Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ask the Internet: Inexpensive Cheese for Cooking?

Today's question comes from reader Alicia N. It's a super good one, especially for all you frommage lovers out there.

Q: What do you use when you need some cheap cheese for cooking? I made a great baked pasta last week and it called for a cup of shredded Jarlsberg. My husband came home from the store and asked me to please stop using $9 cheese. I don't mind splurging on expensive cheese if we are going to eat it on its own ... but it seems silly if we are just going to melt it with something else or make mac-n-cheese out of it. Extra points if it's something I might be able to find already shredded.

From Dominik
A: Alicia, I do three things:
  • For cooking, I tend to concentrate on recipes with four main cheeses: Cheddar, Parmesan, mozzarella, and feta. They go on sale the most, I can get good-to-great brands, and they're widely applicable to a huge range of recipes.
  • I let the sales be my guide. Rather than planning a dish and then buying the appropriate cheese, I wait until a cheese (any cheese) goes on sale, and plan a dish around that.
  • Though I also use shredded cheese on occasion, I find that grating my own blocks isn't just cheaper, but better for most cooking purposes. It melts easier and tastes better, since you don't get the anti-caking grit endemic to bags of the pre-shredded stuff.
Readers, how 'bout choo? I'm thinking this is right in your (cheese)wheelhouse. Does shopping at bulk stores make a difference? Do you combine a pricey cheese with thriftier ones to beef it up? Do tell.

Want to ask the interweb a question? Post one in the comment section, or write to Cheaphealthygood@gmail.com. Then, tune in next Tuesday for an answer/several answers from the good people of the World Wide Net.

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Amanda said...

I really like Trader Joe's for their cheese selection, they have a ton of variety, its usually less expensive than the regular grocery store and they run decent specials. It also helps to know which cheese are similar and what works as good substitutes. For example, the original recipe called for Jarlsberg but you could have easily substituted for regular Swiss. I also agree that buying a block and shredding it yourself is economical and better for cooking.

CTMOM said...

We typically have Cheddar,Mozzarella, Parmesan-not the stuff in the canister, Monteray Jack, Pepper Jack, Colby, Swiss, Havarti with dill, Provalone on hand. I tend to hand grate vs. buying preshredded, but use price as my guideI spend no more than $4/lb for cheese, often less. Aldi's is a great source for reasonably priced cheese. Besides the the tips you mention, I also scope out the marked down section in the Deli at the grocery store: cheese ends are $2.79/lb. If none are out, or they don't have a flavor I want, I ask at the counter. Makes for great savings, and gives me the upscale cheeses that we like. I shred and store in marked bags in the freezer. That 2 oz piece of Munster can end up in mac n cheese with some Swiss-yum.

CJ said...

They key is to compare flavor profiles and choose appropriate substitutes. If a recipe calls for Jalrsberg or a pricey gruyere, you can easily substitute a less expensive Swiss cheese with good results.

When calling for an aged, sharp cheddar, a combination of medium cheddar and a small amount of blue cheese will give the dish the sharpness factor you are looking for.

Save parmiagiano reggiano for finishing a dish. Use regular parmesan, asiago, romano or padano grana in the dish itself.

Jen said...

I actually found Grana Padano at Costco two weeks ago. I was making a giant batch of chicken tetrazzini for my a bday party and that uses tons of Parmesan. It gets really expensive that way! But the giant wedge of Grana Padano was the same price I usually pay for a medium piece of Parmesan at the grocery store, and it was even better quality. So that's going to be my new go-to Parmesan sub when I need large quantities.

Otherwise, I often find you can reduce the cheese in recipes without suffering too much. Try cutting by 1/4-1/3 and see what you think. In addition, if you just need a tiny bit of cheese you may find going to a cheese shop (or other store that cuts to order) can actually be cheaper because you'll only pay for what you need. Of course if you want to plan two meals around the larger block of cheese from the supermarket you'll get a better deal, but you have to make a bigger initial investment.

margaret said...

I have two eating machines - boys 15 & 11 and their tastes run Cheddar and Mozzarella. I buy the big bags at Costco. I find the shredded variety is often lower cost than Costoc brick cheeses. I store it in the freezer so they can pull out how much they need to make their current snack of Homemade pizza, mac and cheese, quesdillas, nacohs, tacos, etc. When they move out of the hosue I'll start looking at quality cheese again.

