Ask the Cheesemonger
Q: I’m a lifelong cheese lover, but I’ve just been told by my doctor that I need to consume a low-sodium diet. Does this mean the end of interesting cheese for me?
A:Although a low-sodium diet might be good for your blood pressure, cutting out cheese sounds like torture. Fortunately, there are quite a few available options in the cheese aisle that I’m sure your doctor would approve of for a low-sodium diet. Most mountain-style cheeses, such as Gruyère, fresh chèvre, and simple Swiss, are naturally much lower in sodium than many other cheeses; they have between 50 and 95 milligrams of sodium per ounce, compared to, say, provolone (248 mg/oz) or Havarti (215 mg/oz). Moreover, the popularity of these lower-sodium cheeses makes them readily available and incredibly versatile—for uses that range from cheeseboards for snacking to soufflés and fondue. Cheeses to watch out for, in terms of high sodium content, include aged cheeses like Parmesan and Gouda. Blue cheese can also be especially high in sodium, though it’s worth noting that Stilton contains only about half as much sodium as other blue cheeses.
If you’re wondering why salt is essential to cheesemaking, it’s not just for flavor enhancement. Salt also serves a very important function in the cheesemaking process by acting as a preservative to restrict the growth of harmful bacteria that could spoil and destroy the cheese during aging. In addition, salt acts as a sort of dehydrating agent, helping expel moisture in the finished curd. This reaction promotes the formation of cheese curds, which mark the beginning of every good cheese.
I think the main thing about eating cheese—whether you’re watching sodium or fats or calories—is to pick one that you really love, have a modest portion, and slowly savor every bite. Cheese is a wholesome, nutritious food that can be enjoyed by almost everyone. (Happiness is good for your health!)
Q: I just tasted smoked mozzarella for the first time and really like it. Please tell me how cheese is smoked, and can you recommend some other smoked cheeses to try?
A:There are two common choices of equipment for smoking cheese: a smoker or an outdoor grill. In both scenarios milder woods, such as alder or even apple wood chips, are used. Most smoked cheeses undergo a cold smoking process in which the temperature doesn’t exceed 100°F. The obvious reason is to avoid melting the cheese, but also this cooler process happens slowly, yielding a more balanced and evenly distributed smoky flavor throughout the entire piece of cheese. It also offers greater control in determining just how smoky the cheese will be in the end.
When a smoker is used, the wood is placed over the heating element and the cheese is placed on a rack over the wood. On an outdoor grill the cheese is placed on the opposite end of the smoldering chips. This is done to avoid melting and intensely smoking the cheese; the space also allows greater airflow. Most people recommend lighting just a few pieces of wood, maybe three to five, and the entire smoking process generally doesn’t exceed a couple of hours.
Beyond smoked mozzarella, other popular choices you might want to sample include cheddars, younger Goudas, and other sharp semihard cheeses. A smoky staple in our shop is Idiazabal, a nutty and somewhat sharper sheep’s milk from Spain’s Basque region. The cheese originated with the migration of shepherds, who would move their sheep up the mountain to graze on lush new grass. During this time they would also milk the sheep and make cheese in their mountain huts, storing the cheeses in the rafters to mature. By the fall, with the advancing cold weather, the shepherds, sheep, and cheeses all returned to the lower slopes, by which time the cheeses were ready for sale and had developed a distinctly smoky flavor from having been stored above the fires in the huts.
One of my personal favorites in this woodsy category is Up In Smoke from Rivers Edge Chèvre, located in Oregon’s central coast range. This fresh chevre is smoked over alder and hickory chips, then wrapped in maple leaves. I’m also a big fan of Moody Blue from Roth Käse in Wisconsin. This blue cow’s milk cheese has an incredible smoky flavor reminiscent of bacon—obviously ideal for burgers or even as the meat itself.
Luan Schooler is the cheesemonger at Foster & Dobbs, a cheese shop in Portland, Oregon, she co-owns with her husband, Tim