Knowing cheese, buying cheese

America is turning into a nation of cheeseheads. Per capita consumption nearly tripled in the last 30 years, from 11 pounds to 31 pounds, with roughly 60 percent of that gain coming through foodservice, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That figure is expected to grow to 42 pounds per person by 2013, according to a 2005 Mintel survey. The Appleton, Wisconsin-based IPAP (Independent Procurement Alliance Program) backs up that growth. The redistribution group, which purchases cheese from over 100 different sources and sells to distributors, channeled 85 million pounds into foodservice in 2005, a 100 percent increase over 2003.

Although most operators order cheese by name, there are specific categories that the dairy industry uses to describe cheeses for foodservice buyers.

Hard cheeses
Aged and granular in texture and can be grated into tiny particles. Flavors are strong and piquant; a little goes a long way, whether served in chunks with salad, nuts or fruit or grated over pasta and vegetables. Varieties include Parmesan, Asiago, Romano, Grana, Pepato and Cotija, with color ranging from white to ivory and pale yellow.

Common forms: Wheels, loaves (for Cotija cheese); and assorted size packages of pre-grated, pre-shredded and pieces.
Weights: Wheels come 6, 12, 16, 22, 25 and 75 pounds, depending on variety; 5-pound loaves; 2- to 5-pound packages of shredded/grated cheese.

Less dense and softer textured than cheddars and other hard cheeses, with flavors ranging from mild (muenster) to super-pungent (limburger). Other popular varieties include brick, fontina (both Italian and Swedish-style), havarti and Monterey Jack.

Common forms: Blocks, loaves, wheels, shredded and random weight pieces.
Weights: 3-pound rounds; 5-pound bricks; 5-, 6-, 9- and 10-pound loaves; 40-pound blocks; 10-pound slabs; 5- to 6-pound mini horns; 2- to 5-pound packages of shredded cheese.

Typically do not go through the aging process. Made from cow, sheep or goat milk; flavors range from mild, grassy and milky to tangy and pungent. Examples include feta, mascarpone, ricotta and Mexican queso blanco and queso fresco.

Common forms: Loaves, tubs, containers, random weight pieces and pre-crumbled in packages.
Weights: 5- to 10-pound tubs; 8-ounce to 1-pound cups; 1- and 5-pound loaves; 10-pound pails, 20-pound bags and 30-pound boxes for ricotta.

Pasta filata
Stretched while warm from cooking into a variety of shapes. (Pasta filata means “stretched curd.”) The curd is then molded into blocks that are soaked in brine, resulting in a semi-soft cheese with a slightly salty taste. Mozzarella and provolone are the best-known cheeses in this category.

Common forms: Loaves, blocks, balls, shaped pieces and pre-shredded and diced in packages.
Weights: 5- and 10-pound loaves; 40-pound blocks; 1-pound balls; 5-pound packages of shredded. Fresh mozzarella in 10-ounce balls, 4-ounce ovolini and 1.75-ounce bocconcini in 10-pound pails. Provolone gigantic (200 or 600 pounds), pear (20 to 40 pounds), campane (15 to 20 pounds), salami (13 to 100 pounds), salamini (1 and 8 pounds) and various other shapes and sizes.

Also known as bloomy rind cheeses. Characterized by an edible white velvety rind that’s formed when the surface is sprayed with spores of Penicillium candidum mold before curing. Examples include Brie and Camembert, both pale yellow in color with an earthy, rich flavor.

Common forms: Wheels and wedges.
Weights: 8-ounce to 6-pound wheels.

Cheddar & colby
Cheddar is the world’s most popular cheese, originated in England but now produced extensively in the United States. Flavor varies from mild to extra-sharp and color ranges from white to yellow to deep orange. As cheddar ages, its rich, nutty flavor becomes complex and its texture turns more granular and crumbly. Colby is a mild form of cheddar invented by Wisconsin cheese makers. It’s golden in color and softer in texture than cheddar. Colby is sometimes marbled with white Monterey Jack or combined with hot peppers or other ingredients.

Common forms: Blocks, loaves, longhorns (12- to 13-pound cylinders), shredded, cubes, curds and assorted pieces.
Weights: 1-pound pieces; 3-pound gems; 5-pound favorites (cylinders); 10-pound midgets; 22-pound daisies (cylinders); 35-pound flats; 40-pound rectangular blocks; 500-pound barrels and 75- to 2,000-pound mammoths.

Firm and ivory-colored with dime-sized holes and a mellow, nutty flavor. The original is also known as Emmenthaler; other varieties include Gruyere (harder, more piquant), Appenzeller (more delicate, semi-firm with smaller holes) and baby and lacy Swiss (smaller cheeses with smaller holes due to shorter curing times).

