Lazy Lady Farm Profile

laini back in the day!

Laini Fondiller of Lazy Lady Farm has been making goat cheese in the hinterlands of northern Vermont since WAY before artisan cheese was on anyone’s radar, let alone cool! Laini fell in love with cheese and goats while interning on different farms around France. After her visa expired and she was ‘kicked out’ of France (her words), she decided to try her hand at making goat cheese in Vermont.

You can try Laini’s cheeses in our Lazy Lady Farm Collection.

Let’s start with the fact that the name ‘Lazy Lady’ could not be a more ridiculous moniker for Laini Fondiller. On Laini’s farm, the Lazy Ladies are the goats, who bask in the luxury of a warm, clean barn, listen to NPR, and who are taken out for long walks every Monday afternoon to forage for sapling trees, shrubs, and other tasty browse in the surrounding woods. Laini is basically a one-woman show – doing the work normally divided between several people on a farm – milking the goats, tending the goats, making the cheese, aging the cheese, and selling the cheese at farmer’s markets and to lucky folks like us!

When Laini started making cheese in the early 1980’s, it was basically the dark ages for artisan cheesemaking in the U.S. There were virtually no resources available – no cultures, no equipment, and hardly any dairy goats either! Luckily for us, artisan cheesemakers tend to be a bit nutty (in all the right ways) and seem to love to do things the hardest way possible. Not only did Laini and her partner Barry have to build the cheese house, cave, and barn from scratch, they decided to go 100% off the grid and constructed their own wind turbine and solar panels to provide all the farm’s energy needs.

Barry built Lazy Lady Farm’s first ‘pasteurizer’ from a steam kettle because there were no small pasteurizers available for small-scale cheesemakers to purchase, and Laini taught herself to make the delicate, bloomy-rind goat cheeses she loved from France by reading books on the subject. Her cheeses quickly gained a following, especially in New York where chefs were hungry for delicious and unique goat cheeses from America and abroad.

Laini now makes over thirty different kinds of cheese from her goats’ milk as well as from purchased cows’ milk in the wintertime when her goats are dry and waiting for their kids to be born. Laini’s playful and witty spirit comes through in the names of her ever-changing roster of cheeses – Thin Red Line, Marbarella, La Roche (‘The Rock’ in French) Fake Cheese, Bonaparte, and Sweet Emotions are of some our recent favorites.

Over the years, Lazy Lady Farm has been equal parts cheese maker and goat breeder, supplying dairy goats to many up and coming farms across America. In fact, if you visit her website (and we encourage you to do so!) the first thing you see is Laini’s meticulous notes detailing how her goats are bred, birthed, and raised. Her goats have been certified organic since 1987 (again… WAY ahead of the curve!) and Laini thinks of them as family.

Laini Fondiller is a true pioneer in the annals of American artisan cheese. Saxelby Cheesemongers celebrates Lazy Lady Farm and Laini’s amazing cheese!!

What is a Lazy Lady Cheese? – by Lauren Gitlin

Lazy Lady Farm cheese is the culmination of an enduring reverence for the land, a fascination with Old World cheesemaking traditions and a constant, near-pathological thirst for reinvention. Drawing creative inspiration from music, politics, geography and language, always with a winking sense of humor, LLF has churned out dozens of one-off varieties of cheese in addition to its core lineup of favorites (La Petite Tomme, Capriola, Pyramid, Bonaparte, Sweet Caroline, La Roche), each one sprung fully formed from the mind of the farm’s proprietress, Laini Fonidiller.

Since well before chevre was a commonplace fixture of culinary life in the U.S., Fondiller has been crafting small batches of goat and mixed milk cheeses by hand, winning over palates and inspiring an entire generation of artisan producers to throw their hats in the ring. Drawing from her formative experience farming and making cheese in France and Corsica in the early 1980s, Laini struck out on a path to reinvent the landscape of American cheese with one goat and a dream, and she never looked back.

