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Home Cook’s Guide to Salad Cheeses
Salad and cheese have long been friends — since Caesar's time, at least — and yet it’s still a delightful surprise to find a diaphanous Parm shaving hiding out amongst the greens. Or it should be: For us, salad cheese is a sprinkle, not a blanket. It’s the subtle foil to a salad’s herby, green notes, bright vinaigrette, or crisp textures. There’s nothing better than a wee crumble of salty feta against a sliver of bright, peppery radish!
In that spirit, we’ve filled this guide with cheeses that will add complexity to your salad without overwhelming all the subtle work your herbs, greens, and aromatics are doing. We’ve mixed up the flavors and textures for the sake of variety and pairing — be it punchy, creamy, tangy, or salty. All of the cheeses lend themselves to crumbling, grating, or shaving, so they’re uniformly great for layering.
Of course, it almost goes without saying, cheese lovers, that while this is a list of faves, it’s not comprehensive, and there are many other delicious cheeses in our case that would be fantastic on a salad. Putting together something specific? Feeding folks who only like cheddar? Come in and talk to our cheesemongers — they’ll help you find the perfect complement to your salad.
Everything we love about Parmesan — its grainy texture and rich, nutty flavor — makes it wonderful in a salad. We like to shave it over our greens so that it has a nice presence, generous by the forkful, but doesn’t integrate with the dressing and become gloppy or overwhelming. (Unless you want it in the dressing, of course, and then go grated. All hail Caesar dressing!) Also: shaved Parm is simply elegant.
Parm is fantastic over a bed of grilled asparagus dressed in an anchovy-laced Dijon vinaigrette — it pulls the veggies and those bright, funky flavors together. We also love it in a classic butter lettuce salad, where bacon, croutons, and Parm team up to balance out a lemony vinaigrette, bitter endive, and peppery radishes.
Large-Curd Cottage Cheese
In the test kitchen, we like to say that cottage cheese is buffalo mozzarella’s littler cousin, and you can really taste that relationship with a large-curd cottage cheese. It’s made with rennet, which not only makes the curds plump but also gives them a wonderful flavor and texture — salty-sweet, milky, and unbelievably creamy.
Our grannies liked to scoop cottage cheese into a pineapple ring, add a cherry and a few cracks of pepper, and call it a salad. In a nod to that, we’d replace the burrata in this salad of peaches and peas with dollops of large-curd cottage cheese — the sweet, juicy peaches and green peas will be fantastic with the ultra-creamy curds. Per its mozz aspirations, large-curd cottage cheese also makes a phenomenal bed for a caprese-like mix of cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, and herby vinaigrette.
Yes, buffalo mozzarella really is made from the milk of buffalos! Apparently, they don’t make a ton of milk, but what they do make has twice the fat of cow’s milk, so it’s super rich and creamy. The fat also contributes to the cheese’s amazing texture — pillowy soft yet dense, it’s one of our favorite things to bite into. Its clean, milky-sweet flavor is a luxe backdrop for other ingredients, from delicate to bold.
Buffalo mozz is the one we would add to salads that want the oomph of its fat and texture. What springs to mind is a summery nectarine caprese, where the creamy cheese is the perfect ballast for the sweet fruit, herby heirloom tomatoes, bright onions, and delicate mint. On the heartier, bolder, and more savory side, buffalo mozz is delicious in a sun-dried tomato pasta salad, where its mild flavor complements exuberant ingredients like pine nuts, capers, and basil.
Classic Blue Cheese
And now for something completely different: Blue cheese is the loudest of the salad cheeses in our guide. Where others are mild or delicate, its creamy texture and fresh milk notes are punctuated by a strong punch of blue flavor and a peppery finish.
In our not-so-humble opinion, blue cheese shines in a salad with some sweet and toasty elements. Imagine a green salad garnished with sliced pears and candied nuts or a slaw of apples, shaved celery root, and toasted almonds. But it doesn’t always have to be sweet fruit: We have been known to scatter blue cheese through a steak salad dressed in bacon vinaigrette. The salad has cranberries, toasted walnuts, and bitter greens, and we like how the cheese holds its own with all the rich flavors.
Mitica Drunken Goat
If you’ve ever tried Drunken Goat, you know that the Spanish cheese comes with a violet rind and a mildly fruity flavor — both thanks to the fact that it soaks in red wine for two to three days. It’s made with the high-fat milk of Murciana goats, which gives it a lovely, semi-soft texture and a wonderful creaminess. We like to use a veggie peeler to shave it into salads, but we often find ourselves cutting bigger chunks off to nibble because the wine and cheese combo is well-nigh irresistible.
This is a versatile cheese, like Parm, that you can put into almost any salad, from chunky Cobbs to delicate greens. That said, because of its grape-y notes, we really like it in a salad with peppery or bitter greens. Think: arugula with heavy slices of stone fruit or heirloom tomatoes to emphasize the cheese’s fruitiness. It’s also amazing in our roasted squash salad, which features nutty pepitas and a very fresh apple vinaigrette, both of which will bring out the cheese’s complexity.
Queso fresco is often made with a combination of cow and goat milks, which is what gives it that mildly tangy, fresh taste we love. It’s less salty than Cotija, but it’s still got a pleasant saltiness, and we dig the way it crumbles — it’s so delightful to run into it in a bite of salad.
Like feta, queso fresco is great in chunky salads that feature sweeter veggies, and we especially love to combine it with corn. Think sweet, summer corn with black beans and tomato — or, on the lusher side, swap out the beans for creamy avocado, crisp cucumbers and radishes, and flavorful greens, like purslane. (P.S. you could swap queso fresco into our Mexican street corn salad.) It’s also awesome in a Greek salad, where it amplifies the pungent tang of the black olives and onion.
Another one from Spain! Made with Manchega sheep’s milk, this is a universally appealing cheese with a firm texture, a mild nutty flavor, and a slightly spicy finish. All Manchego is grand, but we love how aging crystalizes the cheese, giving it a richer, toastier flavor and lovely, granular texture, not unlike aged cheddar.
Because Manchego is so flavorsome and on the harder side, we like to shave or slice it over salads. For example, we love how its nuttiness complements our gorgeous roasted beet and shaved root veggie salad — talk about a spring fling! And Manchego’s toasted notes are a magical addition to a grain salad, like this one with pecans and radishes.