Common forms: Blocks, wheels, loaves and random weight pieces.
Weights: 40-pound blocks; 18- to 200-pound wheels for Swiss and Gruyere, 5- to 10-pound wheels for baby Swiss; 5- to 10-pound loaves; 1 pound and up pieces and packages.

Made from milk combined with a blue-green mold which permeates cheese during curing. Traditional blues like French bleu and Italian Gorgonzola are now replicated in American dairies.

Common forms: Wheels, half wheels, wedges and pre-crumbled.
Weights: 6- to 22-pound wheels; 5- and 10-pound bags of pre-crumbled; 4- and 8-ounce packages and cups.

Gouda & Edam
Dutch in origin with smooth but firm textures and buttery, slightly nutty tastes. Both have excellent keeping qualities.

Common forms: Balls, blocks, wheels and loaves.
Weights: 40-pound blocks; 9- to 10-pound wheels; 5-pound loaves; 2-pound balls.

Storage and handling

Generally, the harder the cheese the longer it will keep. Fresh, uncured cheeses are more perishable and should be purchased in smaller quan­tities; they last for no more than two weeks. Semi-soft cheeses can be stored for several weeks, while aged, dry cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano can last for several months. Short of in­stalling temperature-controlled caves in your restaurant, here’s how to keep cheese at its prime.

To keep the ripening process going and prevent drying out and forming mold, cheese needs to breathe. Waxed paper or foil work well for smaller hunks of cheese; if a piece weighs more than 3 pounds, it should be wrapped first in damp cheesecloth, then covered with foil. Jason Donnelly, the wholesale manager of Artisanal Premium Cheese, a specialty purveyor, recommends using a two-layer paper that’s porous plastic on the underside and waxed on top. Plastic wrap is recommended only for soft cheeses, like Brie; it tends to suffocate other types.

  • Store shredded and cut-up cheese in sealed plastic bags or containers. These forms of cheese spoil quickly when exposed to the air.
  • Place cheese near the front of the walk-in where the temperature is a little warmer or towards the bottom of a freestanding refrigerator. Cheese shouldn’t get ice-cold.
  • If you’re serving cheese au natural as part of a cheese course, a salad accompaniment or on a dessert plate, bring it to room temperature for best flavor and texture.
  • Remove cheese from the walk-in about one hour beforehand to get it to optimum serving temperature

How chefs are putting cheese to work 

Mixed Organic Greens Salad
In composing a salad, Matthew Sisson combines artisanal ingredients with contrasting tastes and textures. Here, the chef at the Club Grill & Bar in the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel, layers dressed greens in a flaky pastry cup and crowns them with shavings of bandage wrapped Fiscalini cheddar—a farmstead cheese aged 18-30 months. Roasted, sweet-salty pecans, grilled Frog Hollow Farm peaches and drops of aged balsamic round out the composition.

Roasted Gorgonzola Stuffed Sweet Onion
Executive chef Duane Keller of the Dupont Grille at Jury’s Washington Hotel added to his spring menu a roasted sweet onion filled with a brioche stuffing enhanced with crumbled gorgonzola cheese and chives. “I chose gorgonzola because of its creamy texture, nutty flavor and nice melt. Plus, the sharpness of the cheese counteracts the sweetness of the onion,” Keller says.

Mascarpone Flan Cake
At 40 Sardines in Overland Park, Kansas, chef-owners Debbie Gold and Michael Smith freshened up a classic cheesecake with mascarpone. The rich, naturally sweet cheese is whipped with unflavored gelatin, eggs and cream to create a silky texture. A toasted nut crust and macerated mixed berries provide the perfect balance.




Q&A with a big cheese

Brian Tossell, Director of R&D for The Melting Pot, a 100-unit fondue restaurant franchise based in Tampa, FL

How much and what types of cheese do you buy?

We purchase 1 million pounds of cheese a year. Our top three are cheddar, Emmenthaler and Gruyere, but we’re also trying some more unexpected combinations. Our Wisconsin Trio fondue features Fontina, buttermilk blue and butterkäse, and a seasonal special is made with Swiss raclette. We’re working on a Grand Queso fondue, which uses a custom cheese called fontiago (a blend of fontina and asiago).

From where do you source cheese for your restaurants?

Everything we source is domestic. We work directly with Roth Käse, a Wisconsin-based cheese manufacturer. They develop cheeses with the exact flavor profiles and degree of ripening that we spec, and even create one-of-a-kind products for us.

In what form do you buy most of your cheese?

We used to buy blocks and grate the cheese ourselves, but it was labor- and time-intensive. Now Roth Käse grates the cheese for us and packs it into 4- or 5-pound plastic packages for delivery.

How do you store cheese for optimum taste and texture?

We dedicate an area of our walk-in just for cheeses to keep them at the right temperature. But we go through such a large volume, we never hold on to it for very long.

How do you manage fluctuations in cheese prices?