Decades later, her repertoire of cheese styles is dizzying, and her mad scientist impulses, while certainly more informed than they were when she began, are just as whimsical and far-reaching. Why continue to experiment and invent when so many other creameries choose to focus on one or two or three types of cheese? According to Fondiller, that would be akin to a painter painting the same portrait over and over again. With milk as the ultimate canvas, and so much possibility inherent in its complexity, why would you want to limit yourself?

Fondiller and her farm have always at their core been concerned with pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Is it possible to live lightly on the land and still extract what is needed to create an artisan product? When you insist in living off the grid, electing to get your power from sun and wind and rotationally graze your small ruminants, it is. Is it possible to remain truly small scale when so many other farms feel the pressure to scale up to remain financially viable? When you devote yourself to decades of focused genetics and holistic herd health, it is.

Is it possible to harness the microbiological complexity of cultures and molds, of the techniques of affinage and the seasonal variation in milk and simultaneously reflect an individual vision and perspective in relation to the world at large? Look no further than the Barrick Obama, a beer-washed goat’s milk cheese that’s an homage both to our former president and to a linguistic affectation of the Hoosiers of Fondiller’s native Indiana (where a “brick” is pronounced ‘bahrick’).  Or the Bonaparte, Fondiller’s own interpretation of the classic French cheese Valencay, which according to lore was Bonaparte’s favorite.

Every cheese has a story, some convoluted and some as simple as Fondiller’s relentless restlessness. After thirty-some odd years, one has to keep things interesting. To taste a Lazy Lady cheese is to get a glimpse into the mind of a visionary and to ingest her worldview, from her perch in a rugged corner of the Green Mountains. It’s a sight — and a taste — to behold.


Barn First Creamery – The Newest Addition to the Saxelby Cheesemongers Lineup!

Barn First Creamery is the newest addition to our roster of stellar Vermont artisan cheesemakers! Barn First was started by Merlin Backus and Rebecca Velazquez in 2013, and is now home to a herd of thirty-odd milking goats (and their human caretakers). Before diving into the cheese business, Merlin and Rebecca lived in NYC and were frequent visitors (and favorite customers!) to our Essex Market shop. As Rebecca tells it, they would load up on Vermont cheese at Saxelby Cheesemongers, and then schlep it up to Westfield, Vermont, where Merlin is originally from, to share with his family.

After leaving NYC, Merlin and Rebecca were ‘romantically homeless’ for a few years before decided to make the move to Merlin’s native Westfield. They decided to make the move when a parcel of land next to Merlin’s family home came up for sale that had a barn on the property… hence the name Barn First! That barn, in an ironic twist of fate, eventually became a distillery run by Merlin’s brother, but it planted the seed for their nascent dairy business, and was home to their first few goats.

When they landed in Westfield, Rebecca was looking for work. Merlin’s father assumed that because of her love of cheese, she should obviously go work for Laini Fondiller at Lazy Lady Farm, one of Vermont’s best and most pioneering goat cheese makers. Let it be known that Lazy Lady Farm is close to nothing in the world, save for Merlin’s family home! In fact, before she started the farm, Laini worked for Merlin’s father Dan as a logger and a hog castrator. Is there nothing this woman can’t do?!

So Rebecca went to work for Laini, learning the ropes of goat husbandry and cheese care. Though Rebecca regularly turns to Laini with goat health care issues, she is quick to stress that she never asked Laini for cheesemaking tips or recipes, wanting to respect the relationship between the two of them, and Laini’s thirty year legacy of goat cheese making.

While she was working for Lazy Lady Farm, Rebecca and Merlin goat to work building a barn of their own and bought two old goats from Laini to begin a fledgling herd. They hand-milked seven goats from 2013-2016 before their barn, milking parlor, and cheese room were up and running. They now milk roughly thirty goats seasonally, and produce a wide range of cheeses, ranging from bloomy rind to washed rind to blue. When asked how she learned cheesemaking, Rebecca replied that she learned from books – mostly cow’s milk cheese recipes that she altered to fit the slightly different milk profile of goats, and her taste buds. She wanted to make the types of cheeses she wanted to eat, and wanted to have enough variety to ‘make a whole cheese plate’.

