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Cheese and Dairy Products

Americans love cheese. There is the cheeseburger, of course, the Philadelphia cheese steak, cheese crackers, cheesecake, and just plain snacking cheese. Italian-American food uses more cheese than any of the cuisines of Italy; Mexican-American dishes almost always include melted cheese, an uncommon usage in Mexico itself. “Do you want cheese on that?” has become a catch-phrase of popular culture. When an American becomes successful, he or she becomes the “Big Cheese.”

Though the American state of Wisconsin has long billed itself as “America’s Dairyland,” California is breathing down the Badger State’s neck even when it comes to Wisconsin’s premier product, cheese. An October 2006 report by the American Dairy Products Institute indicated that in 2005 California turned out a quarter of the nation’s cheese, some 2.14 billion pounds, threatening to close the gap with Wisconsin, which produced 2.4 billion pounds. Wisconsin’s cheese makers tend to be smaller; some 1,300 licensed producers make 600 varieties of cheese, as compared to California’s 55 producers with 250 varieties.

After California (which became the top milk producing state in 1993) and Wisconsin, major milk production states are New York, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Minnesota, New Mexico, Michigan, Texas, and Washington. In 2003, American cows produced 19.7 gallons pounds of milk. Many American dairy farms are small; Wisconsin, for example, has 17,800 dairy farms averaging 71 cows each; the California average is a whopping 659 cows. Small farmers often band together to process their milk in state or regional dairy cooperative associations.

As an agricultural giant, California has become a power in cheese production not just in terms of sheer bulk, but also in relation to quality. This mirrors a national trend. Americans love cheese, particularly when it is melted, as is the case with cheeseburgers, pizza, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches and other favorites; or sprinkled onto salads, chili, vegetables, or hugely popular Mexican and Italian dishes. The cheese used in these dishes is usually commodity cheese: American, mozzarella, cheddar, and jack.

At the same time, Americans are also appreciating the finer qualities of artisanal cheeses, enjoyed on their own. With about 10% of state production, small California specialty cheese producers have been winning awards and making a name for themselves as the big processors make their dent into the national commodity market. California has an advantage of course, since as the most populous state it has an internal market of 33 million people for both commodity cheese and artisanal cheese alike.

Specialty cheeses in the United States use goat and sheep’s milk in addition to the usual cow product. Commodity cheeses are largely cow milk-based, although the rising popularity of goat cheese, particularly for salads, has caused some high volume producers to enter the market. Since goats produce a lot less milk than cows, goat cheese tends to be more expensive. The better quality goat cheeses are sold in very small packages; the large extruded rods of plastic-wrapped goat cheese often seen in supermarkets, despite the proliferation of French-sounding product names, tend to be of a lesser quality.

Commodity cheeses are frequently sold pre-shredded (or in the case of American-made Parmesan and other hard cheeses, pre-grated), or in portion-control packages ready for lunchboxes or snacking. Cheese and cracker combination packs are sold in supermarkets and convenience stores, ready to be consumed without cutting or preparation. Many types of cheese are sold pre-sliced, often with slices individually wrapped in plastic for convenience. Cylindrical tubes of “string cheese” are becoming increasingly popular as easy snack items.

According to Cheese Market News, America’s favorite cheese is, no surprise, the mild, easy-to-melt variety called “American Cheese.” Mozzarella (used for pizza) and Italian-type varieties like Parmesan together sell almost as much. Cheddar is not far behind the top two, though the cheddar world has many variations in texture, sharpness, and quality; quality cheddar cheeses are associated with northeastern states like New York and Vermont, and are also imported from Canada. Cream cheese run a distant fourth, Swiss type cheeses (made in the USA, not Switzerland, though cheese from Switzerland is of course imported) fifth, Hispanic varieties sixth, with the remaining hundreds of cheese varieties accounting for less than five percent of American production.

“Cheese-like” variety products abound in the United States (which is why it pays to read American food product ingredient labels very carefully). As specified by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

  • “Pasteurized process cheese food is a variation of process cheese that may have dry milk, whey solids, or anhydrous milkfat added, which reduces the amount of cheese in the finished product. It must contain at least 51% of the cheese ingredient by weight, have a moisture content less than 44%, and have at least 23% milkfat.”
  • “Pasteurized process cheese spread is a variation on cheese food that may contain a sweetener and a stabilizing agent, such as the polysaccharide xanthan gum or the Irish moss colloid carrageenan, to prevent separation of the ingredients. The cheese must be spreadable at 70 F, contain 44 to 60% moisture, and have at least 20% milkfat.” The popular brand Velveeta by this standard is a pasteurized process cheese spread.
  • “Pasteurized process cheese product is process cheese that doesn’t meet the moisture and/or milkfat standards.”

Soy-based imitation cheeses containing no dairy products are sold at health food stores.

If one factors out the craft cheddars, and the quality fresh mozzarella available in Italian neighborhoods, a rough estimate would indicate that at least 90% of all cheese produced in the United States is fairly undemanding stuff. Nevertheless, given the proliferation of both domestic artisanal cheese makers and quality cheese importers in the country, high quality cheese is available in most of the country, even in many supermarkets, if you know where to look. Specialty cheese shops exist in the major cities; gourmet and natural food markets have excellent cheese departments; fine restaurants make a point out of supporting the domestic craft cheese industry with their offerings.

Larger supermarkets may sell cheese in three different locations: popular commodity and pre-packaged cheeses are sold in the dairy case next to the milk, butter and eggs; delicatessen cheeses are sold by the pound in supermarket delicatessen counters; packaged imported and specialty cheeses may be available in a special display for self-service in the same area as the deli counter.

“Hispanic” cheese, growing in popularity not only because of immigration but as a result of the popularity of Mexican and other Latin American cuisines, is produced in large quantities in the United States. Queso Blanco (it simply means “white cheese” in Spanish) is a mild-tasting staple in this category. It becomes soft and creamy when heated instead of melting, allowing it to stand up to heat and give great textures to foods. Asadero is a tangy aged cheese similar to provolone with good melting qualities. A dozen other varieties are popular, and are attracting the interest of American gourmet chefs because of their excellent cooking qualities.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for maintaining dairy standards. In addition to inspecting dairy plants, it maintains a system of grading for dairy products. Cheddar, for example, is graded AA (the only type allowed at retail level), A, B, and C. Other types of cheese—Swiss, Emmentaler, Colby, Monterey Jack, and bulk American cheese for manufacturing—are graded similarly, as is butter.

American milk is available in a number of varieties: whole, reduced fat (1% and 2%) and non-fat, with lactose-reduced and calcium-added formats at all fat levels. Butter is usually sold, salted or unsalted, by the pound box, in which four four-ounce (eight tablespoon) sticks will be individually foil wrapped. Plain yogurt is sold in containers ranging from eight ounces to one quart (32 ounces), while flavored yogurts are largely sold in individual eight ounce containers either with fruit at the bottom or Swiss style (the fruit mixed in with the yogurt in advance). Organic milk is available in some supermarkets and in health and natural food stores, which also offer organic yogurts and cheeses. Though not agriculturally a dairy product, eggs are sold alongside milk and other dairy products in most markets and are considered “dairy” in retail terms. The same holds true for margarines, non-dairy spreads, and other butter substitutes.