9 Essential Cheeses to Cover All Your Snacking, Cooking, and Entertaining Needs
I am grateful for cheese. The salty, nutty-tasting, gooey, melty, crumbly, squeaky snack is one of my favorite foods (and, actually, just one of my favorite things). But which cheese? There are so many different varieties — funky blue cheese, mild Brie, melty Alpine — that it’s hard to know which to choose. Thankfully, you don’t have to pick just one favorite (we’d never do that to you). But if your budget and/or refrigerator space is tight, what are the best cheeses to keep on hand? To find out, I consulted Alisha Norris, A.C.S., C.C.P., a professional cheesemonger and the founder of the cheese box curation brand, Immortal Milk.
Norris tackled the question with realistic efficiency: Her picks for the must-buy cheeses include a variety of milks (cow, goat, and sheep), and prices that won’t blow your grocery budget. In fact, some of her favorite types of cheese are available at major supermarkets, so you don’t have to go to a specialty cheese shop (unless you want to, of course). What I really loved about her take on the best cheeses is that many of them are multi-purpose, which means you’ll be set for snacking, cheese board-making, entertaining, and cooking.
What’s not to love about cheddar cheese? Says Norris of her favorite brand, Hook’s, “It’s sharp without being overwhelming, grates easily, [and is] still on the moister side for an aged cheese — all of these qualities make it a great candidate for cooking, snacking, and entertaining.” The key to remember with cheddar: The longer it’s aged, the sharper and more pungent — and expensive — it will be. Some varieties can be aged for upwards of five years, but the two- to three-year mark hits all the right notes in terms of price, versatility, and flavor. Texture matters, too. The longer a cheddar ages, the crumblier it will be. This means the super-aged stuff is great for cheese boards, but not ideal for grilled cheese.
You don’t have to shell out tons of cash or go to a dedicated cheese shop to get the good cheddar. Great brands, like Vermont-based Cabot, are regularly stocked in grocery stores across the country. Although cheddar can be made with goat or sheep’s milk, it’s usually a cow’s milk thing.
And a quick P.S.: There’s no difference in taste between white cheddar and the orange kind. The only variable here is a coloring agent. Orange (aka yellow) cheddar contains annatto, a natural ingredient sourced from achiote tree seeds.
Recipes with Cheddar
Although true Alpine cheeses have been harder to find in the U.S. since the start of the COVID pandemic, there are plenty of Alp-style cheeses that are made closer to home. Norris cites Jasper Hill’s Whitney as a top-tier choice. “It’s fantastic melted or eaten at 2 a.m. in your pajamas.” Note: Some American-made varieties prefer to classify themselves as “mountain-style” cheese, rather than “Alp or Alpine.”
Recipes with Alpine Cheeses
Ash creates a striking visual in cheese. It can show up as a black, gray, or dark blue hue on the rind, or sometimes as a stripe running right through the middle of the wheel. But it’s more than just aesthetics: Ash was traditionally used to encourage the formation of curds and assist in the ripening process. Morbier (named after the French village) may be one of the most well-recognized ash-ripened cheeses, but it’s not hard to find a great American-made variety (maybe even one local to you!). Just ask your cheesemonger. Most ash-ripened cheeses on the market today use a food-safe ash made from burnt wood or grapevines, although activated charcoal is increasingly common.
Ash-ripened cheeses make stunning entertaining and snacking cheeses, and you definitely don’t have to have fancy crackers and expensive wine to enjoy them. Take it from Norris: “I like taking ash-ripened goat cheeses with me on camping trips. There’s something about campfire smoke + ash + s’mores that’s very, very comforting.”
Ways to Use Ash-Ripened Cheese
Bloomy Rind Triple-Cream
If you like Brie, this is your category — it’s the most famous bloomy rind triple-cream cheese. But what is a bloomy rind cheese? Simply, it’s a variety of cheese (originally from Norway) that’s covered in a soft rind and a mixture of harmless mold and fungus. The combination of these ingredients ripens and ages the cheese inside, which can be so luscious that it has a pudding-like texture.
Brie may get all the attention, but there’s more to this variety of ultra-gooey cheese. Norris loves Brillat-Savarin, which is “beautifully buttery with soft lemon and mushroom notes.” Want more options? California-based Cowgirl Creamery makes a lovely bloomy rind cheese called Mt Tam. And for a truly gooey experience, check out Fromager D’Affinois.