We at Saxelby Cheese are thrilled to be working with Barn First Creamery! Stop by our Chelsea Market or Essex Market shops to try some today!

Sugaring Season!

It’s sugaring season in Vermont and that means the air is filled with the sweet smell of sap bubbling away! Maple syrup is to Vermont as bagels are to NYC. They’re the best at it and they’ve been doing it a long time. Producing maple syrup is a Vermont tradition that spans generations and can be found on just about every scale from large productions you can find on grocery store shelves to independent syrup producers who make just enough for their pancakes in the morning.

Our friends at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, VT wrote a great description of the sugaring process from sap to finish. Check it out below!



50 degrees in mid-February? Well, it’s not the usual weather in the Northeast Kingdom, which tends towards the arctic this time of year, but for a certain set of Vermonters, the unusual warm spell we just had meant one thing: Maple Syrup season had begun. As the weather warms and snowy backroads transform into mud luge tracks, the sap of the Sugar Maples begins to rise from deep within the roots, where it has been locked up all winter, making it accessible to those seeking to tap the sweet elixir and transform it into Vermont’s other trademark product (alongside cheese of course).

When you drive through the woods of Vermont, you’ll often see hundreds of metal buckets attached to trees, or complex networks of piping winding from trunk to trunk like a giant spider web. These are the fingerprints of a maple syrup operation. At Jasper Hill, we have our own resident Sugar Maker: James Coe — who in addition to working with us is co-owner, with his wife Nella, of Ledgenear Farm in West Glover, VT, 250 acres of mixed Maple sugar woods, softwoods, hay fields and pasture. Ledgenear was for a long time a dairy farm as well, but dairying stopped in 2005, and the Coe’s have shifted their focus to sugaring and other sustainable agricultural uses. Nella and James got married in the field across the street from the sugar house. James is the resident architect at Jasper Hill and the mind behind many of the innovative designs at Jasper Hill including our new Hay Drier facility, as well as Co-Owner at the Andersonville Farm, our second dairy farm down the road.

Every year, when tapping is about to begin, Nella puts on her yellow boots, a tradition that signals the start of the season. The Coe family has been tapping the trees on this land for two generations now. When James was a child, he and his brothers would hang buckets individually on every tree. Checking on the taps and collecting the sap, bringing it back when full to add to the large evaporator pans over the wood fired arch, where the sap would be slowly cooked down. Since then they have been slowly building up the operation over the years, eventually switching over to a system of plastic tubing that runs from tree to tree (although some buckets are still used), hooking in to the tap before continuing on to the next, with the pitch adjusted just so to ensure that gravity brings all the sap to the sugar house, situated at a low point in the woods. Each tap will give around 10 gallons of sap over the season, with the largest trees tapped up to three times around the trunk.
Once there is enough sap stored at the sugarhouse, “Boiling” can begin. The sap is transferred from stainless steel storage tanks to the 4×12 evaporator.  The evaporator consists of a flat bottomed finishing pan up front, and a raised flue pan (for maximum surface area) in the back set over a brick lined “arch” where the fire is built. James “fires up the rig”, and stokes the fire every 20 minutes or so to maintain a steady, rolling boil.  The sap bubbles and foams furiously and steam fills the air.  Despite all the action in the pans, it is a slow slow process to evaporate away ~98% of the sap (water).

A sugarhouse in operation is a sight to behold, the wooden shack glowing from within as steam pours from the rig and smoke and sparks billow out of the smokestack. The interior, warm and foggy from all the water vapor, is redolent with the sweet buttery aroma of maple syrup coming into being, mixed with the smokiness of the fire. Cooking down to syrup takes a long time; 39 gallons of water have to be removed for every 1 gallon produced. Depending on how much sap has been harvested, it can be an all-night or multi-day affair. But the process itself becomes a celebration, with friends and family coming from all around to assist in the process and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Music plays, hot dogs cook in a boiling pot of maple sap, and bubbly beverages are always on hand. And if it runs into the wee hours of the morning, James will tell you that a hot cup of fresh maple syrup is as effective a pick-me-up as coffee!

