I love cheese.
I’m no conoisseur by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, give me a fancy dancy, potentially expensive cheese, and I probably won’t like it.
I’m like a little kid when it comes to cheese though. I love the basics: a nice firm, mild cheddar, stringy mozzarella, anything melted and slightly browning on the edges…
Cheese is my go-to snack when I just want to grab something to put in my mouth (especially when I’m afraid one of the kiddos would catch me if I grabbed a chocolate chip instead!). On this week when we’re finding quality convenience real food, cheese is in my number one slot.
Once sliced, cheese is always ready to eat. It doesn’t take any washing, cooking, or utensils to serve. My kids always say, “Yes, please, cheese!”
Cheese is my ultimate convenience food.
(And my desk really is littered with cheese wrappers right now, but I swear, it’s just to reference them for this post…)
Quality Cheese Checklist
Since we go through a lot of it, I’ve been trying to source it more wholesomely lately. I used to just buy Spartan brand 24-ounce blocks when they went on sale, or really, any other cheese that wasn’t processed fake cheese.
Here’s a list, in order of importance, for what I’m looking for as I try to get better cheese taking up residence in my fridge:
- No hormones
- No antibiotics used
- Small, local farmers are in there somewhere…
In other words, if I can find grassfed cheese that’s not organic, I’d still jump at that before cheese that’s just raw, maybe even organic, but not grassfed. It’s kind of like when we choose our raw milk, which is important to me more for being grassfed and organic than for being raw.
Raw Cheese that’s not Organic?
For a few years now, we’ve been buying 5-pound blocks of raw cheese from Brunkow out of Wisconsin. I felt really good about feeding my family high quality cheese, and the prices were hardly any more than Kraft or Meijer brand cheese in 8-ounce chunks. We were introduced to the cheese through our old raw milk farm and another real food friend, and I just sort of trusted their judgment.
Recently, I got on the phone with Brunkow and decided that it’s probably not worth the slight risk of raw cheese to purchase from them. Here’s what I learned:
- they don’t own the cows
- there are many (small) farmers
- most likely on pasture in summer, on grain in winter (Wisconsin)
- no hormones or rBGH
- of course they’re probably on antibiotics (she said, almost too glibly)
- not organic feed
- (I asked about securing safety) – raw cheese has to be aged over 60 days (not reassured)
In other words, Brunkow cheese had nothing over Kraft cheese, most likely, other than not being from a huge corporation and being raw. The raw enzymes without the benefits of fully grassfed and organic dairy just aren’t worth a price upgrade for me, nor the fact that raw cheese carries some health risk.
The sad part? I have to admit that Brunkow’s mild cheddar is so. very. delicious. It’s just the perfect balance of firm vs. creamy, extremely mild in flavor, and the kind of cheese I could just eat and eat and eat. I’ll miss it.
A Cheese Upgrade
In my quest to upgrade my animal products, I’ve been trying some other cheeses over the past year:
Pros: Kerrygold dairy products are at least nearly 100% grassfed, so I love that, and they’re fairly affordable at Costco.
Cons: They are imported from Ireland, so the carbon footprint leaves something to be desired, and the cheese is not organic or raw.
Price: a bit over $5/lb., purchased in a 2-pound block for $10.78
How it tastes: The “Dubliner” cheese is very firm and decently good, in my opinion, but almost too sharp for my daughter and not as creamy as some. I grab a brick here and there as a compromise, usually for shredding and cooking with. I was a little weirded out the first time I opened a package and saw this:
…but the nice taste tester lady from Costco told me they’re all like that, it’s not mold, and it’s safe to eat. (I cut it off and shredded and froze the rest of the block the first time!)
Kerrygold also has other styles of cheese that I haven’t tasted yet, but I took one for the team and opened a package of “Blarney Castle” just tonight for this post. It’s described as “smooth and mild Gouda style” and it delivered in a big way. I’d like it a bit more firm, but the smooth, creamy texture is just amazing, and it tastes lovely.
Grass Point Farms
Pros: I was tickled to find grassfed cheese at my local Meijer (in the deli self-serve section). I thought it might be too good to be really true, some sort of labeling “real-washing,” since there aren’t any regulations on the term “grassfed.” Once I visited the website, however, I became pretty convinced that the cheese is well-sourced and truly from pastured animals. Hooray! (check package)
Cons: While not technically organic, 100% grassfed dairy usually is, but you aren’t guaranteed. I wish I could get it in bulk!