While bloomy rind cheeses aren’t hard to find, it pays to ask for a cheesemonger’s help with this one, because they can help steer you to a ripe wheel. (This variety goes through a ripening-and-rotting cycle, just like fruit. While some “funk” is normal, if your bloomy rind cheese smells like ammonia, it’s past its prime and should not be eaten.) Many cheesemakers now turn out individually wrapped small-format versions of their bloomy rind cheeses, which are more common in grocery stores.
Whether you bake it to serve it as an appetizer or slice it and put it in paninis (highly recommended, BTW), this is a cheese that’s very easy to fall in love with. And just in case you were wondering: Yes, the rind is entirely edible.
Recipes with Brie
Deliciously funky, blue cheese can be made with cow, sheep, or goat’s milk (although cow is most common), and is aged with the — again, totally edible! — mold Penicillium. It’s a semi-soft variety, which makes it excellent for cheese boards. Texture is everything when it comes to this cheese, so it’s a good idea to go for the wedges and crumble it yourself — the pre-crumbled varieties can have a milder flavor and a slightly chalky texture.
Does variety matter? “I actually prefer to have two varieties of blue cheese on hand (I know, I know),” says Norris. Her first pick is something “consistent, accessible, and well-priced,” for salads, burgers, and grilled cheeses. (Emmi Roth’s Buttermilk Blue is fantastic with beets, according to Norris.) But for cheese plates and dessert, she reaches for a cave-aged variety, like Caves of Faribault’s Felix. Yes, I did say dessert. Norris regularly pairs blue with chocolate and fruit when creating cheese boards, and hasn’t regretted it once.
Recipes with Blue Cheese
“You can’t knock the classics, right?” asks Norris. Right! But what is cream cheese, anyway? Made with milk and cream, it’s an ultra-rich, spreadable cheese that melds (and melts!) seamlessly into just about any application, including savory dishes. Most grocery-store varieties contain stabilizers, which aren’t harmful and help maintain that luxurious texture. Norris’ go-to for baking is Philadelphia: “There’s something to be said for a consistent product,” she says. You can also whip together homemade cream cheese if you’re feeling crafty — it’s remarkably easy!
If you’re looking to upgrade your cream cheese, Norris suggests fromage blanc, a French- and Belgian-style cheese that’s slightly tangier and looser than the stuff you get in the block. She particularly likes to use it in cream cheese frosting recipes for a light, fluffy texture.
Recipes with Cream Cheese
Feta or Halloumi
The intensely salty, briny flavor of feta can be polarizing, but it’s a fan favorite of cheese-lovers around the world for those very reasons. There are a few different varieties of feta, but the original comes from Greece and is made with sheep’s milk. Cow’s milk feta is slightly drier, and great for crumbling. You may also encounter goat’s milk feta, which is also crumbly with a somewhat dry texture. Why is sheep’s milk feta the creamiest? It has the highest fat content of the three varieties. Feta is also sometimes made using a variety of combinations of the three. Mt Vikos is an affordable, readily available brand of Greek feta (the line includes a delicious barrel-aged feta).
When buying feta, think about how you plan to use it: Crumbles are great for salads and grain bowls, but for straight-up snacking, the saline, almost-squeaky texture of brick or block feta is excellent.
If you’re not a fan of feta, you’re not alone. Norris admits she prefers Halloumi, a milder, denser cheese originally from Cyprus.“I’d argue that Halloumi (Olympus brand is a great place to start) deserves a place in your fridge,” she says. “Deliciously salty and toothsome, this grillable cheese is great in salads, as an entree, or tossed with pasta.” It’s especially delicious grilled and served with watermelon.
Recipes with Feta and Halloumi
Fresh Goat Cheese
Fresh goat cheese, aka chèvre (pronounced “chev”), is spreadable and versatile with a light barnyard funk. It’s one of the most versatile cheese options out there, as it can go from cracker topper to salad mix-in to cooking ingredient in no time. “Personally I prefer chèvre on my bagels, as a lighter option to cream cheese,” says Norris, who sings the praises of Wisconsin-based Blakesville Creamery’s Chèvre. I’m also a big fan of Vermont Creamery’s flavored chèvre logs.
Recipes with Fresh Goat Cheese
Fun or Flavored Cheese
Look, some cheese is just fun. American singles? It’s hard to top their meltability. Cheese that comes out of a can? Never met a cracker it didn’t like. Even flavored cheeses deserve a spot at your table (Boursin, ftw!). Norris likes Cotswold, an English-made cheddar also known as “pub cheese.” Citing its ideal balance of onion-y chives, Norris likes to bring it to Super Bowl parties where she knows “it’ll be at home next to the beer cheese dip.” If there’s a cheese you enjoy that wasn’t included on this list, put it in this category and keep on enjoying it. We’d also love to hear about it in the comments below!