The supply of raw milk directly affects the price of cheese. Prices have stayed pretty stable over the last few years, but since we’re such a big purchaser, we usually get a heads up if an increase is coming and we stockpile a bit.

Where is cheese headed as a culinary trend?

Cheese is where wine was a few years back. Americans are now much more sophisticated about cheese and willing to experiment with unusual types. Latin cheeses are now mainstream and regional cheeses from Italy and other countries are coming onto the menu. The local movement in America is bringing attention to wonderful products from small cheese makers in every part of the country.

Birth marks

The flavor of milk—and the cheese from which it’s made—can be significantly affected by where and when the animals graze, what they eat and the microclimate of the farm. The French call this concept “terroir”—a sense of place that comes through in the flavor of a food.

To indicate the authenticity of a European cheese that is created within a specific region by traditional production methods, countries that are part of the European Union are using a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) mark. Cheeses like Greek feta (from Macedonia, Lesbos and five other regions) and French Comte, crafted in France’s Jura Mountains, qualify for the certification. The PDO guarantees you’re getting an authentic, artisanal product.

Some countries have their own place of origin and quality seals. In addition to its PDO, Comte gets marked with an AOC or Appelation d’Origine. And wheels of Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano (left) are embossed with an oval mark, the producer’s number and a year code, which trace the cheese to the producer or even the cows that provided the milk.

The cheese pipeline 

When it comes to sourcing cheese, restaurateurs have a buffet of choices. Broadline distributors, redistribution groups, wholesalers, sales teams from cheese manufacturers and direct sales through small artisanal producers and farmers are all options. Depending on volume, variety and end use, you may want to tap more than one of these sources.

Broadline distributors like Sysco and U.S. Foodservice focus on more widely used cheeses sold in bulk (40-pound blocks are the most common spec) as well as convenient forms like IQF (individually quick frozen) shredded and diced. Both branded and private label cheeses are available. Recently, these bigger distributors have begun stocking more imported and specialty cheeses, as availability has increased from their suppliers. Large warehouse facilities allow broadline distributors to get product to you quickly and efficiently—a plus for high volume operations. Restaurants seeking cheeses beyond the top 10, however, may find a limited selection.

Redistribution groups are consolidation purchasing networks that bring together dairy distributors and suppliers from around the country. IPAP (Independent Procurement Alliance Program) is the largest, representing over 1,000 independent distributors. The members of IPAP reap the benefits of group purchasing power, according to its president, Scott R. Eithun—cost-saving benefits they can pass on to their customers. They also have access to a very large and varied cheese selection from 100 different manufacturers, and can meet operators’ needs with everything from a single item to a truckload.

Cheese wholesalers import from abroad and buy direct from American producers to assemble a selective or extensive roster of products. Joe Gellert, president of, based in Armonk, New York, stocks a diverse line of common and more unusual cheeses. “Imports have always represented a bigger percentage for us, but we’ve been increasingly impressed with the quality and variety of American specialty cheeses,” Gellert says. French Brie is his biggest seller and Norwegian Jarlsberg is a longtime favorite, but American Saga Blue (from Michigan) and Mon Chevre goat cheese (from Wisconsin) are also top picks.

Wholesalers can sell directly to restaurants or go through a middleman, like a redistributor or broadline distributor. uses middlemen, while the New York City-based Artisanal Premium Cheese sells right to chefs and operators. The advantage to buying direct is that you can purchase smaller quantities and spec individual cheeses, offering diners more menu excitement.

Manufacturers/producers range from dairy giants like Kraft and Land O’Lakes to tiny farmstead operations. The large companies have national sales forces that deal directly with chain accounts or work with brokers who get the product to end users through the distributor conduit. “We specialize in value-added cheeses,” says Cheryl Isberner, product development team leader for Land O’Lakes Foodservice. “Our products can be customized for melt characteristics and size of shreds.”

Artisanal producers and farmstead cheese makers usually focus on crafting unique, small-batch cheeses. Increased demand, especially in fine-dining, and limited supply puts these cheeses on the high end of the price scale.

Cheese 101: Glossary of terms

Artisan cheese refers to a handcrafted product made in small batches with milk from a limited number of farms. Attentive production and/or aging gives these cheeses their characteristic flavor and texture.

Farmstead cheese is made exclusively from milk that comes from the cheesemaker’s own cows, sheep or goats.

Organic cheese uses milk, rennet and other ingredients that are free of genetically modified organisms, antibiotics and synthetic hormones.

Pasture-grazed cheese comes from the seasonal milk of animals that feed on fresh grasses. These cheeses tend to have a slightly herbaceous taste and rich color.

Washed rind cheese is a product in which the rind is washed by hand with a bacterial solution, such as brine, whey, wine or oil during aging. This procedure promotes ripening and flavor development.

Bloomy rind cheese has an edible, dusty white rind that forms by the growth of the Penicillium mold during curing.

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