Tasting the maple syrup as it’s cooking down is a part of the process, and we could experience the transformation as the warm liquid transformed from clear and mildly sweet, to gradually darkening in color and deepening in flavor.

According to James the Maple syrup is ready to “draw off” when it is at 219 degrees Fahrenheit and has a measured density of 66.9 degrees brix at 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The syrup behaves differently when ready with a distinctive bubble formation and sheeting action rather than dripping when poured. At this point it will be “drawn-off” from the evaporator, filtered to remove any solids and be ready for bottling. The syrup is graded for color and flavor and categorized in the following grade A maple syrup grade standards for the state of Vermont:

“Golden Color/Delicate Taste” is the lightest in color, a pale golden color, and has a delicately sweet, original maple flavor characteristic. This is the highest quality maple syrup and the most prized.

“Amber Color/Rich Taste” will have a darker color than Golden and may have a flavor which is more pronounced than that of Golden Color/Delicate Taste, but which is not strong or unpleasant.

“Dark Color/Robust Taste” will be darker still, more towards a caramel/brown color.  It may have a flavor which is stronger than that of Amber Color / Rich Taste, but which is not sharp, bitter, buddy or off-flavor.

”Very Dark Color/Strong Taste”  has a very dark color, more towards a molasses color and opacity (The United States Department of Agriculture does not have an approved visual glass comparator which compares to the light transmittance of this grade). Very Dark Color/Strong Taste will have a flavor stronger than Dark Color/Robust Taste.

As cheesemakers, we were fascinated to learn that there is a microbiological aspect to sugaring as well. The longer the sap is stored before being cooked down, and the later it is in the season, the more microbial activity there will be in the sap. While these microbes will be essentially pasteurized out of the final product by the high temperatures, their presence nonetheless impacts the color and flavor profile of the sap, leading to a darker, more complex maple syrup.

Sap fresh from the tree is approximately 98% water, with sucrose making up the remaining 2%. As the sap is exposed to the elements and drips into the bucket, it picks up microbes, which — in a process called inversion — break some of the sucrose into fructose and glucose. Amino acids, as well, increase during the season. The additional fructose, glucose and amino acids contribute to a stronger Maillard reaction (the heat-triggered browning that we associate with grilled meat, toasted bread, caramelized sugars, etc.), which is partly why late-season maple syrup tends to be darker in color and more intense in flavor.

Among syrup aficionados, there is much debate about what the “best” profile is, with some preferring the bright, delicate flavors of a Golden Color/Delicate Taste, and others seeking out the richer, smokier, more multifaceted flavors of the darker draws. Many syrup lovers will reserve syrup for drizzling over pancakes and waffles, while the darker grades will be used as a sweetener in coffee or tea, or as a replacement for sugar or honey in baking.

Chef Spotlight: Greg Baxtrom of Olmsted

HarbsionOne of our favorite things here at Saxelby is getting out into the field to see how our chef partners are using our American farmstead cheeses in creative ways! We serve over 100 restaurants in the NYC area, and each one has their own ways of highlighting the unique, handcrafted products we provide them with.

This week, we’re putting the spotlight on chef Greg Baxtrom of Brooklyn restaurant Olmsted, who has devised a way to turn Jasper Hill Farm’s Harbison into a theatrical experience for all five senses!

A veteran of Chicago sensation Alinea and NYC’s legendary Blue Hill, Baxtrom has pulled together influences from both kitchens to create a dish that is thoughtful and conceptual, while at the same time down-to-earth and ingredient forward.

