Cutting the Curd

Mike Cook

Cheese can be expensive, but if you're anything like me, it's also indispensable. You can't make pizza without it; it's a crucial part of sandwiches, a vital component of gratins, and a delicious snack on its own. So other than switching to Cheez Whiz, what's a recession-conscious eater to do?

One option is to make your own. This spring I took a class on cheese making at the Baltimore Culinary Institute. Hopefully once they get their accreditation struggles straightened out they'll begin offering these classes again, because it was excellent.

Cheese making, like baking, is a matter of chemical formulas, not artistic flair. Seriously, though, it seemed more like magic. The class split up and tried a variety of recipes, each different in seemingly inscrutable ways. Some of the milk was to be heated to 180 degrees for four minutes, some to 150 degrees and immediately removed from the heat. Some added vinegar, some lemon juice, some citric acid, all in precise amounts.

Suddenly, the milk curdles. You pour the mixture through cheese cloth and you get a bundle of what is, basically, cheese. You don't get much. (This might be one clue to why cheese is pricier than other snacks. Milk itself is costly, and cheese making requires a lot of milk.)

For a paneer or ricotta, you're essentially done. That's cheese. The tastiest of cheeses, though, involve cultures and aging or smoking, and though I may someday try to make a smoked mozzarella, most cheeses are out of the range of the average maker.

And this is why most of us buy our cheese. Where you buy cheese really changes how much you spend. I like to use Dubliner cheese as my metric, since it's a good quality Irish cheddar that can be found at the same size at most stores. At the Shoppers near me its $4.99, at Whole Foods, $2.84. Whoever thought going to Whole Foods would be cheaper?

Surprisingly, it is for a lot of cheese. Asiago prices are only a dollar or so better per pound than at Shoppers, but Gruyere at Shoppers is just over $20 a pound while Whole Foods was selling it for only $10.99 a pound! I didn't understand how this could be, so I asked the girl at Whole Foods. She wasn't sure herself, but said that Whole Foods has good relationships with distributors and even with the creameries themselves. Cowgirl Creamery (whose Red Hawk is one of my favorites), for instance, makes cheeses specifically for Whole Foods.

Of course, Whole Foods does carry some very, very expensive cheeses, but some cheeses just cost more. There are a lot of great places for gourmet cheese in town nowadays. What's your favorite?

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