Monday, February 22, 2010

Cheese, Lite

Want to make a die-hard foodie crazy, absolutely loony? Start talking about reduced-fat or, better still, "lite" cheese. I know, because when I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to be writing about this topic, I got lectured and harangued by people who are convinced that the only good cheese is a full fat cheese and that if people just ate in moderation they could enjoy a triple cream Brillat Savarin, a Herve Mons Camembert, or luxurious Italian Gorgonzola Dolce.

And, for people who excel at moderation, I'm all for indulging in full-fat cheeses. But some of us have proven track records of excess and for those people, who need to cut back and need help doing it, there's an entire industry of cheese making that is offering products that are less fatty and lower in sodium than their counterparts. One of these company's Beemster, actually sparked this search. Their PR folks sent me a new product of theirs, Beemster Lite.

Now you won't find these "lite" cheeses, including Beemster Liter, at Venissimo or Taste Artisan Cheese in San Diego. Gina Freize, owner of Venissimo, explained that she doesn't carry reduced-fat cheeses because "True cheese is simply milk, salt and rennet. And milk naturally has fats. Of course, some cheese types are made with skim milk with naturally lowers the calories, but they are not altered in any other way."

Taste's Mary Palmer doesn't source for them either. She's tried a few so-called low- or reduced-fat cheeses and found that they seem to lose flavor, texture, richness, and many of the distinctive qualities we eat cheese for. But, she said, "I've had customers on restricted diets who are avowed 'cheese nuts' and so I try to search out the skim milk cheeses that deliver."

Now, as both said, some cheeses are naturally lower in fat. These include string cheese, part-skim mozzarella, farmers cheese, and Neufchâtel. Plus, goat cheeses tend to be lower in fat than cheeses made from cows milk. So, all is not lost, but other than the goat cheeses, these typically aren't exactly the most flavor-packing cheeses either. And, while you'll certainly find low-fat versions of Jack and Cheddar, Swiss and Muenster, you'll discover quickly that, by and large, the flavor is lacking and the texture rubbery. This is what has the foodies who lashed out so infuriated. And, they have a point. So, if you're looking for flavor and mouth appeal, are there any good options?

Armed with my package of Beemster Lite and in a quest to find other reduced-fat cheeses that might hold some promise, I headed to Trader Joe's, Taste, and Henry's to see what they had. I was already familiar with a couple of the cheeses, of the new ones some were quite palatable, even strikingly good; one was an utter bust.

Let's talk about the Beemster Lite first, since this is what launched my little quest. If you're unfamiliar with the Beemster name, let's just say that their Beemster X-O is a godly little Gouda. Made for centuries in The Netherlands, the cheese is matured for 26 months, which results in an intensely complex flavor and gritty texture, thanks to the moisture's evaporation, that makes it wonderful served on a cheese plate or grated like Parmesan. You can find it at Taste.

You can't say the same about Beemster Lite. Yes, it's in the same family but you simply can't get the same qualities in a cheese that contains 30 percent less fat than other cheeses and 20 percent less salt. That being said, if you can appreciate it as a different being, it still has a very clean, nice flavor that works for making a grilled cheese sandwich or even just munching on. You won't get that marvelous X-O texture, but it's not at all rubbery. I melted slices on homemade sourdough for breakfast and thoroughly enjoyed it.


Then I turned to a cheese I've bought in the past and liked for the same reasons I liked the Beemster Lite. It melts well and has good flavor. That's the Kerrygold reduced fat aged cheddar. Henry's carries this cheese and I'm quite happy to grate it onto a tostada or bowl of chili or eat it in a quesadilla or on a piece of toasted bread with sliced fruit for breakfast. I probably wouldn't serve it on a cheese plate for company, but it's a good workhorse of a cheese for people who want a flavorful lower fat cheese but are looking to cut back calories.

Since these tasting games are more fun and useful with other people involved, I invited my friend Gayle Falkenthal over to help with the rest of the cheeses, which included a Cabot reduced-fat cheddar, a "lite" Celtic cheddar from Trader Joe's--not surprisingly called "Paddy Joe's"--a "lite" Brie, also from Trader Joe's, and a slice of Tomme de Savoie from Taste.

Clockwise from top: Kerrygold Reduced Fat Cheddar, Cabot Reduced Fat Cheddar, "Paddy Joe's" Reduced Fat Celtic Cheddar, Trader Joe's "lite" Brie, Tomme de Savoie

We ate the cheeses alone, with crackers, and melted a few on flour tortillas to make quesadillas.

The very orange Cabot reduced cheddar was fine, but nothing special. It melted well, it had a clear cheddar flavor but without any real sharpness or interesting texture.

On the other hand, the Paddy Joe's Celtic Cheddar was Gayle's favorite. It had a wonderfully crumbly texture as opposed to the usual reduced-fat rubbery quality you tend to get and it had a pure sharp flavor.

The lite Brie was dreadful. It has 50 percent less fat and 30 percent less calories, according to its label, and 100 percent less flavor or texture, according to our palates. I had left it out for two hours to come to room temperature and it remained a rubbery example of what not to do to cheese. We each had a bite and then I tossed it.