The delicate, pudding-soft wheels of Harbison are split in two and bruleed with a hand torch. The spruce bark girdle surrounding the cheese, combined with the mold rind, turn the exterior of the Harbison into its own fondue pot, while the flavorful paste inside browns and bubbles. To a perfect gooey consistency. The cheese is presented with a torched pine branch, adding an extra aroma and highlighting the cheese’s forest and resinous flavors.

Being a seasonal restaurant (with its own culinary garden!), Olmsted’s menu changes quickly and often. However, this memorable piece has been one of the few items that had remained consistent since their opening!

Whether you torch it, broil it or simply dig in with some bread and a spoon, Jasper Hill’s Harbison is an American artisan original and a perfect dinner table centerpiece for the Holiday season!

Chef Baxtrom in Action

Spoonable and Seasonal: Rush Creek Reserve from Uplands Cheese!


It’s the most wonderful time of the year for a cheesemonger: the start of Rush Creek season!! This delectable American juggernaut from Wisconsin’s Uplands Cheese signals the start of the Holiday feasting season on our calendars, and we couldn’t be happier that our first delivery is here!!!

Made in the tradition of Vacherin Mont d’Or, a famous cheese from the Jura region of France, Rush Creek is made for 8 weeks each fall, when the cows at Uplands go off pasture and begin to eat dry hay supplemented with a touch of grain. This shift in diet makes their milk especially rich and decadent. Each wheel is wrapped with a spruce bark girdle, keeping the gooey paste at bay until it hits the dinner table! The spoonable cheese is hearty and complex, with a wide range of flavors from creme fraiche, freshly cut grass, hazelnuts and smoked meat all making their way onto the palate. Aged for 60-75 days and available each year from November through January.

Like most good things, the Rush Creek season is short and sweet, so don’t hesitate to make this the centerpiece of your Holiday table!

Celebrating American Artisans: Introducing Producer Collections!

ArtisanCollectionsIn honor of American Cheese Month, we’re showcasing and highlighting our favorite cheesemakers and affineurs. These farms, individuals and companies all work in tandem to give the artisan cheese community vibrancy and life, and as cheesemongers we love to give them a hearty shout out whenever possible!!

jasper_hill_farm_collection_product_shot_580xJasper Hill Collection

Since its inception, Jasper Hill has operated a working farm/creamery and a state of the art aging facility on their property in Greensboro, Vermont. In addition to producing their own farmstead cheeses from a small herd of Ayrshire cows, Jasper Hill follows the European affineur model of cheese distribution: buying up cheeses from small family farms in the area, aging them to perfection, and bringing them to market all over the country. The dedication to their business model has played a huge role in reviving the dairy industry in Vermont’s picturesque Northeast Kingdom, helping to prop up a slew of small family farms and giving life to the American cheese community.

Includes five hand cut wedges: Landaff – a tangy riff on Welsh Caerphilly, Harbison – a gooey round of cow’s milk cheese swaddled in spruce bark, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar – an English-style cheddar cloaked in cotton cloth, Bayley Hazen Blue – a crumbly and peppery cow’s milk blue, and Willoughby – a pungent and luscious washed rind.

crown_finish_setup_1_580xCrown Finish Caves Collection

Beneath the sidewalks of Bergen Street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the folks at Crown Finish Caves tend to an eclectic array of cheeses ripening on their shelves. Crown Finish calls a 19th century complex of lagering tunnels home, which provide just the right environment to bring out the best in their lovingly pampered cheeses.

