I Used to Be a Grocery Store Cheesemonger — Here’s What All Shoppers Need to Know

published Dec 10, 2021
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Saleswoman working at display cabinet in supermarket
Credit: Getty Images/Maskot

I put myself through college working summers and vacations in the delis of a local supermarket chain in Omaha, Nebraska. In addition to slicing salami, making 150 pounds of potato salad at a time, and frying some really good chicken, I sliced a lot of cheese. Then, six years later when I moved to Oxford, England, I needed a job: I ended up working in the cheese department at the fanciest food shop in town, with delicacies from around the world, including cheeses from every country in Europe. Heaven. 

I’ve since moved back Stateside, and I’ve brought all my cheese buying and storing knowledge with me. Here’s what I would tell any shopper who has “cheese” on their grocery list.

Credit: Fraya Berg

1. Before you do anything, check out all the cheese sections.

Most grocery stores have three distinct cheese sections: the dairy department, the deli section, and a stand-alone case where you can find imported cheeses in pre-cut wedges and chunks (believe it or not, that open case is called a “coffin”). Some of the cheeses in the coffin are amazing: It’s where I often find Gruyère and Beemster, the nutty-sweet Gouda-style cheese that’s aged for 18 months and can be used for just about anything.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a Whole Foods, Wegmans, or any other high-end grocery store, you may also have access to a section where domestic and imported cheeses can be cut to order.

Credit: Fraya Berg

2. Scope out the deli slicers.

If you are going the sliced deli cheese route, make sure to watch them slice cheese for a few customers before you order. And ask yourself the following questions while you do: How often do they clean the slicers? Are they using disposable towels? Clean cloth towels? Are they using a slicer dedicated to cheese, where no one is slicing turkey or ham? Are they putting the big piece of cheese they’re slicing from back in the refrigerated case after every customer? No matter how busy they are, they should keep the cheese refrigerated. 

If you like what you see at the deli slicers, buy what you need just for a week; deli cheese will dry out faster than other cheeses. If you don’t like what you see, and that market is your only option, buy both your sliced cheeses and sliced meats in packages in the dairy and meat departments. The items in those packages have never been touched by human hands. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

3. Buy whatever sliced cheese is on sale — but be more discerning with your blocks.

There’s some difference between brands when you’re buying prepackaged slices, but not so much that it’s going to make a huge difference in a cheese sandwich. That’s why I recommend you just buy what’s on sale in this instance.

However, there’s more difference when it comes to blocks of cheese. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the big block of Cabot Aged White Cheddar that I can get at Costco. It really comes down to what you like!

4. Develop a relationship with your cheesemonger.

Why should you buy some cheese at the fancy cheese counter (if your store has one)? You get exactly as much as you want. Also, free samples! The quality of the cheese will be very good; most of the people who work at the counter will be knowledgeable. They’re people who love cheese! They can help you put together a cheese tray that will showcase milk from cows, goats, and/or sheep and recommend non-cheese items that are nice accompaniments, like pairing membrillo (quince paste) with the Spanish Manchego made from sheep’s milk.

5. Watch out for over-ripe and moldy cheese.

That said, as careful as the cheesemongers are, the fancy cheese counter is probably the only place where you’ll come across over-ripe cheese — especially in the washed-rind cheese section (think: stinky cheese with an orange rind). They can be very soft and moist, but shouldn’t be cracked or brown.

Relatedly, cheese is cultured; that’s where the flavors and textures come from. And many cheeses, like all the blue cheeses, are inoculated with molds. That being said, always check for mold in a package of cheese — especially one that is cut and wrapped at the store. It happens. With factory packaged cheeses be sure to check the sell-by date. Remember that cream cheese and cottage cheese are, by definition, cheese, so check them, too. 

Credit: Fraya Berg

6. If you want shredded cheese, go the DIY route.

Did you know all packaged, shredded cheeses have anti-caking ingredients — even the organic ones? What does that mean, exactly? If you’ve noticed a dryish powder on shredded cheese, that’s the anti-caking agent. It’s cellulose, derived from plants and, while not harmful, it does make the cheese a bit dry. I don’t think it melts as well as a block or chunk you shred yourself. Now, do I think you should grate a blend of four cheeses every time you make your toddler (or yourself) a quesadilla? Probably not. But it’s definitely worth it for those special-occasion, from-scratch chiles rellenos!

Credit: Joe Lingeman

7. Dedicate a drawer or bin in your fridge to cheese.

When you get home, you’ll need a place to store all those delicious blocks, slices, and shreds you bought. The more remote, the better! This is especially true if you buy stinky cheese. As much as I love all the stinky cheeses, I don’t want my eggs and butter to taste like them.

Do you have a tip for buying cheese? Let us know in the comments below.