Any culinarian can tell you, if you want to move an item or entice customers with a new product, bring cheese into the picture and consumer interest immediately shoots up. What would a Mexican or Italian item be without cheese? And why is it around half of the 50 billion hamburgers Americans eat every year get topped with cheese?

It’s simple: People love cheese. The tantalizing goodness of cheese adds both flavor and value to everything from a basic sandwich to a pizza quattro formaggi to the new sweet cheese trends of cheesecake shots and cheese coffee — the urban craze of topping strong coffee with a creamy cheesecake-like dollop.

In bringing cheese into the picture, product developers can opt for either of two basic directions. They may use cheese as the primary ingredient, as a filling or inclusion, or as a component of a breading. Alternatively, they can enhance cheese itself by mixing in other ingredients, sweet or savory. Examples include herbs or spices; swirls of pesto; chives, onions, or garlic (plain or roasted); smoke; peppers or chili peppers; mushrooms (including truffles and porcini); or even meat bits such as salami or bacon. Other flavors that add a new dimension of taste can include anything from nuts to wine, beer, and spirits to various flavor extracts.

Sweet inclusions are typically dried fruit (cranberries, blueberries, or tart cherries), or the more dessert-like chocolate chips or honey roasted nuts. Sweet spices such as cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice or fruit compote swirls are common sweet additions to cream cheese blocks and spreads. One significant advantage for innovative product developers is that today’s consumers are seeking newer and more creative flavors and combinations. So, while goat cheese ice cream has appeared on the menus of cutting-edge restaurants, it is unlikely to land in supermarket freezers, a creamy goat cheese spread with dried cherries and walnuts has instant appeal to many consumers.

Parmesan breading has been around for decades, but today’s developers are trying out other cheeses for remaking breaded coatings. Examples include aged cheddar on crispy baked fish and Asiago chicken tenders. Of course, cheeses laced with hot chili peppers or similar flavors have been wildly successful. Spinning off from the classic jalapeño Jack are variations ranging from jalapeño Havarti and chipotlé or Habanero jack cheeses to items such as Gouda cheese flavored with sriracha, the Southeast Asian garlic and red hot pepper sauce infused with the infamous Bhut jolokia, Scorpion, or even Carolina Reaper peppers.

Superhot chili pepper cheeses not only satisfy an increasing consumer craving for fiery foods, they match especially well with cheese. It’s well known that one of the best ways to temper the burn of chili peppers is with dairy, and the smooth, creamy flavor and texture of cheese lends a perfect balance that keeps the fire from burning too long.

But it’s not all about five-alarm heat: The milder but enormously trendy Hatch pepper has found its way into a number of cheeses and cheese products. The dark, slightly sweet ancho chili has been incorporated into some well-received cheeses and cheese spreads. Ancho also pairs equally well with smoked cheeses as with creamy cheeses that tend toward sweetness. The Dallas- based Mozzarella Co. has featured its layered Ancho Chili Mascarpone Torta in its catalogue for years, and the product has been enormously successful. Ancho chili has even been used by boutique bakers to add novel excitement to cheesecakes, exploiting the pepper’s somewhat chocolatey flavor notes.

The pairing of a light soft cheese with a flavorful infusion has worked out surprisingly well for the very distinctly flavored goat cheese. While this classic Mediterranean fresh cheese is a natural companion to other Mediterranean ingredients, such as olives or figs and balsamic vinegar, goat cheese also is a surprisingly effective medium for the tart fruitiness of cranberries and rich cinnamon, or the soft flavors of blueberry and vanilla. Other flavors found teaming up with creamy goat cheese are honey and citrus, garlicky truffles, and cracked black pepper.

Adding value to a formulation with a bold cheese or a flavored cheese is a “can’t miss” proposition for product makers searching for the right appeal to consumers. Cheese brings it all together as a flavorful, familiar, and easy to apply ingredient that has the versatility to be bold or gentle, stand alone or be a team player in a symphony of flavors and textures.

Originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Prepared Foods as Behold, the Power of... Cheese!