Before I was old enough to go to school, my adventurous parents moved us to Provence, where they set about learning the craft of making goat cheese. When we moved back to the United States in 1973, goat cheese was still practically unheard of here. That changed in the ’80s, however, when goat cheese, particularly soft fresh goat cheese, became the rage. For a while, it seemed as if every salad at every restaurant came with goat cheese croutons, and that everything from lasagne to baked potatoes was being stuffed with it.
Yet instead of wearing out its welcome as simply a trendy sidekick to sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese has become a lovingly accepted staple of restaurant and home kitchens. And why not? Mild, yet uniquely tangy, fresh goat cheese—also called chèvre (pronounced SHEHV)—is especially versatile in cooking. It mixes well with other ingredients, and it’s wonderful in both savory and sweet preparations. And because goat cheese is lower in fat, it doesn’t have that heavy oiliness associated with many cow’s milk cheeses.
Choosing soft fresh goat cheese
Soft fresh goat cheese is but one style of cheese made from goat’s milk. These cheeses, which are from a few days to a few weeks old, are sweeter and milder than longer-aged types. The other basic styles—semisoft, surface-ripened, and hard aged—are generally better suited for eating out of hand than for cooking.
Sample different makers and styles. At a good cheese shop, you’ll find a wide array of soft fresh goat cheeses (see photo opposite). Many are imported from France, but there are also wonderful domestic goat cheeses from local farmstead producers that are worth seeking out (see Sources panel).
At the supermarket, the pickings will likely be slimmer, perhaps one or two varieties. If you have a choice between what looks mass-produced—gaudy plastic packaging is often the giveaway—and what looks more artisanal, go with the latter.
The most widely available fresh goat cheese is mass-produced French Montrachet. Although it may be lacking somewhat in personality, Montrachet’s consistency and subtle flavor are assets in many cooked dishes.
Handle fresh goat cheese more like ricotta than mozzarella
The higher moisture content in all fresh cheeses means they melt differently than firm cheeses do. Nor will soft fresh goat cheese crisp and brown the way a Swiss or a Parmesan cheese will. Broil a crouton topped with a round of goat cheese for a few minutes and the goat cheese will hardly have changed in appearance even though its interior will be warm and meltingly smooth.
Baked goat cheese also doesn’t spread the way, say, mozzarella does. For this reason, I smooth the goat cheese in a thin layer on my tart instead of sprinkling it on top to be sure there’s some cheese in every bite. This ability to keep its shape when heated makes goat cheese a great candidate for fillings, such as a stuffing for a rolled chicken breast. But once you touch hot goat cheese, you’ll find its shape illusory. Sprinkle goat cheese on hot pasta and it will remain in clumps, but as soon as you toss the pasta and cheese together, the cheese melts into a wonderful sauce-like consistency.
When cooking with goat cheese, note that its saltiness will vary, with imported cheeses usually tasting more salty than domestic ones. Remember to taste and adjust your seasonings to account for this.
Sources for soft fresh goat cheese
Fresh goat cheeses are made by artisanal cheesemakers across the country. Although most of the producers below will sell their cheese by mail, some only sell to retailers or local outlets. Seek out a producer near you.
- Capriole, Inc. Greenville, Indiana (near Louisville, Kentucky) http://www.capriolegoatcheese.com/
- Coach Farm Pine Plains, New York http://www.coachfarm.com/
- Redwood Hill Farm Sebastopol, California http://www.redwoodhill.com/
- The Squire Tarbox Inn Wiscasset, Maine http://www.squiretarboxinn.com
- Vermont Butter & Cheese Websterville, Vermont http://butterandcheese.net/
- Westfield Farm Hubbardston, Massachusetts http://www.chevre.com/