We scoured supermarket cases, the deli counter, and specialty cheese shops for Swiss that would shine on a cheese plate, not just melt on a sandwich.
Published Jan. 1, 2014. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 15: Great Grilled Burgers and Sweet Potato Fries
A pockmarked wedge of Swiss may be instantly recognizable as the icon of “cheese,” but it’s rarely celebrated for its flavor. Often rubbery and bland, most Swiss—stateside, at least—may be fine as a gooey layer in a Reuben but would never star on a cheese plate. In fact, there was only one sample that we enjoyed eating out of hand the last time we tasted Swiss cheese, in 2005. That genuine Emmentaler from Switzerland (Emmentaler is the real name for the cheese Americans call Swiss) boasted a nuanced, sweet hazelnut flavor. It also comes with a hefty price tag, thanks to processing standards that go along with its Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), or Controlled Term of Origin. This prompted us to shop for comparable, but more affordable, cheeses this time around. But since we were so impressed by the flavors of traditionally made Swiss, we also singled out two high-end mail-order cheeses.
The eight cheeses we came away with spanned a wide spectrum of price points and presentations—and even naming conventions. Three were presliced and five were in wedges. Five were called Swiss and one Jarlsberg, the Norwegian version of Swiss-style cheese. Two were genuine Emmentalers from Switzerland, which wear the full moniker of Emmentaler Switzerland AOC (the word “Emmentaler” itself is not protected, meaning that cheeses with that label can come from anywhere). One of those was our previous winner; the other was a cave-aged product available only via mail order. Finally, we included an Emmentaler from Wisconsin made according to Swiss tradition and available only via mail order.
Served plain at room temperature, the cheeses revealed a wide range of flavors and textures—from rubbery, moist, and bland “like string cheese” to drier and more crumbly, with “savory,” “grassy,” “almost gamy” notes that were unexpected in Swiss cheese and had us swooning.
The ingredient labels helped explain these differences. The three strongest-flavored cheeses were all made from raw milk—an ingredient that is part of the centuries-old and now legally enforced recipe for Emmentaler Switzerland AOC. As we knew from previous cheese research, raw milk’s native microflora and enzymes work in tandem with the added cheese cultures to develop the fullest flavor spectrum. The fact that raw milk is so key to a cheese’s flavor development might lead you to wonder why so many producers—including five with cheeses in our lineup—go to the trouble of pasteurizing, but it turns out that there’s a flavor argument for that, too. The native bacteria in raw milk can also produce unpleasant off-flavors, so large companies (which often buy from multiple dairies...
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