Gooey. Salty. Creamy. Fruity. Buttery. Floral. Smoky. Nutty. These are but a few of the delicious adjectives one could use to describe the possible flavors of every red-blooded American’s favorite food group: cheese. Yeah, OK, we know it’s not an actual food group. But we’re so addicted it may as well be, and that can be a problem because cheese is unhealthy, right? Well, actually, cheese can easily fit into a healthy diet despite its reputation as an artery-clogger and a sodium slab.
Cheese does have health benefits. It can have calcium, protein and sometimes other beneficial nutrients. Some of it is fortified with vitamin D and pairs well, nutritionally speaking, with necessary nutrients that also happen to be fat-soluble to aid in absorption. In fact, in moderation, cheese might even be good for your heart.
But that’s still not an excuse to go overboard, cha-cha. The keys to responsible cheese consumption are moderation and a few tips and tricks that’ll maximize the gooey, salty, creamy, fruity, buttery, floral, nutty cheese-tasticness of your food without compromising your healthy-eating lifestyle.
Check the Nutrition Label
“But why?” you ask, “I already know it’s fattening!” Ah, but it’s not all about the fat and calories. Neither fat nor calories are inherently bad (you actually need both). While it doesn’t hurt to check those lines so you know what you’re getting yourself into, you’re also looking for other nutrients. You might think of cheese as a source of calcium, and most of it is. But some may have other necessary nutrients.
Cottage cheese, for example, is jam-packed with casein, a type of protein that helps build muscle tissue, making it a great cheese for workout buffs. Weightlifters even buy casein in powder form, which is probably overkill for most of us, but a serving of cottage cheese with some pineapple or on top of a salad (or even in your lasagna) isn’t a bad idea. As an added bonus, casein is also good for your teeth.
Being a label lookie-loo can also save you from making some common mistakes. Contrary to popular belief, American Neufchâtel is not better for you than one-third-less-fat cream cheese. The low-fat cream cheese has less fat and more vitamins than its French-aberration counterpart.
When you’re checking that label, remember you can control the fat by not eating three servings’ worth at a time. If a cheese has a good amount of something else you know you need, stock up.
Get a Scale—and Use It
You’ve heard it a hundred times, but it bears mentioning. When it comes to ingredients you’re supposed to consume in moderation, don’t eyeball it! A serving of cheese is 1-1/2 to 2 ounces depending on the type of cheese. We tend to overestimate how much that is when we try to guess (our tummies are master manipulators when we’re hungry or craving).
Let Your Cheese Get to Room Temperature
Any cheesemaker or monger will tell you cheese is meant to be enjoyed at room temperature, not cold from the fridge. That’s when cheese is at its most flavorful. You can use this culinary nugget to your advantage. If you let your cheese come to room temperature before you eat it, it’ll pack more of a punch and you won’t have to use as much. Plus, you’ll feel like a fancy pants-type like you’re freakin’ Rihanna or something. Shine bright like a diamond, cheese lover!
Pick Naturally Lower-Fat Cheeses
Some varieties of cheese are naturally lower in fat. Examples include Swiss, mozzarella, Parmesan, feta and goat cheese, though there are many more. Try using Swiss or mozz on your burger instead of cheddar. They melt better anyway. If you find yourself missing the sharpness of cheddar, try sprinkling on a little dill or using a little mustard.
Just make sure you look at the label if you’re focusing on fat. There’s no way to tell by looking. While some creamier cheeses are more fattening than hard, crumbly cheeses, others, like Camembert and Brie, are lower in fat. Likewise, the cheese’s color makes no difference. All cheeses start out white, off-white or lightly golden-ish (think muenster). “Yellow” cheeses like cheddar and Colby are dyed yellow using annatto seed. They’re no different in flavor or nutrition than a white version from the same batch.
Try Raw Cheese
In the U.S., raw cheese must be aged a minimum of 60 days and be clearly marked. This is because eating unaged raw cheese increases your risk of getting sick from things like E .coli. But raw cheese also might have health benefits. They may be higher in vitamins and minerals, be easier for lactose-intolerant people to digest and contain gut-friendly bacteria (which may reduce the risk of certain infections in non-immunocompromised people).
There are cheeses like feta and blue cheese and even extra-sharp cheddar that are so flavorful, you don’t actually need that much. Brands and sources matter too. Real French Neufchâtel isn’t much like its idiot American cousin (actually, I like American Neufchâtel, but that’s what I imagine the French think). It’s more fattening, but it’s also higher in flavor, so you can use less.
