Punchy and crumbly, astringent and flaky, or tangy and creamy as a block of butter, blue cheese can be many things, but it's rarely subtle. That said, if you eat and enjoy cheese — and/or wine, beer, sourdough bread and other fermented offerings — there's probably a blue out there for you.
"I meet a lot of people who stumbled into blue cheese as adults, and they just think it all tastes like feet," says Agela Abdullah of the Cheese Culture Coalition with a laugh. "They probably had something like Roquefort, or something really strong, and after one taste they don't think they like blue cheese." Abdullah encourages the curious, especially those who appreciate aged or mature cheddars and Parmesans, to give blue cheese another chance.
What is blue cheese?
Produced in almost every cheesemaking country across the globe, blue cheese gets its namesake color and signature flavor from one of two types of mold: Penicillium roqueforti or Penicillium glaucum.
All blue cheeses are made the same way as other cheeses. Cow, sheep, goat or nondairy milk is heated, and cultures — including Penicillium roqueforti or glaucum — and rennet are added. The whey is drained off, and the curds are formed into wheels or other shapes. They may be pressed into molds, wrapped or left exposed to the air.
Crucially for most traditional blue cheese, makers use long needles to pierce each round or block. This allows oxygen to circulate inside, which the mold spores need to grow. Then, the cheese is allowed to age. Where it ages, at what temperature and humidity and for how long, help determine its final flavors and textures.
For blues that are pierced, the mold spores turn into blue or green veins that spread throughout the interior of the cheese.
For other blue cheeses, the mold isn't introduced during the heating process. Rather, these cheeses are rubbed with roqueforti or glaucum. They aren't pierced, so there's no veining. This results in a much milder finished cheese.
Traditional, pierced blue cheeses can also be milder if they have only a few blue streaks. Stronger blues will have many blue or greenish veins throughout and are more likely to have a tan or tawny tint and very strong smell. Most of the time, the stinkier the cheese, the stronger its flavor. Still, taste is subjective. What might seem strong to you might taste subtle to someone else, so the best way to get a sense for what you might like is to try it — ideally, before you buy it.
How to choose
"You can look at books or online, but the best way to find something you'll like is to talk to a cheesemonger," says Alexandra Jones, author of "Stuff Every Cheese Lover Should Know" and a former cheesemonger. "They're more than happy to let you taste it before you commit to a full wedge. But not everyone has access to a dedicated cheese shop, so you can also seek out farmers market stands and talk directly to the makers."
Jessica Fernández, a cheesemonger at Lactography in Mexico City and director of the Mexican Institute for Cheese, freely admits that she "doesn't like all blue cheeses — taste is very personal and also a cultural expression." Not everyone is going to like the flavor of everything, and that's fine. But if you think all blue cheese smells bad, you haven't given it a fair shake. "People tend to think of blue cheese as something that exists unilaterally, when it has many expressions," Fernández explains.
Abdullah recalls conversations with customers that always started with them pinching their noses and complaining, "'I don't like blue cheese, it's too stinky,' and I would say, 'Oh, we're not talking about the same thing!' There are so many types of blue cheese. . . . Some are creamy, some are nutty, some are sweet, some are funky."
Because of their history, large production and popularity, European blue cheeses can be easier to find in supermarkets than those made in the United States. Still, it's worth seeking out blues produced near you. Check your local farmers market stands and ask your grocer for locally made blue cheese. Here are some of the more common blue cheeses sold in the United States, along with descriptions of each, roughly divided between those that tend to taste mild and those with strong flavors.
On the milder side
FireFly Farms MountainTop Bleu (Maryland): Creamy on the inside and flaky on the exterior, this goat's milk cheese pyramid gets a thin coating of blue mold halfway through its four-week aging period, giving it a very mild tang that lets the grassy flavors of the goat's milk shine through.
Cambozola (Germany): As its name — a portmanteau of Camembert and Gorgonzola — suggests, this uber-creamy cheese with a fuzzy, bloomy rind features only a few blue veins, making it one of the mildest cow's-milk blue cheeses on the market. Aged for only eight to 12 weeks, it's sometimes marketed as blue brie.
Jasper Hill Farm's Bayley Hazen Blue (Vermont): Made from raw cow's milk in Vermont, this blue has a dense, creamy texture and nutty, almost grassy, flavors. It's aged for around 15 weeks.
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.'s Original Blue (California): This raw cow's milk cheese from the coast of Northern California is known for its milky white base, blue-green veining, creamy texture and somewhat stronger flavors — despite a relatively short, 14-week aging.
