Obsessed With Cheese
Laura Werlin is the country’s foremost expert on cheese. She’s written six cheese-centric books, including the James Beard award-winning All-American Cheese and Wine Book, is the president of the American Cheese Education Foundation and a teacher at The Cheese School of San Francisco. Laura explains why the U.S. is the most exciting cheesemaking country in the world, her idea of the ultimate grilled cheese and ways to jazz up your next cheese platter.
AndrewZimmern.com: How did you become such a cheese fanatic?
Laura Werlin: I’m not sure I became a cheese fanatic as much as that I was born one. I really mean that. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love cheese. In fact, a grilled cheese sandwich is my very first food memory (Cheerios are a close second).
AZ.com: You’ve written several books on cheese, including two dedicated to grilled cheese. How did you come up with so many cheesy recipes?
LW: Once I start thinking about new sandwiches to create, just about anything becomes my inspiration. It might be a jar of chutney I have in the fridge or something as unlikely as a nut butter in the pantry. Always, though, it’s the cheese that provides the starting point. The rest of the ingredients, including the bread, fall in line after that.
AZ.com: What’s your idea of the ultimate grilled cheese?
LW: The ultimate grilled cheese is one that has an extremely high “gooey” factor and yet has equal parts crunch. I achieve that by mixing cheese with butter and slathering that on the outside of the bread. The minute the sandwich hits the pan, the cheese on the exterior starts its transition from soft and pliable to brittle and crunchy. When the sandwich is done, the outside alone is super nutty and buttery (of course). Together with the stretchy cheese on the inside, the whole thing becomes a symphony of textures, and more, amazing flavors. The addition of a dollop or tomato jam, chutney and/or a slice or two of bacon never hurts either.
AZ.com: What are some tips for pairing cheese with wine?
LW: Pairing is, of course, subjective, but I’ve found that these guidelines nearly always hold true:
- First, pair most cheeses with white wine (not oaky ones, though)
- Second, pair sparkling wine with just about anything, particularly creamy cheeses, blue cheeses, and even some cheddars;
- Third, if you insist on drinking big red wines with cheese, then your best bet is usually an English-style cheddar. Montgomery’s cheddar from England is a great choice as is Beecher’s Flagship Reserve from Seattle and New York.
AZ.com: How has the American cheese industry evolved over the years?
LW: American cheese hasn’t evolved; it’s exploded. My first book on the subject came out in 2000, and at the time, there were fewer than 100 noteworthy cheesemakers. Now, who knows how many there are? All I can tell you is that some of the less likely cheesemaking regions such as the American south as well as places like Colorado and Utah are spawning cheesemakers like there’s no tomorrow. Best of all, the new cheeses that are being made are truly exceptional. To my way of thinking, America is unquestionably the most exciting cheesemaking country in the world right now.
AZ.com: Who are your favorite American cheesemakers?
LW: Oh wow. I don’t think I can answer that. For one, there are too many to mention. And two, I don’t want to offend anybody. I think of American cheesemakers as my children. I could never choose a favorite. Or if I could, I’d never admit it.
AZ.com: Any ideas for adding a touch of creativity to the average cheese platter?
LW: While the creativity is often in the offerings themselves, it’s also as much or more about how you serve the cheeses too. That is, plopping a bunch of cheeses on a board and calling it a cheese platter doesn’t cut it. Instead, remember that less is more. Choose just three cheeses or so and don’t crowd the board; give your cheeses some space. Also, it’s really fun to place the cheeses on un-dyed parchment or butcher paper and write the name of the cheeses directly on the paper. That way people know what they’re eating, and it looks great too.
As for what to choose, it’s always good to include a selection of cheeses with different textures as well as those made from different milks. For example, you could choose a soft goat’s milk cheese, a semi-hard sheep’s milk cheese, and a hard cow’s milk cheese. Another option is to choose a mild-flavored cheese, a medium (slightly more assertive) cheese, and a stronger cheese such as a blue cheese, again selecting different milk sources.
Always serve the cheeses at room temperature, and along with them, serve neutral baguette slices (not seeded or herbed), and maybe some grapes or fresh-cut apples. This may seem like a predictable cheese board, but that fruit is there as a palate cleanser, not because it makes the cheese taste better. If you want to get into flavor combos, then go for a little olive tapenade with soft goat cheeses, and maybe a little onion or fig jam (or both!) with blue cheeses. Chutney works great with cheddar, but it sure plays havoc with wine. In that case, go with beer!
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
LW: I have about 40 cheeses in my fridge right now, which is the norm for me. I kid you not. Why so many? Because somehow they end up showing up in my fridge faster than I can consume them. That’s not the case for the fresh cheeses, which I eat before they go bad, but those that are firmed and well-wrapped? They might be there for a few months. I constantly look at them for any signs of going over the hill (they’re shrinking away from their packaging, any miniscule hint of mold, etc.)
Otherwise, my refrigerator is completely full with condiments such as Italian mostarda, Asian food staples (soy sauce, oyster sauce, Sriracha, chili paste, etc.), jams galore, fresh herbs (right now I have mint and cilantro), lettuce (always lettuce), yogurt, cottage cheese, and three types of milk – whole milk, cream, and nonfat. Don’t forget, I’m a dairy girl first and foremost.
Laura Werlin is one of the country’s foremost authorities on cheese. She is a James Beard award-winning author of six books on the subject, is a sought-after speaker and spokesperson for consumer and trade organizations, and is a frequent television and radio guest.
An expert in cheese and wine pairing and in particular American artisan cheese, Werlin received the prestigious James Beard award for her book The All American Cheese and Wine Book. Her book, Laura Werlin’s Cheese Essentials, received a James Beard Award nomination. Her most recent book, Mac & Cheese, Please!focuses on one of America’s favorite comfort foods, while two of her other books,Grilled Cheese, Please!, and Great Grilled Cheese focus on the other. Her groundbreaking first book, The New American Cheese, published in 2000, set the stage for what is the American artisan cheese movement today.
Laura has been featured on numerous television and radio segments across the country including Fox & Friends, CNN, QVC, the Martha Stewart Show, the CBS Early Show as well as numerous local television and radio shows. In addition, she has been the subject of instructive yet fun cheese-related videos on the popular website chow.com. She also writes for national magazines including Food & Wine, Sunset, Everyday with Rachael Ray, Culture, Saveur and Cooking Light.
Werlin is known for her approachable yet authoritative teaching style and is frequently asked to conduct cheese and wine pairing, cheese education, and cooking classes across the country. She is also a regular instructor at The Cheese School of San Francisco.
In addition, she serves as the President of the American Cheese Education Foundation and is a member of the American Cheese Society and Slow Food USA.
When she isn’t eating or teaching about cheese, she can be found jogging on the streets of San Francisco, where she lives, or hiking in the mountains, which she loves.