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The right Gruyère is buttery and complex, is pleasantly firm and dense, and melts like a champ. If you aren’t buying it, you should be.
1655 Le Gruyère AOP
What You Need To Know
What most Americans think of as “Swiss cheese” is the mild, holey stuff called Emmentaler. That cheese is fine for slicing thin and piling on ham sandwiches, but it bears little resemblance to its fellow citizen, Gruyère. The latter, which has been made in the eponymous alpine region of Switzerland for more than 900 years, is pleasantly firm and dense, slightly crumbly, and boasts that faint crystalline crunch that high-quality aged cheeses such as cheddar and Parmesan are known for. Good versions taste deeply nutty and have sweet, fruity tang; nice salinity; and a good bit of earthy funk. Gruyère is also one of a very few cheeses, Swiss or otherwise, that functions just as well in cooked applications as it does on a cheese plate. Scan the test kitchen’s recipe archive and you’ll find roughly 100 recipes featuring it—from breads, soufflés, frittatas, and gratins to scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, fondue, and French onion soup.
As Gruyère’s stateside popularity has grown over the years, so, too, has its availability in American supermarkets. When we shopped recently, we found eight nationally available options, priced from $14.99 to $23.99 per pound. Five were Swiss imports bearing the Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) seal, meaning they were made according to strict government-mandated rules and quality standards. The other three were domestic facsimiles; two of those, both made by Emmi Roth, stopped calling themselves “Gruyère” several years ago in deference to the Swiss-made cheeses. To find a favorite, we sampled each plain at room temperature, baked in spinach-and-cheese squares, and melted on crostini.
The Swiss Way
Swiss cheesemakers claim that every part of the rigorous AOP-regulated process contributes to Gruyère’s unique, deeply complex flavor and dense, crystalline texture, starting with the milk itself. It must be raw and from mostly grass-fed cows, since both the Alpine grasses and the bacteria naturally present in unpasteurized milk infuse the cheese with flavor. From there, the milk is mixed with cultures and rennet, which introduce more flavorful bacteria and cause the milk to coagulate into curds, respectively. Then it’s heated in giant copper vats. That particular vessel is important not just because copper heats evenly and responds quickly to changes in temperature but also because copper ions from the surface of the vat leach into the milk and curds and react with compounds in the milk to form desirable and distinct flavor compounds.
Once the curds have formed, they’re transferred to large wheel-shaped molds to be pressed for the better part of a day; turned out and either salted or brined for another ...
Everything We Tested
Our winner had the highest fat content and one of the lowest moisture contents, and it was aged the longest: 12 to 14 months. Those factors added up to a cheese that tasters raved about—specifically its “excellent crystalline structure”; “dense,” “fudgy” texture; and “deeply aged, caramel-like,” “grassy” flavor that came through even when baked with spinach and onions.
With low moisture, plenty of fat, and a judicious amount of salt, this long-aged Swiss import tasted “nutty” and complex—tasters picked up on fruity “pineapple” tang and a “savory onion quality.” Its “creamy” texture was strewn with pleasantly crystalline bites. In fact, one taster found “five visible tyrosine crystals in a single piece!”
Despite being made with pasteurized milk, this domestic cheese (made by a subsidiary of the Switzerland-based Emmi Group) boasted “caramelized” sweetness; notes of mushroom, onion, and “fruity red wine”; and a “buttery” texture that was loaded with crunchy tyrosine crystals.
“Would be a showstopper on a cheese plate,” one taster remarked about this particularly “funky,” “fruity,” and “nutty” sample. Several others noted a pleasant fermented quality—like “sour apple juice”—or a “deep, lingering muskiness.”
Aged for just five months, this “waxy” Swiss Gruyère tasted noticeably leaner and “milder” than the older samples. It was “tangy but flat,” “semisharp,” and tasted “young.” That said, it still delivered “pleasant nuttiness” and “mellow tang.”
“Gruyère for beginners” is how one taster described this young, “buttery,” “nutty” import. Compared with the denser, more crystalline structure of our favorites, it was “smooth, soft, and creamy,” though texture wasn’t an issue in cooked applications.
Recommended with reservations
“Not offensive but no sparkle.” “Waxy” and “bendy.” “Innocuous.” These comments indicate that this domestic facsimile was aged for far less time than other cheeses. However, it melted evenly on crostini, and its flavor was “mild but pleasant,” with subtle nutty, sweet notes.
Several tasters compared this young cheese with deli Swiss—even calling it a “faker”—citing its “mild” (albeit “pleasant”) flavor and “rubbery” texture.