Cheese is an intersection of history, science, and art that I am constantly amazed by. And that’s saying a lot, considering I’m a professional cheesemonger. You’d think I’d act like I’ve been there! But! Combine milk and enzymes and time and you get such distinctly different products. Of course, most importantly, cheese also just tastes so, so good.
Okay, moving on. I worked for a local Trader Joe’s for two years (where I ordered their wine and cheese) and to this day, the grocer’s cheese case is where you’ll most often find me. Each little wedge or wheel is so affordable; it’s hard not to make your fridge look like a cheese cave when you can score a St. Andre Brie for less than your monthly Hulu subscription.
Much of my time as a cheesemonger is spent lamenting over the overlooked cheeses in the case. Mild Cheddars getting snatched up, leaving some true fighters behind, which on the one hand means more for me, but saddens me for the fates of cheese boards everywhere. Not today! And not anymore! I’m sharing some of my favorites overlooked cheeses at Trader Joe’s to liven up your fridge. Let’s take a look!
1. Comté (Gruyère de Comté), $11.99 per pound
When it comes to underrated cheeses, the first stop must be Comté, Gruyère’s French cousin. While it’s the most popular cheese in France, Comté still hasn’t achieved the notoriety of its Swiss cousin in America. Nutty, fruity, and buttery — with hints of herbs from grazing grasses — Comté begs to be chased with a handful of salty-tangy Cornichon pickles, melted over roasted potatoes, or shredded with Emmental and Gruyère for a fondue.
2. Mini Basque, $13.99 per pound
Consider the Mini Basque to be your Intro to Sheep’s Milk Cheese 101. Brown-buttery and mild, the Basque is an accessible French cheese void of the “sheepiness” (or gamey, hay-like taste) more bold sheep’s milk cheeses, like Manchego, display. Perfect for a picnic, Basque cheese should be left to come to room temperature to get the most out of this semi-hard cheese. Be sure to pair it with a sweeter cracker; graham crackers or any crackers studded with dried fruit are Basque’s BFF.
3. Italian Lagorai, $9.99 per pound
The origin of Lagorai cheese is straight out of a fairytale; the recipe for this semi-soft cheese is often credited to a recipe anonymously written on the back of a wooden spoon. Trader Joe’s Lagorai, made from the same recipe, comes from the milk of cows who feast on the lush grasses at the base of the Italian Alps. Delicate and mildly sweet, with hints of the pinewood the cheese is ripened on, Lagorai is perfect on a cheese board or grated over pizza and pasta.
4. Iberico, priced per pound
One of the most popular cheeses in Spain, Iberico gets overlooked stateside for its more well-bought cousin, Manchego (Iberico is made with a mixture of goat, cow and sheep’s milk cheeses, while Manchego is made primarily of sheep’s milk.) Iberico is happiest wrapped around crusty bread and sliced Serrano ham or folded into a Spanish omelet. If you’re a traditionalist, and why shouldn’t you be, serve Iberico table-side the Spanish way with a side of sweet quince paste to balance the tang, fat and acid on tapas night.
5. English Cheddar with Caramelized Onions, priced per pound
What makes an English cheddar just so good? For me, it’s the dense, fatty crumble that Wisconsinite and Vermonters lack. (Sorry, not sorry.) Trader Joe’s has a variety of English cheddars that really hit that toothsome mark, the English Cheddar with Caramelized Onions being the true MVP. It’s my not-so secret weapon in my favorite grilled cheese combinations (and I have many) — layer it on crusty sourdough with a slice of beefsteak tomato, or with a cherry preserve if you’re feeling adventurous.
6. Pizza Bread Cheese, $3.99 for 6 ounces
While there’s no bread in the cheese, this traditional Finnish cheese‘s toasted outer crust lends a bread-like look with a bite not dissimilar to french toast. Delightfully squeaky, Pizza Bread Cheese satisfies me in winter as I await Halloumi-grilling season (aka summer). The addition of Italian herbs and sun-dried tomatoes lends itself perfectly to this salty, caramelized cheese. You can griddle Pizza Bread Cheese on the stove and serve with (actual) toasted bread. In a pinch, you can heat it in a shallow bowl surrounded by a moat of tomato sauce in the microwave for 30 seconds.
7. Havarti with Dill, $7.49 per pound
The rich creaminess of Danish Havarti cut with the herbal brininess of the dill is my idea of a match made in heaven. Originally created by a Danish woman on a European pilgrimage to study cheesemaking in the 1800’s (#boss), Havarti’s accessibility begs for it to be folded into a mac and cheese with aged cheddar, grilled in a sandwich, or cubed up and enjoyed with a lager. A sleeper-hit on a cheese board, Havarti with Dill has a meltability that shines best when stuffed in a Juicy Lucy-style burger with a side of homemade quick-pickles.
8. Pecorino Romano, priced per pound
I’ve long been suspicious that my life’s mission is to teach Americans that, in Italian cooking, each pasta shape and sauce variety goes with distinctly different cheeses — Parmesan is hardly the one-size-fits-all workhorse cheese many use it for. Pecorino Romano, one of my personal favorite sheep’s milk cheeses, is a prime example of that. Good luck getting the rich, velvety outcome that is cacio e pepe or cut through the richness of pasta all’amatriciana without hard, salty Pecorino Romano. Throughout the year, Trader Joe’s releases specialty Pecorino Romanos with knobs of truffles or peppercorns, and it even makes a great dessert cheese drizzled with honey.
Don’t see your favorite on the list? Tell us about it in the comments below!