueforti is inserted evenly into the deep channels. Traditionally, the cheese is aged in a cave or another dark, damp environment for 8 to 12 weeks.
As the name may suggest, gorgonzola is an Italian cheese made from either goat's or unskimmed cow's milk or a combination of the two. The texture of gorgonzola varies from soft and crumbly to firm. This cheese has been around since the Middle Ages, but it wasn't until the 11th century that it started getting infused with Penicillin glaucum and thereby gained the distinction as a blue cheese. Gorgonzola is a small Italian city just outside of Milan. This cheese is now made in the regions of Lombardy and Piedmont and infused with lactic acid bacteria as well as the traditional Penicillin glaucum. Recently, the use of Penicillium roqueforti has become widespread.
Gorgonzola is made by first warming the milk with the lactic acid bacteria along with the mold spores so that it separates into curds. These curds are then injected further with the mold and channels are created with rods to encourage mold spore germination, giving it that ideal bluish-green veining. This cheese is aged a low temperatures for various lengths of time (usually between 3 to 4 months), depending upon the desired consistency of the cheese. The longer the cheese is aged, the firmer it will be.
Hey, go figure... there's an American cheese on my list! This cheese gets its name from the farm where it's produced, Maytag Dairy Farms, located just outside of Newton, Iowa, the former home of the famous multi-billion dollar appliance corporation, Maytag. In 1941, the grandsons of Maytag's founder began to make cheese. They wanted to make cheese that was comparable to the almighty Roquefort.
The Maytag cheese process was discovered and patented by two Iowa State University microbiologists. The process begins by separating the cream from the milk, homogenizing it, and adding it back to the original milk that's been skimmed. Precise temperatures are used for this delicate process. The milk is then ripened for a time before rennet is added. Rennet is enzymes that coagulate milk and separate the curds from the whey. The resulting product is heated, Penicillium is added, the rounds of cheese are hand-formed, and off it goes to age in highly specialized and controlled caves that combine cool temperatures with high humidity. To this day, they only use fresh Iowa farm milk.
Stilton is an English cheese that is sometimes referred to as the “King of Cheeses,” although I'm sure some of the other blue cheeses on my list would beg to differ! Stilton has a protected origin designation, meaning any cheese labeled as "Stilton" must meet a particular set of standards. All protected origin cheeses are monitored by independent government agencies that perform random quality checks. To be a Stilton cheese means it must be made in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, or Derbyshire in England, where only seven dairies are licensed to make it. Pretty hoity toity, huh?
Stilton is always cylindrically-shaped and never pressed. It has its own unique crust and the blue veins radiate out from the center in a very distinctive pattern. Stilton is made from pasteurized milk mixed with rennet and, of course, Penicillium roqueforti for the mold. Curds form in huge vats, which are removed and set out to drain overnight. After this draining process, the curds are further cut to drain out any remaining whey, salted, and put in their cylindrical molds. The molds are never pressed, but rather rotated regularly as the cheese ripens. This results in a loose texture for optimal mold culture germination. The blue veins are created by piercing the cheese with stainless steel needles all the way to the core. The whole process takes approximately 9 weeks.
How do you govern a nation that has 246 varieties of cheese?— Charles de Gaulle
Of course, the number of cheeses produced in France has grown significantly since Charles de Gaulle's infamous complaint!
Finally, we've arrived at the almighty, revered Roquefort. Like Stilton, it has a protected designation of origin. All Roquefort is made from the milk of the Lacaune, Manech, and Basco Bearnaise sheep. Only cheese aged in the Combalou caves in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon may be labeled "Roquefort." Penicillium roqueforti can only be found in these same caves.
Within 48 hours of milking, the rennet is added to the ewe's milk. It's then heated and placed into large vats, where it's allowed to ferment into curds. The curds are then carefully cut into cubes, drained, and salted. It then remains at the dairy for a few days until it's transferred to the caves. Just before entering the caves, the cheese is thoroughly pierced to encourage fungal growth. The soon-to-be blue cheese is then left in the caves for a few weeks to allow the spore growth. The loaves are then wrapped and aged for another 3 to 10 months.
How to Select Blue Cheese
There are people who avoid blue cheese because of its reputation for having a very pungent odor and distinctively strong flavor. However, not all blue cheeses are alike: Some are surprisingly mild. As a general rule, the soft and creamy blue cheeses have less of the strong punch the firmer cheeses have. The crumbly cheeses will be the strongest and the hard cheeses are somewhere in the middle. From the list above, here are some appropriate classifications for your discerning palate:
Mildest Blue Cheeses
Gorgonzola and Danish Blue will have the mildest flavors.
Moderately Strong Blue Cheeses
Stilton, a hard cheese, takes second place here in terms of pungent flavor. Just so you know, the rind is edible, but not particularly tasty to some individuals.
Strongest Blue Cheeses
The creamy, crumbly blue cheeses are going to be the strongest. Roquefort is definitely the winner in the strong blue cheese category. It has a distinctive bite and aroma no matter how you slice it. This may not be appropriate for the novice blue cheese consumer, unless, of course, you're me! Maytag is crumbly and literally melts in your mouth. It takes second place on my list due to its spicy bite and tangy flavor.
How to Ensure Your Blue Cheese is Fresh
Test with your nose:
- Avoid cheese that's developed a lot of white mold on the rind: This can be an indication of improper handling.
- Let your nose be your guide! Soft cheese has a meaty smell to it, and should never have an ammonia smell.
- The creamy and crumbly types of cheese have an almost herbal smell: Some say they smell a bit like grass. They will have a pungent odor, but again, if they smell like ammonia, steer clear.
- A firm blue cheese will have a nutty or smoky smell and should never have a strong, gamey odor.
Of course, some of us are more smell-impaired than others, so you will also want to use visual cues.
- If you find the cheese is growing different colors of mold, its texture is changing, or it's just looking different from how it did when you originally got it, then it's best to throw it away.
How Long Does Blue Cheese Keep?
The softer blue cheeses should be eaten within a week after opening. The harder cheeses last longer, more like 2-3 weeks. Of course, there's always the “best if used before” dates on the package.
How to Properly Store Your Blue Cheese
Any firm blue cheese, like Stilton, should be first wrapped in wax paper, then sealed in an airtight plastic bag and placed in your refrigerator's cheese drawer. All other non-firm blue cheeses should simply be placed in an airtight plastic container with a few holes poked into the lid to avoid excessive moisture. Place these in your fridge's cheese drawer.
Blue cheeses are best enjoyed at room temperature, so allow them to sit for a while before serving.
Where to Buy Quality Blue Cheese
Some farmer's markets have an excellent selection of blue cheeses. Gourmet food stores and specialty stores also have a wide assortment. One advantage of buying cheese in person is the opportunity to sample before you buy. Of course, the largest selection available is the blue cheese that's sold online. Many dairies have their own websites, Maytag Dairy Farms is a great example.
It's advised that you avoid eating blue cheese if you are allergic to penicillin.
It's ill-advised to consume any unpasteurized foods during pregnancy as they may lead to a foodborne illness.
Links and Resources
- Cook's Thesaurus: Blue Cheese
Gives synonyms, equivalents, and substitutions for different kinds of blue cheeses.