Natural Foods Merchandiser

Spread the word about soft cheese

Soft cheeses—which encompass several styles and include varieties from Brie to feta to fontina—can range from mild and buttery to crumbly and pungent. But they all have one thing in common: They're very versatile.

According to the American Cheese Society, three different styles are considered soft cheese: fresh cheeses, soft-ripened cheeses and semi-soft cheeses. Fresh cheeses, which include feta and ricotta, are mild, creamy cheeses that can be made from any type of milk and usually are aged for just a short time or not at all. Soft-ripened cheeses, which include Brie and Camembert, are made by spraying a harmless mold on the outside of the cheese, which, after a short aging period, creates a soft, edible rind and a gooey inside. And semi-soft cheeses, which include Havarti and fontina, usually are rind-free, silky cheeses, made with raw or pasteurized milk, that vary in aging time and pungency.

What separates soft cheeses from their firmer counterparts is the amount of moisture retained in the curd during the cheese-making process, according to David Grotenstein, general manager of the Union Market in Brooklyn, N.Y., and judging chair for the American Cheese Society. “It's not like making cheddar, for example, where you chop and press and get every bit of moisture out,” Grotenstein says.

For natural foods retailers, marketing soft cheeses can provide a way to educate consumers about eating seasonally, especially when soft cheeses are paired with in-season and local produce. “Most of the consumers are really into eating seasonally now, and one of the beauties of the soft-cheese category is you never want to have a huge inventory because it has such a short shelf life,” says David Leonhardi, director of food service and education for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, which offers cheese sales and marketing tips to retailers at its website, Many soft cheeses should be eaten within about three months of the time they are made, according to Leonhardi.

Retailers should rotate their selection of soft cheeses, offering samples or tastings of new cheeses paired with, say, honey-crisp apples in the fall or fresh peaches in summer, along with other appropriate products. “Cross-merchandising is so important,” Leonhardi says. “You need to get your department heads talking to each other—say you've got this wonderful ricotta coming in—what kind of pasta from the grocery department, or what kind of escarole from the produce department, or bread from the bakery department, would go with it?” Offering recipes to customers in the store—or including them in the store newsletter—also is a good way to get customers interested in soft cheese and keep them informed about changing offerings. Here is some key information about some of the most popular soft cheeses.

Brie Style of cheese: Fresh-ripened
Kind of milk used: Traditionally cow's milk
Flavor profile: Almost runny, with a creamy, buttery taste
Food pairings: Apples, pears or any fruit except citrus; or make “Brie en croute” by wrapping the Brie with pastry dough, adding sautéed mushrooms or smoked salmon and baking just long enough for the dough to cook
Beverage pairings: Chardonnay, Champagne, Beaujolais, Pinot Noir

Feta Style of cheese: Fresh
Kind of milk used: Traditionally sheep's or goat's milk
Flavor profile: Tangy and crumbly with a distinct salty taste from being brined
Food pairings: Traditionally sprinkled on salad, feta also can be cooked in Greek dishes, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with nuts or marinated in olive oil with sundried tomatoes
Beverage pairings: Chablis, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Beaujolais

Camembert Style of cheese: Fresh-ripened
Kind of milk used: Cow's milk
Flavor profile: Buttery and garlicky, with woodsy, mushroom flavors
Food pairings: Apples, pears, grapes, dried fruits, chutney, chicken or turkey
Beverage pairings: Syrah/Shiraz, Beaujolais, Chardonnay, Champagne, cider

Mascarpone Style of cheese: Fresh
Kind of milk used: Traditionally cow's milk
Flavor profile: Rich and creamy with a touch of tartness
Food pairings: Traditionally used to make cheesecake or tiramisu, mascarpone also goes very well with strawberries
Beverage pairings: Dessert wines, Champagne, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, fruit beers

Ricotta Style of cheese: Fresh
Kind of milk used: Sheep's or cow's milk
Flavor profile: Very mild and creamy
Food pairings: Traditionally used in lasagna, ricotta can be sprinkled with chocolate to be served as a dessert
Beverage pairings: Beers such as Pilsner or lager

Allie Johnson is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo.

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