Just say cheese!

November 13 2014

From a slice of cheddar melted on a burger to some grated parmesan sprinkled over a plate of pasta, cheese is one of those foods that makes other foods better - and it's delicious on its own too. But could we be relying on the old favourites too much?

Many chefs think so and in recent years, the popularity of the lesser-known members of the fromage family has been on the rise.

At this year's Empire Cheese Show - Canada's oldest display of both Canadian and international cheeses - it was the speciality products that took centre stage.

Wendy Gibbons, treasurer for the event, told Intelligencer that the array of cheeses on show included well known varieties, such as ricotta and goat cheese, as well as items that people may be less familiar with - like brie and quark.

"Specialities have now surpassed the cheddar section. [They] are becoming very popular," she added.

Of course, that doesn't mean that cheddar is dwindling in any way. In fact, Brad Reid, president of the Central Ontario Cheese Maker Association, noted that number of entries in the cheddar competition was up from last year.

According to Technomic's MenuMonitor, cheddar is still the most popular cheese, featuring in 1,033 menu items. Restaurant Central reports that it's the most-used cheese on burgers and it's also a major element in most pizza and mac and cheese recipes.

Mozzarella is the second-most popular type of cheese. It's found in 733 menu items, while parmesan is number three with 559 mentions.

Opting for more unusual cheeses could help a menu stand out from the crowd - and that's just what many restaurants are doing. 

For example, The Works Gourmet Burger Bistro has eschewed cheddar for havarti on its Chicks Dig Bacon Burger. This Danish cheese has a mildly tart flavour and pairs well with the burger's deep-fried bacon-wrapped chicken breast. The dish also includes lettuce, tomato and an onion ring.

Brie is another top choice for inclusion on a burger - its low melting temperature and creamy texture can make for a decadent flavour. That's one of the reasons it was chosen for The Fabulous Las Vegas Burger at Toronto's Toma Burger. The sandwich also includes six ounces of Wagyu beef, truffle mayonnaise, caramelised onion, sprouts and flour de sel.

For pizza, asiago, havarti, feta and goats cheese are all ideal substitutions for the standard mozzarella, while mac and cheese can be dressed up with a variety of cheese flavours. 

Mac'n, a specialist macaroni and cheese restaurant in Toronto, combines white cheddar, pepper Monterey Jack and jalapeno havarti, then tops the pasta with extras like chicken, pad thai sauce, diced peanuts, bean sprouts, cilantro and green onions.

For anyone thinking of adding some new cheeses to a menu, it can help to know how to spot a good one.

"Regardless of what you're judging, there are basic criteria of what to look for in a cheese," said Evan Matte, who has been a judge at the Empire Cheese show for more than 40 years. These are texture, flavour and a cheese is not supposed to have any openness of bass holes.