Includes one pieces each of Bone Char Pearl – an exclusive collaboration between Saxelby, Crown Finish and Blue Hill Stone Barns, Gatekeeper – a cow and sheep mix washed with Millstone cider, and a wedge of Tubby – a nutty and caramel-y alpine style made by Spring Brook Farm.

lazy_lady_setup_blue_product_shot_580xLazy Lady Farm Collection

Laini Fondiller has been making cheese at Lazy Lady Farm since 1987. A true pioneer, Laini began making goat cheese in the dark ages of artisan cheese making in the United States… There were no resources, no books, no equipment, no supplies, no anything to be had to help a young cheesemaker. But the things that Laini did have (and in no short supply) were gumption, tenacity, a love of goats, and a work ethic to beat all else. Together with her partner Barry, Laini built a small steam kettle pasteurizer and cheese vat and went to town. Today she produces over 20 varieties of goat and cows’ milk cheese on her remote, off-the-grid, solar and wind powered farm. Laini milks a small herd of goats – roughly 30 to 40 – from March through January, and sources cows’ milk from neighboring Butterworks Farm when her goats are pregnant and ‘on unemployment’ during the winter months.

Includes three ripe and ready small format cheeses from Lazy Lady Farm. Cheeses are contingent on availability and rotate seasonally; we will notify you of selection when order is placed.

Flavor and Species: Delving into Milk Chemistry!!

On the surface, there are few things more boring than a plain old glass of milk. But of course, being cheese people, we see nothing but a world of potential there. While what milk eventually becomes is the object of our affection, milk in its liquid state tells a story all its own and reveals how our favorite cheeses get to be themselves and develop their own unique character.

In order to understand how differences in milk equate to differences in cheeses, outlining how the milks of different species are unique from one another provides a great  jumping off point.

Milk is, essentially, a whole bunch of solid nutrients packaged into a convenient delivery system: water. Liquid milk is about 90% water by weight, which enables it to be ingested easily by a newborn animal and also provides them with the hydration that they need. The other 10% is where the nutrition lives, and as cheese folks this is the part that we’re most concerned with. That 10% consists of proteins, fats, minerals and sugars, all of which have their own unique role to play when milk gets turned into cheese.

Arguably the most important component at play here is the protein. Protein is what makes up the physical structure of the cheese and, when it is broken down by enzymes during aging, contributes the most distinctive flavors to the cheese. The main protein in milk, known as casein, exists as tight bundles of smaller protein particles (called micelles) held together with calcium. These micelles can be pictured as a sort of koosh-ball shape: a single particle surrounded by tons of tiny filaments. All of these projections on the outside are known as kappa caseins, and carry a negative charge, which causes them to repel one another when they collide. This is what enables the solids in milk to be suspended evenly throughout the liquid component, giving milk its opaque appearance. When a cheesemaker makes cheese, they are essentially working to undo this negative charge on the micelles in order to cause the proteins to stick together, forming a curd and pushing out water (aka whey) in the process.

In addition to the proteins, milk contains an abundance of fat, which is of the utmost importance to the cheesemaking process. The fats in milk are referred to as butterfats, which consist of a specific type of fat called triglycerides. These molecules, called globules, are made up of several smaller fatty acids (basically just chains of carbon atoms) stuck together and (continuing with the toy comparisons) are shaped like tiny beach balls, with a thin negatively charged membrane surrounding the outside. When curd is formed, the globules are swept up into the coagulating proteins and trapped within the curd structure, trapped in a sort of protein net.

The rest of the solids in milk consist of minerals (most of which is the calcium holding those protein micelles together) and lactose, the sugar component of the milk. Lactose provides much needed energy that the newborn animal will use to grow rapidly, but in the cheesemaking process lactose is important mostly in that it is turned into lactic acid by starter culture bacteria, which prepares the milk to be curdled.

So, with the basics in mind, how does cow’s milk differ from goat’s milk, and how do these differ from sheep’s milk?

Since humans settled down and started farming, cows have been selectively bred to be the most efficient and productive milk machines that they can be. Cows are able to produce up to 5 gallons of milk per day, and are able to be milked about 300 days out of the year.

The milk that they produce is very balanced, with solids making up about 12.7% of the overall volume of their milk, and with fat and protein taking up 3.7% and 3.4%, respectively. The consistency of their milk, combined with the sheer volume that they can produce throughout the year, makes cows the animal of choice for most cheesemakers looking to produce cheese on a larger scale year-round.

