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We tasted eight cheeses, from authentic Fontina Val d'Aosta to the many versions available in supermarkets. We made some surprising discoveries.
What You Need To Know
In the cheese world, fontina is a challenge to clearly define. Depending on where and how it is made, it can vary in intensity, from mildly milky to earthy or mushroomy, often with a pleasant sweetness that enhances other ingredients. Some are described as being nutty or sharp. It has a reputation for melting well and is the perfect addition to lasagna, pizza, stuffed chicken breasts, omelets, and more.
The “true” fontina, which is in a class by itself, has been made in the northwest corner of Italy since at least the 13th century. This cheese, Fontina Val d'Aosta, has Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) status, meaning that it must be made according to exact specifications. If you can find it at your local supermarket, it probably costs upwards of $20 per pound. You're more likely to spot more affordable cheeses labeled fontina, fontal, or fontinella. Some, puzzlingly, are described as “Swedish-style.” Though a few are made in Europe, most of these cheeses are made in America.
For this tasting, we rounded up seven cheeses labeled either fontina, fontal, or fontinella, priced from about $0.40 to about $1.00 per ounce, as well as an authentic Fontina Val d'Aosta, and tasted the cheeses plain and baked in breakfast strata.
Focusing on the Essentials
We noticed differences as soon as we unwrapped the cheeses. The Fontina Val d'Aosta had a hard, reddish-brown rind. Others were covered in red wax or a flaky brown coating, and a few had no visible rind. The texture of the cheeses varied as well: Half the cheeses were firm and dry, almost like Parmesan, while the other half were as soft and squishy as room-temperature Monterey Jack. Most melted evenly and completely when baked, but two were a little less gooey than the others, even after an hour in the oven. Flavors varied, too. Our tasters praised samples that were clean, milky, and faintly sweet—though one was so delicately flavored that it got a little lost in the crowd. More intensely flavored cheeses fell in the middle of our lineup and could be sorted into two camps: sharp and tangy or funky and earthy.
So what is the average home cook to do when a recipe calls for fontina? To understand what to look for in the supermarket and why, we first needed to understand how these cheeses are made.
First, the gold standard: Fontina Val d'Aosta. According to tradition and the rules of a special consortium, this cheese must be made using raw milk from a single milking of a single breed of cow, called Valdostana, that grazes in Italy's Aosta Valley. The milk is heated, cultures are added, and then the mixture is stirred in stainless-steel or copper vats. Rennet is added to make the curd...
Everything We Tested
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