Price: $12/pound, purchased at $5.99/8-ounce block
How it tastes: I bought a package of mild cheddar cheese, and we have enjoyed the flavor. It has a little tang to it that I recognize from other grassfed products, not the mass-produced sharp cheddar flavor, but it’s not as tangy as most raw cheese I’ve tried. I’m surprised there’s as much flavor as there was in mild cheddar and had to look at the package twice while typing. It passed muster with the 4-year-old, who would be the one to tell me if it was too sharp.
However, for that price, I’d rather have something that’s also organic if at all possible. You can find out if Grass Point Farms Cheese is available near you with their store locator, which was incredibly accurate in my opinion.
Farm Country Cheese
Pros: This cheese covers just about all the bases: it’s local to Michigan, 100% grassfed, hand-milked (a bonus), zero antibiotics or hormones, and they have both pasteurized and raw cheese available.
Cons: The raw cheese is harder to eat than the pasteurized.
Price: The best part is that it’s quite affordable, from $5-10/pound depending on where you buy it ($5/8-ounces at Farmer’s Markets or around $25/5-pound brick through the website)
How it tastes: The raw milk cheddar is honestly hit and miss. We’ve had some bricks that are delicious, just slightly tangier than our old friend Brunkow, but really tasty. We’ve had other bricks that ended up relegated to only being used in cooking, ironically for the “raw” part, because they were unpalatably sour.
Farm Country Cheese has some flavored cheeses that are fun to try – the bacon cheddar is a particular indulgence of mine that I don’t usually share with the family. Dill is our latest taste test, quite good and would be nice to serve to company with homemade crackers or fresh fruit, and the olive flavor was one I thought I’d love but was disappointed by the lack of flavor overall. The pasteurized cheddar has a consistent flavor without the tang of the raw and is quite good.
I currently have an order of a 5-pound block of both raw cheddar and medium cheddar coming my way, as I think I’ve settled on Farm Country as my default cheese, particularly since I can get it locally at many Farmer’s Markets and even my small town butcher. (See my list of local Grand Rapids real food resources page for more on what’s available at markets and farms around here.)
Real Milk Cheese
Pros: This cheese actually does check all the boxes (except local): It’s organic, grassfed, and raw, and they ship anywhere in the country. The owners are clearly committed to sustainability and animal welfare. I love this line from the website:
“All good milk products start with healthy soils…We are proud to say that our cows are fully pastured, 100% grass fed.”
Cons: Any raw cheese has a certain tang to it.
Price: $13/pound when purchased in 8-ounce blocks; $10.50/pound as a 5-pound block
How it tastes: If you need a mild cheese like our family does, you’ll find the colby to be very easy on the tongue and creamy. It is quite a soft cheese. The sharp cheddar we tasted was too much for the kids, but I enjoyed it. It’s not a cheese I could eat as easily as the Brunkow, however. The pepperjack (at right) is creamy and quite spicy, not for the weak of heart. It’s a good snacking cheese, but if you’re used to store cheeses, you’ll need to get used to raw cheese.
Organic Valley & Others
I never tried this brand, even though it’s probably the most widely available across the country. I think I have this “big organic conglomerate” view of Organic Valley in my head, as unfair as that probably is. I assumed their cheese wasn’t grassfed, when it very well could be. Anyone have any notes on Organic Valley?
UPDATE: Many readers weight in positively on Organic Valley, and they do largely pasture their animals, although the “raw” cheese sold in retail stores also apparently isn’t quite raw.
We also have a local cheesemaker here in Grand Rapids, Grassfields Cheese, which is definitely 100% organic and grassfed, but I’ve been hit and miss with their raw cheeses as well. I loved the sample I had at the farm, then when I bought a few wedges to take home, I could barely finish them because they were so tangy. My poor undeveloped palate!
UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot to mention the obvious – making your own! If you have access to decently priced raw milk, or better yet, your own backyard cow, Wardeh and GNOWFGLINS will show you how to make just about any cheese you can imagine, through helpful video tutorials and printable PDFs to walk you through then entire process. Check out the Cultured Dairy & Cheesemaking class HERE.
I sure could go for a slice of cheese about now…anyone want to wander through the kitchen with me?
Where do you find quality cheese? What’s most important to you about the source?
Disclosure: I did receive samples from Real Milk Cheese and Kerrygold, but you can’t buy my opinion! See my full disclosure statement here.