Sheep, on the other hand, represent the opposite extreme. Their milk is far and away the the richest in solids, with proteins, fats and other solids making up 19.3% of the overall volume of the milk (with a whopping 7.4% being pure fat). This translates to a much higher cheese yield from the milk, meaning that, say, 10 gallons of sheep’s milk will make more cheese than 10 gallons of cow’s milk.

While this might make the humble sheep sound like quite the efficient cheese machine, a ewe will produce far less milk per milking that a cow or a goat. In fact, over their entire lactation cycle (meaning the amount of days per year that the animal is producing milk), a sheep will only give about 12% of the milk that a cow would over the same amount of time. This, combined with the fact that, like goats, sheep are seasonal breeders and can only be milked for about 180 days per year, means that a sheep produces a comparatively tiny amount of milk. And while the milk that they do produce makes quite a bit of cheese, a farmer raising sheep will still end up with only a fraction of the cheese yield at the end of the day than they would if they were milking cows.

Right in the middle of the road we find our friends the goats. Goats’ milk is very similar in composition to cow’s milk, with 12.4% overall solids and comparable amounts of fats and proteins. However, like sheep, goats are also finicky seasonal breeders and only produce milk for about 8 months out of the year. During those 8 months, goats produce quite a bit more milk than sheep do per milking, meaning the overall volume of milk produced during their lactation cycle will be more than a sheep but less than a cow.

With all of these differences in mind, there is of course the questions of just why cheese made from each species milk taste different from one another. While the base ingredients are all the same (protein, fat, minerals), the makeup of each of these components varies greatly between types of animals. For instance, sheep’s milk contains fat globules that are massive compared to the size of the fats in goats milk. When cheese is made from sheep’s milk, this will lead to the fats dominating the flavor more, giving a stronger herbal, earthy and peppery flavor once these break down during aging.

Similarly, the chemical makeup of these elements (not just the size) can determine differences in flavor as well. Goat’s milk, for example, contains a higher proportion of a particular type of fatty acid in its fat globules that is quite volatile and breaks down very quickly and easily during aging. This leads to the distinctively “goaty” aroma that is so familiar in an aged goat cheese, and explains why that particular flavor can’t be found elsewhere.
Finally, even within species, the milk composition (and therefore the flavor of the cheese) can differ greatly between breeds. Holstein cows (the ubiquitous black and white cows that dot the highways of the USA) produce a relatively mild milk due to the balanced nature of the nutrients, while Jersey cows (a breed developed in the British Isles for buttermaking) produce a milk much higher in butterfat, making for a more aggressively and distinctively flavored cheese.

Crafting the Perfect Grilled Cheese… With Science!!

Right on the cusp of spring but still chilly, gray and rainy, it’s no wonder that April has the unique honor of being designated National Grilled Cheese Month!

While we of course celebrate year round, we thought that the occasion presented a perfect excuse to address one of the most common questions a cheesemonger gets: what’s the best cheese for a grilled cheese sandwich?

As with anything else, asking someone obsessed with something a question about that very thing will provoke a response way, way longer and more involved than the asker bargained for (or even wanted). Never ones to disappoint, we’ve decided to take a deep dive into what exactly it is that makes a cheese worthy of being melted between bread!!

What it all comes down to in the end is the chemical makeup of the cheese and how different cheesemaking techniques result in very different behavior in the final product. We thought the most useful way to go about explaining this would be to point out the differences between how a few common melting cheeses (cheddar, Swiss-style and mozzarella) are made and how their production process affects how they melt. Get ready for some serious curd-nerding!!

While cheddar is often thought of as the go-to cheese for most melting applications, its reputation is, in truth, somewhat unearned. Since the term “cheddar” is not in any way protected in the USA, just about any product that vaguely conforms to customer’s expectations of a typical “cheddar” flavor, texture and appearance can label itself as cheddar cheese. In absence of any regulation, a typical supermarket will stock a dizzying array of products all sporting the name “cheddar”, even though sometimes not a even single one of them is made according to the traditional process.

