It might be difficult to find a carton of eggs or a gallon of milk right now, but the artisanal cheese section of my local grocer is still stocked. What a fancy little treat, I tell myself, purchasing a wedge of wine-soaked Toscano from my small local grocer, Trader Joe’s. I may be living in sweat pants and drinking $2 bottles of wine, but I’ll be damned if the cheese I pair with it isn’t marginally refined. And according to cheesemonger Nicola Bailey at Eataly in New York City, I’m doing it right — if you’re gonna binge on cheese, make sure it’s the hard, aged kind.
Eating too much cheese is often associated with an upset stomach or constipation. This is partly because cheese contains no fiber, but it also has to do with its lactose content. By some estimates, nearly 75 percent of the world population has some form of lactose intolerance, and it varies widely in severity: Some people can’t eat any dairy without experiencing stomach issues, while others only feel some discomfort after eating large quantities of high-lactose foods. By this measure, not all cheeses are equal. In fact, some cheeses contain only trace amounts of lactose, meaning even those with more severe intolerance can comfortably consume them.
“Cheeses that go through an aging process allow the lactose to break down,” explains Bailey. “A cheese like a Brie or camembert will have more lactose than Parmigiano.” The aging process, then, is what allows cheese to harden — soft, moist cheeses like mozzarella are only aged for a few weeks, while Parmigiano-Reggiano is aged for a minimum of two years. Meanwhile, processed cheeses are often not aged at all. Instead, they undergo a pasteurization process, wherein the milk has been heated to kill pathogens. In the U.S., dairy must either be pasteurized or aged for at least 60 days (thereby killing pathogens, as well) in order to be sold for human consumption. For processed cheese like Kraft Singles, pasteurization is a much cheaper option. However, because it hasn’t had time to break down in lactose, these cheeses will likely upset sensitive stomachs.
So, for people who want to eat cheese without consequence, they must either have stomachs capable of handling that amount of lactose, or pick these harder cheeses. Unfortunately, lower-lactose cheeses are often more expensive, and not everyone is accustomed to the taste. They’re also a bit higher in fat.
“Most cheeses that are found at the supermarket go through a chemical process that makes sure that it tastes the way people think it should,” says Bailey. “The milk is manipulated to make sure it tastes like a ‘sharp cheddar’ or a ‘colby.’ They generally aren’t aged in a way to have the lactose breakdown. On the other hand, artisanal cheeses can taste different based on the wheel of the same cheese because of the milk quality or aging of the cheese.”
To determine how much lactose a cheese has, you can check the nutrition label. Lactose is a form of sugar — if the label says the cheese contains zero grams of sugar, it will only contain trace amounts of lactose.
For peak snackability, Bailey recommends low-lactose cheese like alpine cheeses, aged Gruyere or Comté. “If I want something for just cheese and crackers, I would like a nice, clothbound cheddar. I prefer the clothbound’s rich nutty flavor to a sharper commodity ‘sharp’ cheddar,” she says. The recommended serving is two ounces of cheese per person if you’re arranging a cheese board (which is about the size of eight stacked dice and, yeah, okay).
An added benefit to these fancier cheeses, beyond the fact that they won’t as easily upset your stomach, is that they’ll last much longer. “If an aged cheese gets mold on it, the mold can just be cut away. When younger cheeses mold they can turn and become ammoniated much more quickly,” Bailey explains.
Hard cheese will survive in your fridge for weeks after you open it, so if you manage to stock up and can store some away without opening it, it’ll last for months. And if you end up eating it all in one sitting, well, at least you might not have as bad of a stomach ache as you would if you ate string cheese, instead.