Also try: Rafael Baez's Monte Enebro (Spain), Lively Run Goat Dairy's Cayuga Blue (New York), Cashel Farmhouse Cheesemakers' Cashel Blue (Ireland), Cabrales (Spain), Obere Mühle Cooperative Dairy's Chiriboga Blue (Germany) and Danablu (also known as Danish Blue) (Denmark).
On the stronger side
Deer Creek Cheese's the Blue Jay (Wisconsin): Crumbly but not dry, this exceptionally buttery blue is made from local Wisconsin cow's milk and cream that gets infused with crushed juniper berries, giving it a lightly piney scent. It picks up some stronger flavors when it's aged for 12 to 16 weeks.
Rogue Creamery Rogue River Blue (Oregon): Though it's aged for nine to 12 months at one of Oregon's best-known creameries, this fudgy cheese's flavors are not shockingly sharp. Before aging, each wheel is wrapped in Syrah grape leaves that have been soaked in pear spirits, lending the cheese a touch of sweetness.
Roquefort (France): Largely because it's made from sheep's milk, this French cheese — aged for 12 to 20 weeks — is one of the funkiest on the market. The original and the most assertive of all blue cheeses, some types of Roquefort can be mild, but it is generally known for its deep, briny, pervasive funk.
Also try: Fourme d'Ambert (France), Saint Agur (France), Maytag Dairy Farms' Maytag Blue (Iowa), Hook's Blue (Wisconsin), Stilton (United Kingdom), Neal's Yard Dairy's Stichelton (United Kingdom), Bleu des Causses (France), Gorgonzola Dolce (Italy) and Gorgonzola Piccante (Italy).
A note on cost
Unless there's a sale, you'll probably never find wedges of blue cheese priced similarly to bricks of colby jack or squares of American. The creation of blue cheese is a very labor-intensive process, and it's often done entirely by hand. This is reflected in its price. Fortunately, especially if you seek out a dedicated cheese shop or large grocer with an in-store cheesemonger, you can purchase small amounts of cheese, priced per pound.
How to store it
Stored carefully and appropriately, blue cheese should last a few weeks in your refrigerator. Store it in the coolest, driest part — some experts recommended the crisper — and keep it well wrapped in the cheese paper it came in, if possible. "That paper will keep it fresh longer, and if it was wrapped properly, it will be easy to rewrap," Jones says.
Cheeses are often wrapped in plastic wrap for display purposes. If when you purchased it, the blue cheese was wrapped in plastic wrap, you may want to rewrap it in parchment — which is porous — and then loosely in aluminum foil or beeswax wrap, because blue cheese needs to breathe. "Anything to promote air circulation," says Jones. If it's stored while wrapped airtight, it will spoil faster. Moisture will build up inside the packaging, and the cheese will turn a yellowish color or produce yellowish mold, and it will start to smell putrid.
Blue cheese should also be stored away from other cheeses, because its blue mold has a tendency to travel. If you store a blue cheese with other cheeses, after a day or so, they'll turn blue, too. Nancy Pasquariello, a cheesemonger at Greenwich Cheese Company in Cos Cob, Conn., has a clever tip for this. "At home, I use a Tupperware sandwich container — which lets just enough air circulate without allowing the blue spores to spread to other cheeses — as a mini home cheese cave for my blue cheeses, which I store in the crisper," she says.
How to serve it
Blue cheese is distinctive and complex enough to be eaten on its own. On a cheeseboard, blue is usually positioned as the strongest selection, opposite the mildest cheeses, like fresh chevre and buttery bries. But there are many exceptions. Blue cheeses with stronger flavors tend to go well with a bite of something sweet: slices of fresh pear or apple, a handful of grapes, dried figs or honey. Milder blues, or those with woodsy or herbal flavors, taste nice with fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, walnuts, hazelnuts, mustard, olives or roasted mushrooms.
Famously, in James Joyce's "Ulysses," Leopold Bloom has a glass of wine and a Gorgonzola and mustard sandwich, cut into strips, for lunch: "Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate."
Indeed, wine is a common accompaniment. "Port, which tends to be sweet and rich, is a superclassic pairing," says Jones, "but even a dry riesling, or medium-bodied to bigger reds, barley wine, stouts, whisky and, surprisingly, pumpkin beer are great."
If you're looking for something crumbly, for a salad or blue cheese dressing, consider Cashel, a Danish blue, Maytag, Rogue Creamery's signature blue or Roquefort.
For a creamy, meltable blue, for burgers or pasta or stirred into a soup, try Cambozola, Fourme d'Ambert, Stilton or Gorgonzola Dolce.
Finally, if you've tried a few or more and found that blue cheeses are not for you, stick with what you know and love. "There's a whole universe of cheese out there," Jones says. "If you love blue cheese — great! Try them all. But if you're just not into blue, that's okay, too."