5 Tips for Navigating the Cheese Counter

We’re all about giving you all the info you need on how to eat cheese: how to pair it with your favorite drinks, how to style it into a gorgeous board, even how to make it from scratch. But first, you have to get your hands on some tasty wedges, whether at the cheese section of your local supermarket, at the counter of a specialty cheese shop, or online

The next time you’re ready to stock up on artisan cheese for a party, a tasting session with friends, or simple snacking, follow these steps to get the most out of your dairy dollar. Here are some of our favorite tips for how to buy cheese. 

Think about past favorites before you head to the store. 

close up of different cheese rinds

Before you shop, it’s a good idea to think about what you want—and a great way to do this is to keep a running list of favorite cheeses you’ve tried. Maybe you tasted a particularly luscious bloomy rind at a friend’s party, enjoyed an aged Gouda at a beer and cheese tasting, or tried burrata stuffed with creamy stracciatella at a restaurant.

Having a few standout cheeses in mind will make it easier to zero in on other cheeses you’re likely to enjoy. If you’re shopping for pre-cut cheeses at a supermarket like Trader Joe’s, the cheese styles will be merchandised together—the bloomies with the bloomies, the Goudas with the Goudas, and so on. You’ll be more likely to enjoy a cheese from a family you already know you like.

The same holds true if you’re shopping from a cut-to-order cheese counter. A good monger will ask you about your likes and dislikes, and they can use those past favorites to steer you to similar varieties you’ll love. And if you prefer to shop our online cheese shop, you can easily filter by the styles you like to find new favorites. 

Get familiar with different cheese styles so you’re not buying blind. 

large selection of different american artisan cheeses

The best way to understand the range of flavors, textures, and aromas that define different cheese families is to try as many cheeses in each style as possible. That’s the work of a lifetime, but you need cheese knowledge now. 

No worries! Here’s a quick cheat sheet with descriptors for some of the most common styles to get you up to speed. 

    • Fresh cheeses: Light and spreadable with milky, tangy flavors. 
      • Bloomy cheeses: Soft and creamy with buttery, mushroomy, and/or brothy flavors. 
        • Washed rinds: Supple and semi-soft, with a pungent aroma and buttery or meaty flavors. 
          • Alpines: Firm and smooth, with nutty, fruity, toasty, and/or meaty flavors. 
            • Goudas: Sliceable and semi-firm when young and hard and crystalline when aged, with flavors ranging from mild and milky to deeply caramelized and nutty.
              • Cheddars: Semi-firm to hard and crumbly, with savory, pleasantly sharp bite when aged for long periods. 

                Don’t be afraid to ask questions (or request a sample) at the cheese counter. 

                buying cheese at a cheese counter

                If you’re lucky enough to live near a grocery store—or, even better, a dedicated cheese shop—with a staffed cheese counter, you’ve got one of the best resources a cheese-curious shopper could ask for. The person behind that counter is there to connect you with cheeses you’ll love. 

                The cheesemonger might seem intimidating at first, but they’re there to help you find solutions to your cheese queries. Don’t be shy about asking for guidance or advice. Tell them the kinds of cheese you like, along with any other criteria you might have (maybe you’d like to pair the cheese with a certain wine, for example). If sampling is offered at that store, you can even taste through the options to ensure you’ll love the cheese you buy. 

                Pick some stellar accompaniments. 

                cheese gift box

                Cheese shopping can be confusing enough, but unless you’re prepping a minimalist cheese board, you’ll need to pick out some other goodies to serve along with it. Pickles, olives, honey, bread, crackers, veggies, fruit (fresh, dried, and/or preserved), nuts, cured meats—not to mention more contemporary pairings like potato chips and candy bars. It’s a lot to process!

                The funny thing about cheese pairings is that they’re inherently subjective: the best cheese pairing is the one you like. But there are a few useful guidelines to keep in mind. 

                One is to match a cheese with accompaniments of similar intensities. For example, a bright, crisp white wine with a mild, citrusy goat’s milk bloomy. If you match that same cheese with a brash, bold red, you’ll drown out its flavor. 

                Another is to choose either complementary or contrasting flavors and textures to serve with a given cheese. A complementary pairing could mean serving sweet, crunchy toffee or nut brittle with similarly caramel-y, crystalline two-year Gouda. 

                A contrasting pairing, on the other hand, could be salty blue cheese paired with sweet, malty pumpkin beer. This works with texture, too—those crunchy potato chips would be amazing dipped in a gooey, liquefied round of bark-wrapped bloomy cheese. 

                It’s a good idea to choose a nice mix of colors and food groups for your accompaniments, too. In addition to highlighting the delicious textures and flavors of each cheese, creating a beautiful spread with a variety of foods is a great way to turn a cheese board into a balanced meal.

                Need more pairing tips? Check out our guides to pairing cheese with wine (red, white, rosé, and sparkling), beer, gin, whiskey, amaro, jam, honey, sweets, and chocolate.

                Take notes on your favorite styles—and bring them on your next cheese shopping trip. 

                recording the flavor and aroma of camembert

                Once you bring home your cheese haul, it’s important to keep track of what you’ve purchased and take notes as, or shortly after, you eat your cheese. (Pro tip: Don’t forget to take your cheese out of the fridge an hour before eating to let it come up to room temperature!). 

                One way to track cheeses is to take notes, either in a dedicated notebook or in a file on your phone for easy access. Some people take a picture of each cheese label so they can easily reference varieties they’ve purchased in the past with their cheesemonger.  

                However you do it, note the name of the cheese, the maker, where you bought it, and any other salient info—milk type, country of origin, style—as well as tasting notes, your impressions of a cheese’s flavor and texture. Keeping a record of your cheese adventures will help you make your next shopping trip even easier while reinforcing your own knowledge in the process. 


                Now you’re ready to shop! What are your favorite cheese buying tips? Tag us @cheesegrotto on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter and let us know! 

                Alexandra Jones is a writer, cheesemonger, and food educator who has been working with farmers and artisans in Pennsylvania for the past eight years. She has written for publications like Food & Wine, USA Today, The Counter, Civil Eats, Thrillist, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and is one-third of the team behind Collective Creamery, a women-powered artisan cheese subscription based in southeast Pennsylvania. Alexandra leads cheese tastings and teaches cheesemaking classes in and around Philadelphia, and we are honored to have her on our team.

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