Ladies and gentlemen, get your graters and planes ready: It’s our Best Cheeses guide! In preparation for our upcoming 2016 Best Cheeses issue (on newsstands October 31!), we’ll be breaking down our expertly curated list of 75 oh-so-good wheels and wedges—the stuff of cheese dreams, really.
What’s our process? First we reviewed top finishers from some of the world’s most prestigious contests (held between September 2014 and August 2015): American Cheese Society Judging & Competition, the World Cheese Awards, the United States Championship Cheese Contest, the International Cheese Awards, the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix, the British Cheese Awards, the New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards, and the Australian Grand Dairy Awards. Then we considered factors like style, flavor, provenance, appearance, and milk type to narrow the field and arrive at the year’s Best Cheeses, arranged by texture.
We’ve already covered soft, gooey cheeses (like Époisses and Vacherin Mont d’Or), semi-soft, fudgy cheeses (most blues and block cheddars), semi-soft, spreadable cheeses (fresh chèvre, Camembert, and cream cheese), semi-firm, crumbly cheeses (think ricotta salata, cotija, and Caerphilly), firm, toothsome cheeses (such as Comté, Gruyère, and aged block cheddars), and hard, flaky cheeses (e.g. gouda and clothbound cheddar).
Next up in our guide is Soft, Dollopy Cheeses.. This is cheese you can scoop out and, with a flick of the wrist, dollop onto something. The cheese should not be sticky, gooey, or sretchy. Dollopy cheeses may be firmer when chilled, resembling heavy cream whipped into stiff peaks; when warmed, dollopy cheeses may soften and may eventually separate. Examples include fromage blanc, ricotta, and mascarpone.
Westby Cottage Cheese
4% Small Curd Cottage Cheese
- Westby Cooperative Creamery
- Westby, Wis.
- cow’s milk
One bite of these decadent, Wisconsin-made fresh curds and any association with diet food will fly out the window. In fact, Westby Cooperative Creamery’s rich cottage cheese is reason to reexamine the brown-bag lunch staple—try blending the adaptable ingredient into a dip or casserole. Cow’s milk for the creamy cheese is processed and delivered fresh daily from nearby dairy farm member-owners—many are second-, third-, and fourth-generation milkmen. (Apparently, neighboring creameries wave white flags: Westby is the only cottage cheese producer in America’s Dairyland.) Its Best of Class win at the 2015 United States Championship Cheese Contest—topping other finalists with a near-perfect score—echoes its gold-medal victory at the 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest.
FLAVORS: Cream, milk, sweet
PERFECT PAIRING: Top these pillow-tender curds with fresh fruit or nuts for breakfast or with tomato and cucumber slices for lunch. At dinner, ladle the cheese on a baked potato with black pepper and chives or bake it into lasagna.
American Cherry Sheep’s Milk Yogurt
- Old Chatham Sheepherding Company
- Old Chatham, N.Y.
- sheep’s milk
Fresh off a win at the 2015 United States Championship Cheese Contest, this sweet-sour yogurt by Hudson Valley’s Old Chatham Sheepherding Company—the largest sheep dairy farm in the US—is pure pleasure in a cup. The rich treat is made with pasteurized, naturally homogenized milk from a flock of 2,000 East Friesians that graze on 600 acres of organic pasture; live, active cultures; and ingredients such as vanilla bean, maple syrup, crystallized ginger, and, of course, the starring fruit, plucked from cherry orchards in upstate New York and made into jam at Vermont’s Sidehill Farm. (Not in the ingredient list? Gums, stabilizers, or artificial thickeners.)
Unsurprisingly, the black lambs on Old Chatham’s green label, also seen on the company’s sheep’s milk cheeses—Camembert, Ewe’s Blue, and soft-ripened Kinderhook Creek—have all but achieved celebrity status since the creamery opened in 1993.
FLAVORS: Cream, sweet, tart, tangy
PERFECT PAIRING: Crumble toasted graham cracker on top for instant cherry cheesecake.
Bella Casara Ricotta
- Quality Cheese Inc.
- Vaughan, Canada
- cow’s milk
It only makes sense that a fourth-generation cheesemaking family with Italian roots produces this history-making pasteurized cow’s milk ricotta. At the 2014 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix Awards, Bella Casara ricotta was the first fresh cheese and the first Ontario-made cheese to clinch the Grand Champion title; it also earned a category nod in the 2015 contest. These accolades are well-deserved: The Borgo brothers, owners of Quality Cheese, have backgrounds in agricultural science (Joseph) and cheesemaking (William), and each brings a unique set of skills to the table, resulting in consistently great cheeses that outshine the competition.
Ricotta may seem like an easy cheese to make, but the Borgos’ craftsmanship turns the ordinary sublime. They press Bella Casara ricotta into small forms and place the cheese in baskets, allowing whey to drain off. The finished product almost has the texture of wet clay, but its bright, sweet flavor is as light as a cloud.
FLAVORS: Milk, tangy, sweet
PERFECT PAIRING: Simple is best when it comes to this fresh cheese—top it with fresh berries, a honey drizzle, and a sprig of mint for a satisfying start to the day. For a late afternoon snack, couple the light curds with an equally effervescent glass of vinho verde.
