When white cheddar began showing up in popcorn, crackers and tortilla chips back in the 1980s, it wasn’t just a Gen Y rebuttal to the glow-in-the-dark orange electric cheese foods of its youth. It was a response to a palate awakened by a new wave of domestic chefs showing a perpetually cheese-hungry America what treasures they’d discovered in the fromageries of Europe. 

The idea that cheese came in anything but orange Cheddar, rubbery Swiss and even rubbier “mozzarella” excited not only consumers and the folks who fed them but artisans as well. Suddenly, regional makers of chèvre and fresh mozzarella saw demand expand rapidly from the narrow neighborhood radius they were used to. 

This is reflected in statistics presented in a recent Packaged Facts survey, “Cheese: Natural & Specialty Cheeses in the U.S. & Global Markets.” The survey noted that, although the economic downturn hampered sales of the more expensive cheeses, sales still grew at several percent per year since 2009 and hit nearly $16 billion last year. “The broadening of the American palette beyond traditional favorites, Cheddar and mozzarella, is driving growth of higher priced specialty and ethnic cheeses,” noted Packaged Facts research director David Sprinkle. “Consumers are generally looking for products that are more indulgent, with new tastes and experiences, or healthier, more nutritious indulgences that still taste good.”

Organic cheese alone has been growing by double digits, and is expected to hit $750 million annually in the next few years, according to the survey. The survey also showed that consumption of specialty and natural cheeses had risen over the past decade, while processed cheese consumption was on the decline, among the 90% of Americans who say they enjoy cheese regularly. 


A Thousand Choices

Today, most Americans know the difference between fresh, milky mozzarella and pizza mozzarella. We have an entire generation raised on fluffy, creamy goat cheeses, plus an incredible array of artisanal and artisanal-style cheeses available in large supermarkets and specialty cheese shops now dot the nation.

While some of these high-end cheeses can be challenging for processors, they are by no means off-limits. In fact, cheeses such as Asiago and Comté have been used in prepared food items for several years now.

Some examples include Bellisio Foods Inc.’s Michelina’s Lean Gourmet line, with several offerings that include Asiago; Annie’s Naturals Inc. with salad dressings including the cheese; Kellogg Co.’s Cheez-It and Kashi Co.’s crackers, plus a number of pasta sauces and appetizers and frozen packaged vegetable sides.

Fontina has found its way into Full Circle LLC’s chicken meatballs, while even more delicate, fresh cheeses have made their way into bake-freeze-reheat formulations. For example, Palermo’s Pizza Inc. includes a chèvre–topped offering in its line of flatbread pizza products. 

The list of cheeses that food product developers can turn to runs to the hundreds. “The manufactured food industry should be looking at cheeses such as aged Goudas like Beemster and Old Amsterdam,” says Steven Jenkins, one of the leading experts on cheese in the nation and author of The Cheese Primer, considered a bible by cheese mavens. 

In addition to the aged Goudas—immensely popular cheeses Jenkins describes as “like tasting honey, scotch whisky and fire all at once”—he recommends farmhouse English cheeses such as Somerset Cheddar, Leicestershire, Caerphilly, Lancashire, Cheshire English Stilton and sweet buttery French Comté, “for its Swiss-superior flavor and melting prowess.” Other French cheeses on Jenkins’
must-try list for manufacturers include Bleu d’Auvergne, Bucherondin—“completely superb and at half the price of any other chèvre”—and Cantal, a cheese he calls “grossly undersung.”

Cantal, from France’s Auvergne region, is a cheese that is “egregiously overlooked by American food makers and consumers,” emphasizes Jenkins. “It stands tall as a major, major household icon in homes all over France because of its reliable availability, its unquestionable high quality and its surprisingly low price. It has a gentle flavor and tender, supple, highly appealing texture and versatility. Not to mention, ‘Cantal’ is a lovely word to see on an ingredient list.” 

Blue cheeses are not left out. “Blue d’Auvergne is the lowest-priced blue cheese, the highest quality blue cheese and the best-selling French blue cheese offered to Europeans,” Jenkins says. He points out that this blue still is only found in specialty markets in North America and has not yet “been given the attention it deserves.” 

Palace Industries LLC’s Rogue Creamery cheeses make Jenkins’ blue list, specifically the creamery’s Crater Lake Blue and the Rogue River Blue, which he says are “worthy of inclusion for prepared foods coming out of kitchens for sale in retail stores, and even as the crucial selling points, having been chosen and featured as ingredients in any of number of manufactured foods.” The Rogue Creamery cheeses, he adds, “have vastly more memorable flavor than, for example, less distinguished blues of erstwhile provenance and dubious, if any, selling-point advantage.” For other domestic blues, Jenkins points to Buttermilk Blue out of Illinois and Berkshire Blue out of Massachusetts. 

