How to Pair Cheese According to an Expert Cheesemonger
“I look at the process of pairing as a culinary adventure.”
Cheese is already good on its own, but what if there was a way to make it better? Enter cheese pairing—the process of partnering different cheeses with jams, nuts, fruit, meats, or anything else you can think of that might improve the experience of eating cheese or coax out new, unimaginable flavors.
“The best-case scenario is when a flavor combination of a pairing far exceeds the flavors of the individual elements,” Greselda Powell, head cheesemonger at New York City’s Murray’s Cheese, explains. “Think of it as one plus one equals ten! Not only is the flavor of the pairing totally different than the components but it also has a taste that is both amazing and unexpected.” Powell provides an example, saying that the combination of Red Rock cheese with kimchi was reminiscent of a Coney Island Nathan’s hot dog.
With a title like head cheesemonger, and over ten years of cheese-tasting experience, it may seem like an intimidating challenge to get to Powell’s level of cheese expertise. The good news is that, according to Powell, all cheese-pairing is subjective. “The flavor combination either appeals to the individual or not,” Powell says. “I used to get overwhelmed with pairing because I felt I failed when I did not have the ‘perfect pairing.’ I realized over time that searching for the ‘perfect pairing’ is getting away from the joy of cheese and having fun and placing too much pressure on myself. Life is too short for that.”
If you want to try your hand at cheese pairing, Powell has a few guiding principles that may help—but again, experimentation is all part of the fun.
Guiding Principles to Cheese Pairing
What grows together goes together
“Pair items from the same geographic region since they share the same terroir. Chances are that they will pair well together,” Powell says. A couple examples of this that Powell provides includes aged Manchego with jamona serrano from Spain, or parmigiano reggiano with prosciutto di Parma from Parma, Italy. You can consider the fruits, nuts, and even beverages from the region you’re sourcing your cheese from.
“The key concept is ‘contrast’,” Powell explains. “Not just contrast in flavor but also texture. Varying flavors and textures provide for a more interesting pairing experience because one is engaging multiple senses.” For this, think about soft cheeses paired with crunchy crackers, chips, nuts, and cornichons—or hard cheeses with spreadable jams and quince.
Like with like
This concept seems a bit confusing next to opposites attract, but it’s about finding a unifying flavor note. “Pair a cheese with an accompaniment that shares the same flavor notes. For example: Idiazabal is a Spanish, aged sheep’s milk cheese with smokey and nutty flavor notes. Pair this with a smokey meat like bacon or a smokey salami.” When pairing flavor notes, Powell says to be cognizant of pairing strong flavors with delicate ones—as you don’t want to overwhelm any single component.
What to Pair with Your Favorite Cheeses
And now that we know some of Powell’s loose rules, it’s time for pairing. Again, everyone’s palates vary and pairing cheese is completely subjective—so try some of Powell’s suggestions out and find your favorite matches.
“When I think of cheddar I go back to my childhood memories of flavors I loved with cheddar,” Powell says. “One of my favorites is cheddar on apple pie.” For this pairing, try apple butter with cheddar atop an Effie’s oatcake, which Powell says is like a subtly sweet shortbread cookie.
“‘Blue’ represents a whole family of cheeses. Even though the basic commonality is blue mold, the difference in flavor and texture varies extensively from a slight salty cream flavor to an intense, peppery bite,” Powell explains. To counterbalance all the funky notes, Powell recommends opting for sweetness. A drizzle of honey and a glass of sweet wine or sherry should pair beautifully.
Because Gruyère is generally a very nutty cheese, Powell suggests following her ‘like with like’ principle and pairing the cheese with nuts. “I prefer using candied or chocolate covered nuts, such as candied walnuts or chocolate covered almonds, which can give you layers of flavors and textures in the same bite.”
Similarly to blue, there are a lot of brie and brie-style cheeses to choose from that vary in texture and flavor—but for the most part, popular American brie flavors lean towards buttery. “A buttery flavor profile allows for a versatility of pairings,” Powell says. “One can pair a buttery brie with the traditional fruits jams and honeys. However, I like to go a bit unconventional—I think about pairing items that taste good with butter, such as roasted vegetables.”
Goat cheese can be made in a myriad of styles, including goat gouda. Because there are so many options—like punchy herb-infused chevre or Powell’s favorite, a citrusy coupole from Vermont’s creamery—Powell encourages pairing goat cheese with a combination of ingredients like maple syrup, pistachios, and pickled beets. “[This] allows you to really experience different flavor combinations based on the same base cheese.
One of Powell’s favorite types of gouda is called Roomano, a hard cow’s milk gouda that has sweet, nutty, and butterscotch notes. “The texture is hard with a bit of crystallization from the aging,” Powell explains. “One of my all-time favorite pairings is Roomano with chocolate covered almonds. It reminds me of a Butterfinger candy bar.”
You’ve had it on your pizzas, in your lasagna, and deep fried in a stick. Mozzarella, though stretchy, melty, and delicious, is also very delicate and milky in flavor. Because of this, Powell thinks its partner should be just as subtle: very good olive oil, crusty bread, and salt and pepper will pair perfectly. “Also, since mozzarella is a traditional Italian cheese, it lends itself to flavors found in Italian food such as roasted tomatoes, basil, and parmesan,” Powell adds.
“When speaking of parmesan, I think of Parmigiano-Reggiano. There is a difference between parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano; by Italian and EU laws, any cheese called Parmigiano-Reggiano must comply to specific standards and requirements, [including] only being made in specific region of Italy,” Powell says. You can find both Parmigiano-Reggiano and parmesan, an imitation of the real stuff, at your grocery store. With either, Powell recommends her rule of pairing what grows together—so Italian prosciutto is a perfect match.
Start Your Own Cheese Adventure
Now that you’ve learned some guiding principles of cheese pairing, and what might suit your personal favorite cheeses, it’s time to head to the grocery store for an assortment of ingredients and begin your cheese pairing journey. “I look at the process of pairing as a culinary adventure,” Powell says. “There are times when I discover amazing pairings and there are times when I totally strike out. But isn’t that life? It is about the journey, not the destination. It is about the experience of trying each combination, learning from that pairing, and using that knowledge in the future to provide you direction with another cheese.”