Buffalo Boysenberry Yogurt
- Clevedon Valley Buffalo Company
- Pahurehure, New Zealand
- water buffalo’s milk
Growing up, Helen Dorresteyn loved to eat boysenberry ice cream in the summer, and today it still reminds her of sitting in a hot, sticky car returning home from the beach. This childhood treat inspired her husband, Richard, to mix boysenberries from Hawkes Bay into their lightly sweetened buffalo’s milk yogurt.
Launched in 2014, the new variety was an instant success—so much so that it took the yogurt crown in this year’s New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards. The Dorresteyns were the first New Zealanders to import water buffalo, specifically to make fresh cheeses. (Check out our Autumn 2015 photo essay on their whole operation here!)
“A lot of people here still don’t know there are buffalo in the country, so to win the top yogurt award proves it really is beautiful milk,” Helen says. “We take tremendous care to make yogurt that isn’t overly sweet—the way it feels in your mouth is divine. It’s quite light, but at the same time rich and velvety, because the buffalo milk is high in fat.”
Cheese Awards deputy chief judge Russell Smith agrees, noting the yogurt’s superb balance between acidic tang and clean fruit flavors and its deliciously thick texture.
FLAVORS: Fruit, cream, tangy
PERFECT PAIRING: “Just rip off the top and eat it,” Helen says. Or, for a more decadent breakfast, spoon it atop your muesli or granola.
Bella Casara Ricotta
- Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.; Belmont, Wis.
- goat’s milk
Silky-smooth like cream cheese but with a lighter mouthfeel, tangy like chèvre yet tame enough to charm goat cheese doubters: Chèvre Oh-la-la is a versatile fromage blanc that’s ideal for cooking (whip it with a bit of sugar for frosting) or eating straight from the tub (it’s also stellar at breakfast with pastries or berries).
Though Montchevré moved its corporate offices to California, the company still produces goat cheeses (50 varieties and counting!) as it has since the 1980s: in Wisconsin, with milk sourced from more than 360 area dairy farms.
FLAVORS: Cream, fresh milk, slightly sour
PERFECT PAIRING: Daub this cool, creamycheese on piquant dried peaches.
Crema di Mascarpone
- BelGioioso Cheese
- Green Bay, Wis.
- cow’s milk
BelGioioso founder and president Errico Auricchio immigrated to the US in 1979 with a singular goal: to produce superior Italian cheeses in his new country. To achieve this, he brought with him two master cheesemakers, Mauro Rozzi and Gianni Toffolon (both of whom still work for BelGioioso). Since then, the company—now run by Auricchio’s great-grandson—has become one of the nation’s leading producers of fresh and aged Italian cheeses. BelGioioso was the first American creamery to make mascarpone, and it remains the largest producer of the cheese in the country. Its Crema di Mascarpone is softer and sweeter than the classic variety, with a cloudlike consistency fit for baking and dessert applications. (Cupcake frosting, anyone?)
FLAVORS: Butter, fresh cream, slightly sweet
PERFECT PAIRING: Showcase this triple cream’s flavor with fresh berries and a sprinkle of orange zest.
- Calabro Cheese Corp.
- East Haven, Conn.
- cow’s milk
Creamy and rich, with a delicate flavor reminiscent of sweet cream butter, this cow’s milk ricotta is the “ultimate pride of our cheeses,” according to Calabro Cheese Corp.’s website. Using Grade A Vermont farm milk, cheesemakers at the 43-year-old Connecticut-based operation scoop and package fresh curds by hand in perforated metal baskets, helping earn the fluffy white cones designation as Best Ricotta at the 2015 United States Championship Cheese Contest. Though Calabro was reportedly the first Italian cheese company in the country to develop fat-free ricotta
cheese with no added salt or preservatives, this real-deal, full-fat version—manufactured exclusively for gourmet specialty shops—is worth the splurge.
FLAVORS: Butter, cream, sweet
PERFECT PAIRING: A vital ingredient in Italian cuisine (lasagna, manicotti, ravioli), this cheese loves tomato sauce and fresh herbs. But serve it with freshly sliced strawberries or dark chocolate to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Hidden Springs Honey Lavendar Driftless
Honey Lavender Driftless
- Hidden Springs Creamery
- Westby, Wis.
- sheep’s milk
Wisconsin’s Hidden Springs Creamery is one of few farmstead sheep dairies in the US and where Dean and Brenda Jensen have been crafting cheese—including Driftless—for eight years. Initially, they didn’t plan on flavoring the fresh curds, but after some inspiring trips to the farmers’ market over the years, the Jensens have developed six varieties.
Honey Lavender Driftless is made simply, with few ingredients. Milk from the farm’s East Friesian and Lacaune sheep mingles with “a bit of culture and rennet” for 24 hours, Brenda says. The curds are drained for an additional day and then she adds honey and lavender to taste.
“We eat a lot of cheese around here,” Brenda says, laughing. The flavor of Honey Lavender Driftless is light and sweet, with depth from woodsy lavender and floral notes from the honey.
FLAVORS: Fresh-cut wood, sweet cream, honey
PERFECT PAIRING: Enhance the sweetness and earthiness of these fluffy curds with crunchy Effie’s Corncakes.