Italian and Italian-style cheeses suggested by Jenkins include Fontina d’Aosta (another one he points to for fine meltability), Wisconsin’s BelGioioso Cheese Inc.’s products, specifically its burrata, and Gorgonzola Dolce blue. Piave, an up-and-coming (in America) Italian cow’s milk cheese has a less assertive, more neutral flavor than similarly used cheeses, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Asiago.
Its growth in popularity has meant a decline in price that puts it within reach of processors. 


Fromage in Process

Next to farinaceous dishes, baked and extruded items are one of the most popular vehicles for cheeses. For baked crackers, moving up the scale to a more exotic type of cheese can allow a product developer to balance the cost of better cheese with its performance and cachet. The key to success in such a formulation is as much in how you apply the cheese as the cheese itself. 

“For example, there are two ways to wed cheese and crackers,” says George Eckrich, baker supreme and founder of Kracker Enterprises LLC. “As bakers, we can mix a cheese product or cheese powder into the dough. Or, we can top the crackers with a more distinctive product. At Dr. Kracker, we prefer topping with an unprocessed, artisan-style cheese for a more intense cheese flavor. We currently are in love with a domestic Asiago from a small dairy farm in Wisconsin.” 

Jenkins cautions that using cheese in formulations “can be fraught with under-performance,” and strongly discourages freezing cheeses. Freezing is detrimental to cheeses and will ruin a delicate cheese, such as a Taleggio. But Jenkins suggests that, if a cheese must be frozen, it’s best to opt for a grated extra firm cheese. 

One of the benefits of such denser cheeses in freezing is that the combination of ultra low aW (activity of water), coupled with high protein (often in partially crystallized form) allows it to fare better through the freeze/thaw/reheat process, with less damage to the chemical components that impart the flavors and textures of cheese. “Cheese is a living, breathing substance,” Jenkins cautions, and it should only be incorporated “at the very end of its cooking/re-heating process.” 

In developing a product that takes advantage of the many benefits of an artisanal cheese, the primary hurdle processors face can also be a key benefit. This is the lack of standardization of the formulation when using such a singular ingredient. “Different herds of cows, sheep or goats yield different milk, and at different times of the year, resulting in unique cheeses,” explains Jason Herbert, ACS CCP (American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional), cheesemonger and specialty cheese retail manager.

“Ingredient technology has already brought desiccated cheeses in powders, shreds and chunks. It is sprinkled on popcorn and incorporated into salad dressings,” says Herbert. “The expectation for cheese in these applications is consistency and predictability. Food developers want what they make today to taste like what they made yesterday, and expect tomorrow to follow suit.” 

Herbert stresses that artisan cheeses “delight in not playing by those rules.” Commodity cheeses are made with rigid consistency, with cultures formulated to exacting specifications. Dairy masters can make the milk match the recipe. “Artisan cheese works in reverse,” he explains. “If the cow, sheep or goat wanders into a patch of herbs while grazing, or even if it’s just a rainy day in the pasture, the milk will taste different. Pooling smaller volume, and not standardizing, means the cheese maker has to adjust the recipe to match the milk.”


Cheese in the Works

“The challenge for food producers is the variability of artisanal cheeses,” says Herbert. “Will customers stop buying a product made with a slightly astringent winter’s milk cheese instead of the sweeter spring’s milk version?” Versus the consistency of a carefully formulated commodity cheese ingredient, Herbert forecasts a trend that will see formerly “artisan only” table cheeses somewhat “commoditized,” yet with their flavor profiles largely intact. 

Herbert points to cheeses already on this pathway. “Gruyere, Manchego, and Fontina, to name a few, but also French Tomme-style cheeses, and bloomy rind cheese production, increasingly are mechanized and modernized. 
As long as dairies preserve high-quality ingredients, product developers will have a much broader palette to use.” 

“Formulating cheese to melt well in a recipe for a parbaked or frozen item is certainly possible,” Herbert continues. “Working directly with a cheese maker and specifying the expected results can yield a perfect and versatile ingredient.” He points to some tricks for getting a unique cheese to “perform” in formulation. “Dehydration concentrates the flavors already present in a cheese and can remove a lot of the guesswork about texture. Very pungent cheeses like feta, blues and even several washed-rind cheeses like Gruyere, Livarot and Taleggio, can be dried relatively easily, with much of their complexity intact. These can then be finely grated and incorporated into a number of products, including batters, doughs, sauces and dressings.”