You can also try flavored cheeses, like dill-packed Havarti, pepper jack, flavored feta (like sun-dried tomato) and smoked cheeses. If your supermarket doesn’t carry these, you can even hack some of them. Try using less Havarti and sprinkling it with dill. Add less Monterey Jack and spike it with peppers instead. Or here’s an idea: Buy a smoker ($189.99 at Amazon) with a cold-smoking attachment ($55.04 at Amazon) and smoke your own cheeses. Sure, it’s an investment to get into it initially, but you can choose your own flavors (applewood, hickory, mesquite, pecan, etc.), plus, you can smoke your own meats and more.
Buy the Good Stuff
Buying yourself new and interesting cheeses, especially from a real cheesemonger instead of the supermarket, might be expensive, but you’ll be more likely to save and savor them, so you’ll eat less. Look for things like Irish Cashel blue, try manchego or invest in 10-year-aged cheddar.
Look for Part-Skim or Reduced-Fat Varieties
By now, we all know the myth that saturated fat contributes to serious health problems was greatly exaggerated. That said, if you’ve already gone a little nuts on the fatty foods today or if you’re planning to let yourself indulge later, opt for part-skim varieties, sometimes marketed as reduced-fat (check the ingredients to see if they’re made with part-skim cheese). They’re not quite as flavorful and they don’t melt quite as well, but they’re a reasonable substitute in many cases, especially if you use them in dishes that have a lot of flavor from herbs, spices or sauces. Just don’t add more cheese to make up for the flavor or because you feel like you can or you may as well use the full-fat version the same way you always do.
We don’t recommend nonfat just because the flavor profile is so low (and its melting ability is just slightly better than that of cardboard), and it’s unlikely to satisfy your craving, so you may as well go cheese-free IOHO, but you do you. Experiment with different brands too. Some are more flavorful than others.
* Fun fact: The reason it’s called “skim” is because back in the day, farmers would skim the cream off the milk and use that to make the cheese they sold to the wealthy. Then what was left over, the skimmed milk, was what they used to make their own cheese, which had a lower butterfat content—but it wouldn’t have brought in much money either. My, how the times have changed.
Sprinkle, Don’t Slice
When making burgers and sandwiches, you’ll use less cheese if you use shredded cheese instead of a slice.
Buy Block Cheese
Pre-shredded cheese is tossed with some kind of starch (like cornstarch) to prevent it from sticking. If you like your cheese super-melty, that’s going to cause a bit of an issue that might tempt you to use more than you really need… all over a little starch! But that’s not even the best reason to buy the block.
If you need it shredded, you have to put in the work. Either you get out your grater and put a little elbow grease in or you pull out the food processor and have to clean it afterward. Either way, that cheese becomes a much more precious commodity.
If you need slices, it’s hard to beat those presliced wonders, but you totally can. Just buy a deli slicer ($147 at Amazon) and you can slice them thinner than they come in the pack. Plus, you can use said slicer on meats, veggies and fruits for perfectly custom thin (or thick) slices each and every time. That said, if breaking out the slicer is a bit too much for you, Sargento now makes ultra-thin slices in some varieties in lieu of skimping on the butterfat (i.e., flavor).
Hack Your Cheese Topping with Breadcrumbs
It’s hard to beat a bubbly, brown, cheesy topping on your casseroles, but those very casseroles often call for a ton of cheese, not just in the casserole, but on top. For a lighter crust, use a fraction of a finely grated cheese with some breadcrumbs. You can use the cheese the recipe calls for grated on the finest grate (or even a microplane) or you can sub in grated Parm (which is a lower-fat cheese than most). Mix 1/4 cup of the finely grated cheese with 1/2 cup of panko or regular breadcrumbs (and herbs and spices if you want) and 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil or other heart-healthy fat and sprinkle that on instead. It may not be gooey like a melty layer of provolone, but the crunch is satisfying enough to make up for it.
Cut Higher-Fat Cheeses with Something Else
If a recipe calls for a higher-fat cheese, go for a really flavorful brand and cut it with a lower-fat cheese like part-skim mozzarella. If it’s a recipe that calls for a serious amount of cheese, do a little web research to find a lower-fat version. Often, they contain cheese for the flavor, but they cut in other ingredients—not just other cheeses, but things that can give the illusion of creaminess, like fat-free evaporated milk and vegetable and fruit purées, and additional spices for added zing. Ellie Krieger’s four-cheese mac and cheese is deceptively decadent, made with just a bit of extra-sharp cheddar (which brings the flavor), even less Monterrey Jack for added meltiness and lower-fat cheeses like part-skim ricotta (only half a cup) and Parmesan. The secret weapons are the squash purée that makes up a majority of the sauce and mustard powder to support the cheddar’s flavor throughout the dish.