Now, the Tomme de Savoie was a whole other animal. This is an example of what Mary Palmer and Gina Freize were talking about, a semi-firm cheese naturally made from skim milk--in this case cows milk--with an earthy, almost mushroomy flavor. Tomme de Savoie is an AOC-protected French cheese from the Alps ("tomme" simply means wheel of cheese, so it's a wheel of cheese from the Savoie region of France). These cows are dining on mountain grasses and the skim milk is the leftover from the cream used to make butter and richer cheeses. So, it's naturally lower in fat content (between 20 and 40 percent) but still packs the flavor and has a lovely creamy texture and pleasingly sour rind.

While, by no means comprehensive, the little scavenger hunt proved instructive to me. I think I have to agree with my foodie respondents when it comes to high-fat cheeses like Bries. I don't think you can come close to replicating the pleasure in a lower fat version. Indulge if you must, but moderately if you can. But, I've been back to Taste for more Tomme de Savoie (and Beemster X-O), and will continue to buy the reduced fat Kerrygold cheddar as well as the TJ's copycat. Let me know if you have some favorite lower-fat cheeses you enjoy and where they can be purchased.

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  1. Count me as a purist. Skim milk cheeses, fine. It's still Real Food and presumably the butterfat skimmed from the milk is also eaten as butter or cream. Reduced-fat-cheese-for-the-sake-of-reducing-the-fat? ¡No way, José!

    If my weight is a concern, I eschew the bread and crackers transportation vehicles (which raise levels of the fat-storage hormone insulin) and eat the full fat cheese plain. Or with a pat of really good butter. Or with a nice full fat salami transportation vehicle. Seriously.

    I *want* the fat when I eat cheese, especially aged cheeses. In fact, the fat is one of the reasons I eat cheese. Aged cheese made with the butterfat of grass-fed animals is rich in Vit K2 (a product of bacterial fermentation). K2 is fat-soluble vitamin that is a key player when it comes to putting calcium and other minerals where it belongs. I won't need a calcium supplement if I also have enough Vitamin K2 and D3 (then my calcium supplement won't turn my arteries into cement tubes or form a kidney stone as the body tries to dump the excess intake. I'll stick with the Real Deal, TYVM.

  2. Eating cheese with a page of butter? Wow! You go! Thanks for writing. I love your commitment to full-fat cheeses and full-on flavor!

  3. It is good to know these are out there for the everyday.

    I'm not a purist, I gave up dairy for health reasons -- but I've never been able to say so long to cheese. I love brie or a goat cheese compound (is that what it is when its mixed with garlic or something else delish)

    Instead, I indulge occasionally with only high quality stuff. OK confession, also a occasionaly kiddie-esque grilled cheese with cheddar, but not the Kraft stuff

    Oh cheese...

  4. Since my husband is a cheese lover, we pretty much stay away from low fat cheese outside of skim-milk string cheese. When it comes to healthy snacking, I'd rather eat some full-fat cheese with fruit, like apples or grapes, than go low fat.

    But, it is good to know that there are decent options out there if/when we need them. Thanks for putting your palate out there to save the rest of us the tastebud-related pain, Caron!

  5. They're not for everybody, but it's all about choice and having options.

  6. Thanks for the heads up, Caron. I'm a big cheese lover, but I can't eat Saint Andre or a Humboldt Fog every day. My issues with low fat cheeses is the rubber factor and the transparent elastic mess they become when heated. I do eat the low fat Celtic from Trader Joe's and find it pleasingly sharp and crumbly (if not a little too dry) but a reasonable facsimile of real cheese. I'll try some of the others and see how they compare.

  7. Try the Tomme de Savoie. I think you'll enjoy it. Thanks for writing!

  8. I'll follow up with a question. Is chevre really low fat? I love a good ripe hard aged chevre! Can someone suggest one they really like? I've only had them from street vendors in France.

  9. I wouldn't say it's low fat, just lower fat -- particularly lower than cows milk cheeses. I don't know of hard, aged Chevres here. You could check both Venissimo and Taste to see if they carry them or could order them. Both have lists of what they carry on their websites. I haven't seen it at either but I haven't looked.

  10. Wow, I'm another one who had blown off low-fat cheese as rubbery dreck, but now I'm interested in the TJ's cheddar and the Tomme de Savoie. I love cheddar cheese and dried cranberries in a salad, or just sliced with an apple for part of my lunch. Thanks!

  11. First off Caron - great writeup! Glad to help with your research ;^) In reply to Curt re-hard aged chevre...we carry a couple on a pretty regular basis: Balarina, a hard, aged goat Gouda from Holland & Pantaleo, a hard, herbaceous goat from Sardinia. Also, a couple domestics I bring in as available...Sunlight and Queso de Mano, both from Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy in Boulder, CO, and Etude, a small production cheese similar to Pantaleo from Andante Dairy in Petaluma.

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  13. Thanks, Mary! Curt, I hope you'll stop by Taste and see what Mary has to offer. I'd like to try them as well.

  14. Wonderful and complete survey of the standing of low-fat cheeses on the market today... confirming what I thought, better to stick to the real thang!