Jessie said...

If there is a dairy locally, try shopping at their store. We have one that has a small storefront and they stock the products that their milk goes into (as well as milk, of course) for reduced prices. I can get 8oz of high-quality cheddar for $2.

Audrey said...

I usually stock up on the semi-soft cheeses when they are on sale. I then freeze the extras, usually with shredded mozzarella and crumbled feta. I'm not sure freezing the large blocks would work, but it does make the sales prices last!

Jo @ Jo in the Kitchen said...

I follow those same rules! I also experiment with using those 4 types of cheeses in place of more expensive cheese in recipes. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

Mara said...

I agree with Amanda. Trader Joe's is my go-to place for cheese. I use their English cheddar for casseroles all the time! Their part-skim mozzarella is inexpensive and delish!

Michelle said...

I concur with the Trader Joe's recommendation. Decent supermarket brands such as Sargento and Kraft are great for melty applications. Pre-shredded cheese is always, ounce for ounce more expensive. Your Cuisinart can do the job in no time!

I also keep little odds and ends of cheese - even if they're hard - and shred them to make mystery mac and cheese. Delicious!

Dee Seiffer said...

I'm on this bandwagon. I usually have cheddar, Parmesan and goat cheese around. Being in New England, Vermont Butter and Cheese Company goat cheese is pretty reasonable. Not sure about other parts of the country.

I do buy bagged grated cheese when it is on super sale and I have coupons. Then I toss it in the freezer. Just used a bag of Cabot super sharp cheddar last night to make enchiladas. I think I paid $.50 for the bag a couple of months ago.

If I want something special, I get it either at Trader Joe's or Costco, depending on what and how much I need.

I do splurge on cheese at the farmer's market sometimes. It is expensive, but so delicious.

Autumn said...

I keep the big bags of pre-shredded costco mozz and "mexican blend" in the freezer so I can pull out the amount I need for things like tacos, pizza, etc where it's more that there's cheese, less about the flavor

When I want better cheese, I agree with the TJ's recommendations. But I love to walk by the cheese counter at the local Byerlys (MN). Drool. But for budget reasons, $15/lb cheese just doesn't quite work for us right now.

maureen said...

This post pleases me so much, being entirely cheese-centric. But I have never (in all my frugalness) frozen cheese. Does this work well? Is the taste or texture quality affected?

shelle said...

I agree with all these tips. I looooove cheese, but try not to use too much for health and budget reasons. So if I'm making a recipe that uses cheese, but in which cheese isn't the star of the show - like salads and casseroles - I usually use a lesser amount of a stronger cheese, like extra-sharp cheddar or feta, because a little goes quite a long way.

shelle said...

maureen, cheese freezes beautifully! The only cheeses I've had bad luck with freezing have been cream cheese and ricotta. But then again, I've heard many people say they've never had problems freezing these cheeses. So it might just be me. :)

Holly said...

Jarlsburg is just a high grad, milder swiss cheese. Swiss does go on sale sometimes & Kraft does regularly publish coupons that can be used.Also, Aldi has an ok swiss.

I often substitute common, cheaper, sale cheeses for what is in a recipe. The only thing I have not foud one for is cherve.

Cream cheese freezes fine IF you are using in a cooked/baked recipe. Ricotta freezes fine if you mix in or pour off the liquid after defrosting.

Colleen said...

Block cheese can get a little crumbly after it's been frozen, but if it's going to be melted down in a dish that shouldn't be a big concern. The same with cream cheese--if you are using it in a dish that is whipped first (i.e. cheese cake) or baked (lasagna or bean dip), then you won't notice the texture changes.

biankat said...

1. Trader Joes, if available, is a great less-expensive cheese resource.
2. I know this isn't for everyone, but I invested in a Food Saver to save my meats and cheese purchases. It's a cinch to use a bit of that goat cheese log, large parm wedge, or specialty cheese, then seal up what's not used for another time.
3. Costco.
4. Research cheese type substitutes. As others have pointed out, Jarlsberg could easily be replaced with a Swiss.

Anonymous said...

Cheese in the supermarket is at its lowest price right before the Superbowl. I buy two pound blocks of the store brand for $6 and grate it in the food processor, then freeze it in one cup amounts.