“Raw milk cheeses will probably not play a major role in the future of foodservice,” adds Herbert. “In an effort to minimize food safety concerns for the most people, rules and standards have made the production of younger raw milk cheeses a risky proposition for even the best, most dedicated cheese makers. Although the pasteurized versions of classic varieties of cheese lack some of the character of their originals, they can be more consistent and easier to incorporate into recipes and processed foods. Raw milk cheeses, like fresh seafood and produce, are best when hand-selected and can be assessed from day to day.” 


A Matter of Texture

There are major differences in making preparations with soft fresh cheeses versus semi-firm or firm aged cheeses, and with cheeses made with rennet versus those made with acids. Cheeses made with acids can be those using lactic acid or, perhaps, a West Asian/Southwest Asian paneer, cheese, typically made with lemon juice, vinegar or even yogurt.

“When you formulate with cheeses that are made using cultures and rennet, the lactose in the milk is converted to lactic acid as the cheese matures, so the acidity of the cheese rises and the pH falls,” explains Paula Lambert, owner, founder, CEO and big wheel of The Mozzarella Company in Dallas. 

“Cheeses made this way melt into a gooey, bubbling mass.” 

“Conversely,” adds Lambert, “when cheeses are made with the direct acidification method—by adding an acid to the milk to lower the pH—the lactose is not converted into lactic acid, and lactose remains in these cheeses. Subsequently, when heated, the lactose—being a sugar—turns dark brown very quickly under a heat source. However, the cheese does not melt easily or become gooey. Instead, the cheese softens and maintains its original shape. 

Cheeses such as those made with direct acidification, according to Lambert, can be cooked on a griddle or crumbled on top of food and retain their original shape. “This makes them excellent for cheese toppings that will be baked and thus deliver a visually appetizing, natural golden brown color without negatively altering the appearance.” 

According to Lambert, when making a frozen pizza or lasagna item using a rennet-based cheese, it’s usually best to freeze from raw instead of par-baking. “Overheating could, in some cases, cause the caseins to separate and make the cheese appear oily. When a very moist cheese like mozzarella, made with cultures and rennet, is melted, the water in the cheese can separate out; however, later in the preparation stage, it can be absorbed back into the mass,” she says. 


Moo or Baa

The different sources of milk for cheese can make a world of difference in their performance in recipes. “Sheep’s milk is twice as high in butterfat as cow’s milk,” Lambert points out. “Often, it exudes its butterfat when overheated, so it is best to use a lower temperature to melt sheep’s milk cheeses. Also, aged, firm goat’s milk cheeses can become oily and exude droplets of moisture and fat when not kept cool. It is best to incorporate these cheeses into dishes that contain some starch, and keep the cooking temperature at the lowest possible temperature necessary to melt the cheese.” 

This also affects fresh mozzarella. Lambert, who was one of the primary cheese makers to make fresh mozzarella a universal favorite, also helped spearhead the use of traditional buffalo milk mozzarella in the U.S. But mozzarella made from water buffalo milk is higher in butterfat than cow’s milk. “Mozzarella di bufala will be more likely to separate at an extremely high temperature,” she points out. 

“Water buffalo milk mozzarella is usually much higher in moisture content so that the water will separate out more easily than a cow’s milk mozzarella,” continues Lambert. “The flavor of buffalo mozzarella also is slightly earthy compared to that of cow’s milk mozzarella. Buffalo mozzarella might be better used uncooked, say in a salad preparation rather than in a cooked recipe.” 

Nothing beats fresh mozzarella when it served fresh or perhaps slightly dressed, these cheeses also marinate well in vinaigrette-style dressings, although they will develop the “rubbery” texture of a processed mozzarella-style cheese. For mozzarella-style cheeses that will hold up better in cooked preparations, the cow’s milk “fior di latte”—flower of milk—can be used. 

Many cheese companies are producing fresh mozzarella and mozzarella-style cheeses presliced. Low moisture mozzarella is used for cheese sticks that are fried. It is a firmer, drier cheese than fresh mozzarella. It is probably the most familiar “pizza cheese” for many of the more mainstream frozen pizza formulations. 

Another fresh cheese commonly used in baked preparations—especially lasagna dishes—is ricotta. “Fresh ricotta that is already drained in a cheese form is better for baking than a ricotta stored in water or a whey and water mix,” says Lambert. “If using the latter for baking, it must be well drained of excess liquid before using.” 

 “Cheese is a difficult ingredient to navigate in the simplest of recipes,” concludes Herbert. “Even a mild white cheddar means vastly different things. There’s the grassy buttery Irish versus the tangy creamy Wisconsin versus the crumbly sweet English and crumbly but lightly pungent New England styles.” But he sees this as a definite plus: “Introducing variation in cheese sources and finding the right match for each dish could quietly revolutionize the American prepared foods world.”