Trust us. You can find your next cheese board sides at the gas station.
Over my years as a cheesemonger, coupling cheeses with delicious foods, no pairing has compelled me quite as much as pairing luxe, specialty foods like cheese with something super accessible and cheap: like junk food. Cheese, surprisingly, lends itself well to a juxtaposition with those guilty pleasure snacks.
At first it might seem that cheese and junk food could never make a great pairing, or even a good one—but cheese has many friends. Many of its most well-known accompaniments are just as lofty: honeys, high-end charcuterie, and truffles to name a few. But cheese also has those distant, unexpected friendships that are just as delicious as they are unpredictable.
Indulge your guilty pleasure with these 5 cheese and junk food pairings.
1. Sweet Grass Dairy Griffin with Peanut Butter Pretzels
Griffin, a raw-milk cheddar-tomme style from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia, is right at home with peanut butter-filled pretzels. Before pressing, the curds are washed with Terminus Porter from Gate City Brewing in Roswell, Georgia, giving it a toasted barley aroma and malty flavor. This cheese is so accessible and friendly that it can go with just about anything, but peanut butter filled pretzels are my pick: The creamy peanut butter enhance Griffin’s nutty hint while the pretzel shell’s salty crunch bring the tyrosine crystals to life. For a flavor explosion, try a slice and a pretzel together in one bite.
If you can’t find Griffin, look for a classic Alpine cheese like Gruyère or Challerhocker. Both of these cheeses have savory, brothy, toasted nut qualities that play well with both peanut and pretzel.
2. Roth Cheese Moody Blue with Pork Rinds
Pork rinds—with their light-as-air, crispy texture and salty, bacon-like flavor—might at first seem better suited for a late night road trip—but I believe they’re at their best when coupled with blue cheese on a party spread. I especially like them with a smoked blue cheese like Roth’s Moody Blue from Wisconsin.
Moody Blue is a great, relatively-inexpensive smoked blue cheese that is readily available at many cheese counters. It has a mild blue funk and a strong smoky flavor, like the remnants of a bonfire night with friends on a late summer evening. On its own, I think Moody Blue can be overly assertive: That smoky flavor lingers in your mouth much like the way the smell of smoke sticks long after the fun is over. When paired with the savory saltiness of pork rinds, however, it becomes a barbecue flavor bomb.
I also recommend trying this with Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue, a raw milk blue that is slow-smoked like barbecued meat, but this time over hazelnut shells for a milder, slightly sweet smoky flavor.
As far as the pork rinds go, I recommend staying simple. Get either a simple salty bag of chicharrones or a cracked pepper flavor if you can find it.
3. Beecher’s Flagsheep with Buttered Popcorn
Some pairings are delicious because the flavors are parallel, and this is exactly what happens when Beecher’s Flagsheep from Washington meets buttered popcorn. Flagsheep is a mixed cow’s and sheep’s milk clothbound cheddar with a cultured butter undertone, rich toastiness, and a salty tyrosine crystal crunch. I’ve always said that this cheese reminds me of buttered popcorn, but together, it’s a game changer.
Since this is a harder cheese, I recommend taking a sharp knife, mandoline, or a cheese shaver and cut some nice thin shavings off the block. This way, you get the full flavor of the cheese faster on the tongue and you can let the popcorn be the main mode of crunch in the bite. Together it tastes like the best movie theater popcorn ever. It’s perfect for a Netflix binge by yourself or with friends. Take a bowl of the popcorn, shave the Flagsheep on top, and just mix them together so you get a taste of both in every bite.
If you can’t track down Flagsheep, try Calkins Creamery’s Noble Road, a super creamy soft-ripened cheese that has a broccoli-like flavor. It’s on the total opposite side of the spectrum as far as texture and flavor goes, but it also works great with popcorn. Together, it tastes like buttered broccoli and the contrast in textures is delicious together (just eat it fast so the popcorn doesn’t get soggy). Make a ball with the soft cheese, and roll it in the popcorn so it’s a creamy cheese ball with crunch.
4. Canal Junction Charloe with Funyuns and Mustard
People that like meaty snacks should definitely give stinky washed-rinds a try. Once you get past the smell, you’re rewarded with beefy notes of caramelized onions and garlic. Charloe from Canal Junction in Ohio is a beautiful, raw-milk pudgy guy and a great washed rind for beginners. It is deeply savory, like peanuts that have been toasted in the browned fatty bits at the bottom of a pan after making a roast. This cheese’s full-flavor holds up to intense pairings, so I tried it with Funyuns and whole grain Dijon mustard. The Funyuns provide a nice crunch and an umami bite, while the mustard adds an acidic heat to cut through Charloe’s creaminess. It’s a perfectly balanced savory snack.
Instead of Charloe, Meadow Creek Dairy’s Grayson and French Époisses would also be killer. Grayson boasts a deliciously stinky, crunchy rind and a milder, custardy inside. This cheese was one of my first loves. Époisses is much creamier and way stinkier than the other two—definitely for the more adventurous eater—but I recommend scraping the top rind off and dipping the Funyuns in the mustard and cheese as you might with fondue. What you’ll get is a deeply meaty bite with an aroma of sweaty socks—in a good way.
5. Point Reyes Original Blue with Cracker Jacks
Blue cheese and Cracker Jacks are a match made in heaven. Traditionally, Cracker Jacks are reserved for the occasional summer baseball game, but they deserve more attention. I love the sweet-saltiness from pairing the caramel popcorn with the peanuts. Blue cheeses, with their salty punch and funky bite, perfectly match with the sweet candied popcorn.
Point Reyes Original Blue from California has the right balance of creamy to crumbly with a briny salinity that reminds me of beach boardwalk air; together, the pairing tastes like summer. Crumble the cheese, put it in the Cracker Jack bag, and shake it for a mix of both in each bite. For those like myself who love salted caramel, this is the pairing for you. Another blue that would be delicious with it is Shakerag Blue from Sequatchie Cove Creamery in Tennessee. It’s wrapped in whiskey-soaked fig leaves resulting in a beautiful sweet booziness tastes a lot like root beer.
So next time you make a run to the cheese shop, why not pair it with a trip to the convenience store, too? I challenge you to pick up some snacks—pick up your favorite late night treat—and experiment pairing them with cheese. Try these pairings, get inspired, and share your findings.
The magical thing about cheese is that it is always full of surprises. Yes, it is delicious with the cheese board classics, but it is equally fabulous with those truck stop treats.