Having been produced differently, these cheeses are chemically different and, as a result, will behave differently in the presence of heat.

One of the things that separates a true cheddar from the herd is, apart from its make process, the pH levels at various stages in its life cycle and the effect this has on the cheese’s physical makeup. Cheese is made up of milk protein, aka casein, molecules that have stuck themselves together (forming curds) and pushed out moisture (whey), trapping fat and minerals in the process. These casein molecules are made up of small protein particles held together by calcium phosphate, which acts as a sort of glue. This “glue” dissolves in the presence of acid, weakening the structure of the casein and, as a result, the structure of the cheese overall.

When traditional cheddar cheese is made, the milk is left to a reach a medium-low pH before the curds are formed, creating a higher-acid environment that eats away at the calcium glue holding the protein structures together. Additional acid is produced in the cheese during aging and storage, and by the time it’s ready to eat a well-aged cheddar will have lost much of its resilience. Since the structure of the cheese has been weakened, it will tend to collapse when heat is applied, separating from the fats and resulting in a gritty, oily texture. (Side note: this is true when talking about traditional, English-style aged cheddars. If you’re looking for melty cheddar goodness, a younger, higher-moisture cheddar will serve your needs perfectly!!)

By contrast, alpine-style cheeses such as Emmental or Gruyere (or domestic favorites like Alpha Tolman and Reading Raclette), which have a lower-acid environment during their make process, will melt more smoothly and evenly. The higher pH ensures that less calcium is dissolved, making for stronger protein bonds, which in turn protects the structure of the cheese and keep other solids like fats and minerals trapped snugly within the curds even when heat is applied. This leads to the coveted silky, ropey texture we’ve come to look for in dishes like raclette and fondue.  

Apart from the chemical processes at play, the physical handling of curds in alpine cheeses also contribute to their superior meltability. Whereas in cheddar making the curds are separated from their whey, pressed into blocks which are then stacked onto each other, then run through a mill to break them up, curds destined to become Comte or Appenzeller receive a more delicate treatment. The curds are left in the vat with their whey, where they are gently cooked and cut down into pieces no bigger than a grain of rice. Then, either by hand in the vat or via mechanical pump, the curds are pressed together and formed without ever having the whey drained off in a process referred to as “pressing under the whey”. This enables the curds to knit together without ever being exposed to air, eliminating cracks, fissures and pockets in the cheese. The result is an extremely smooth, “closed” texture and a low “friability” (aka ability to be crumbled) factor in the final cheese, which helps it hold together tightly during melting.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is of course what may very well be the world’s most famous melter: mozzarella. And though it’s notoriety comes most often from its role atop pizzas, to dismiss it as a grilled cheese ingredient would be a big mistake.

Mozzarella is part of a family of cheeses known as “stretched curd” or pasta filata. This style of cheese is named for the fact that the curd, immediately after forming, is cut and then kneaded by hand like dough. The cheesemaker repeatedly stretches the freshly formed cheese, folding it over onto itself before each pull. Much like layers in croissant dough or puff pastry, this process creates thin layers of protein, which are stacked on one another over and over again throughout the kneading, reinforcing one another. The result is the familiar bouncy, stretchy and snappy texture that makes melted mozzarella so universally beloved.

So, with all this in mind, our original question still stands: what type of cheese makes for the best grilled cheese?!

Given that each type brings something different to the table, our professional opinion as cheesemongers and disciples of hot cheese is that the best route to go is a blend. We recommend playing with proportions to meet your individual tastes and needs, but a typical winning combination should go something like this: a good cheddar for acidity and salt, an alpine style for sweetness and body, and a fresh or pasta filata cheese as a binding agent.

As always, the preference of the person doing the grilling is the most important factor in crafting the perfect grilled cheese. But, armed with a little science, we hope you’ll experiment often and freely!