I met my first wheel of Stilton cheese during a trip to England when I was twelve years old. One taste of that strange-looking cheese shot through with veins of blue, and I was hooked—I couldn’t seem to get enough of that bold, funky flavor.
Since then, I’ve tasted lots of other blue cheeses, and I’ve yet to try one that I really didn’t like. I’ve found that they’re all related by that unmistakable blue cheese tang, but each variety has its own nuances of flavor based on variables such as the type of milk it’s made from and how it’s aged. I’ve also learned that while blue cheeses are great for eating out of hand along with some crackers and fruit or nuts, they’re even better when they’re used as an ingredient in cooking because their intense flavors both accentuate and stand out against the flavors of other ingredients.
Blue cheeses are versatile partners
Blue cheeses complement a surprisingly broad range of foods. They’re pungent and assertive, so they combine really well with starchy, rather bland foods like potatoes, pasta, and polenta. They also pair beautifully with beef; both are full-flavored, rich foods, and they harmonize perfectly. Grilled flank steak, rib steak, hamburgers, and roasts of beef all get an extra kick from a topping of blue cheese. And then there are salads, like the classic Cobb (smoked turkey, avocado, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and blue cheese) or a salad of watercress with blue cheese and poached figs. Blue cheeses are creamy and salty, which is why they complement the bright flavors of so many vegetables and fruits.
Gentle heat only, please
Almost all blue cheeses are quite high in fat, so they act in cooking more like a ripened, creamy butter than a cheese. For this reason, if you’re going to involve heat, it’s best not to truly cook blue cheeses but rather to gently melt them. If the heat gets too high, the cheese will break and leave oily puddles in whatever you’re cooking. So if you’re making a cream sauce, pull the sauce from the fire and then stir in bits of the cheese until melted. If necessary, you can put the pot back on the heat just long enough for the cheese to finish melting.
Your finished dish will only be as good as the cheese, especially if heat is involved. Blue cheese becomes especially strong tasting when heated, so any negative qualities in the cheese (bitterness, overpowering moldiness, and sharpness) will be accentuated. That’s why I don’t recommend cooking with commercially produced, inexpensive blues, which are often sold crumbled.
One last tip: I like to maintain the veined look of the blue cheese in my cooking. Even when I make a blue cheese dressing or dip, I purée only part of the cheese and fold in crumbled bits at the end. When making a sauce, I stir in the bits of cheese just before serving. This way I still have attractive bits of blue showing, rather than a uniformly grayish sauce.
My five favorite blues
After lots of experimentation, I’ve narrowed my personal favorites for cooking and eating down to a short list of five: Italian Gorgonzola, French Roquefort, English Stilton, Spanish Cabrales, and American Maytag Blue. If you have the option, buy your cheeses from a reputable cheesemonger, and use the guidelines below to help you identify the high-quality cheeses from the commercially produced, overripe, and improperly stored versions.
Roquefort( France) Made from sheep’s milk, Roquefort will have an airy, crumbly texture, but it will still hold together. The cheese should be ivory colored without any yellow tint. The veins of greenish-blue mold will be abundant and will reach right to the edge of the cheese. Avoid Roquefort with excess moisture leaking from it (this happens when the cheese is re-wrapped in plastic over the foil). Because Roquefort has no rind, you can use the entire piece of cheese, although it will be saltier near the edge. If you like, you can rinse the cheese lightly under cold water to remove excess salt.
Gorgonzola (Italy) There are two varieties of Gorgonzola: Mountain (aged) and Dolce (sweet). Both are made from cow’s milk. Mountain Gorgonzola has a crumbly, dry texture and a potent blue flavor that’s best if left unheated and served with fruits like pears and apples or with nuts and sweet wine to offset its intensity. Dolce Gorgonzola is sweet and mild with a rich, creamy interior that makes it an excellent choice for cooking. It has an ivory-colored interior that can be lightly or thickly streaked with bluish-green veins in layers. When aged more than six months, the flavor and aroma of Gorgonzola can be quite strong—sometimes downright stinky because of its brine-washed rind. Because of this tendency, pay particular attention to-the quality of any Gorgonzola you buy (an interior that’s more yellow than ivory is another sign of excessive aging).
Stilton (England) Made from cow’s milk, Stilton has extremely fine veins of mold in a characteristic radial pattern that can look like shattered porcelain. This trait gives Stilton its overall blueing—not just in pockets like other blue cheeses—and allows for even flavor. Good Stilton has a dry, rough, brown rind and a creamy, ivory interior with plenty of blueing right to the edge. The cheese should be crumbly but moist enough to hold its shape. Avoid Stilton that has poor blue veining or a darkened or dry interior. The best Stilton for cooking comes from the inner core of the cheese, where it’s creamiest. Buy Stilton in larger pieces so you’ll end up with a good-sized section of interior. The rind and the hard portion near the rind aren’t good for cooking, though some people like to eat them.
Cabrales (Spain) Made from a blend of goat’s, sheep’s, and cow’s milk, Cabrales (pronounced kah-BRAH-lays) is piquant, acidic, and creamy. A good Cabrales is completely shot through with a deep veining of mold. The strong-smelling rind is sticky and yellow; the interior is compact, with lots of holes and blue veins. Cabrales is crumbly and fragile, drier than Roquefort and less salty. It’s quite strong, with a higher proportion of blue veining (which may be closer to purple in color) than other cheeses. Avoid Cabrales if the interior is turning gray. The cheese should look fresh with intense, clear purplish-blue veins rather than murky or muddy-looking veins. Be on the lookout for artisan cheeses wrapped in natural maple, oak, or sycamore leaves, rather than the more common foil wrapping.
Maytag Blue (United States) A sharp, biting, salty flavor and crumbly texture make this handmade Iowa cow’s milk blue cheese a great choice for dips and sauces. Maytag Blue should have a creamy but crumbly texture. A light dispersion of blue veining is normal for this cheese.