Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Goat Cheese

Aged goat cheese

Goat cheese. Seems eaters either love it or hate it. For some, the funky, slightly gamey taste is the epitome of fresh-from-the-farm flavor. For others, the words "funky" and "gamey" have no place describing good food. 

While it may not have the broad appeal of crowd-pleasing cheddar, goat cheese's popularity is on the rise. Previously the domain of hippies and health nuts, goat cheese is now commonly found on the menus of the finest restaurants and is ubiquitous in the cheese section of most supermarkets. But spring is the top of the season for this creamy treat. Here's how we're getting our goat.

A Brief History

About ten thousand years ago humans became homebodies. We set aside our nomadic ways and began a new style of living, an agrarian lifestyle, in which we no longer chased our food, tracking and following abundance as it became seasonally available. Instead, we stayed in place and raised it. The farm was born. And as we learned to sew seeds and raise crops, we also learned to tame and raise animals.

Goats were the first that we domesticated. Raising goats for food instead of hunting them opened up opportunities for sustenance that were beyond the simple pleasures of the nose to tail meal, early farmers discovered that they could also take the animal's milk for an additional source of protein. Store that milk in the thermos of the time - an animal stomach - and take it on a trip with you and the enzymes present, along with the jostling of travel, will churn the milk, separating it into its liquid and solid components. And that, my friends, is how we got the first cheese, most likely a fresh goat cheese that rewarded a milk-toting traveler with a satisfying snack for their journey and a thirst quenching guzzle of whey to wash it down.

This accidental discovery was honed into process and, as civilization spread north into what is now Europe, the tradition of producing cheese - first from goats and sheep and later from other domesticated animals such as cows and water buffalo - developed along with it. Today, Europe maintains a strong cheese making tradition rooted in these early practices.

While some styles of cheese, such as cheddar, made the leap from old world to new, goat cheese was not part of the American repertoire until as recently as the 1970s.  Before then, farmers may have kept a small flock of goats, particularly as part of the Victory Garden movement during the second world war, and during some attempts at marketing goat milk as a health elixir in 1930s. But it wasn't until one woman -Laura Chenel - hoping to find an outlet for the milk of her beloved family flock, introduced the American palate to soft, lemony, fresh goat cheese.

Laura tried to work out a recipe on her own but, after a few unsuccessful attempts, traveled to France to study with the masters to get her goat game straight. Laura returned to her Northern California home with the knowledge she gained from her apprenticeships, plus a few ideas of her own. The result was a cheese that caught the eye, and taste buds, of the then newly minted Berkeley restaurateur, Alice Waters, who placed a standing order for fifty pounds a week, putting Laura in business. The dish in which Alice featured the cheese is the now iconic, California Goat Cheese Salad, a breaded and toasted disc of fresh goat cheese atop a bed of lightly dressed mesclun. It would not be an exaggeration to say that every goat cheese salad in America can be traced back to Laura's craft. It was a turning point in American cheese making but also in the real food movement and its dedication to well-raised food and traditional foodways. 

Factual Nibbles

  • Goats were originally introduced to the Americas by Spanish colonists in the 16th century but did not enjoy the same popularity as other farm animals.
  • Although Asia maintains over fifty percent of the world's goat population, it produces virtually no goat milk or cheese because nearly all Asians -approximately 90% - are lactose intolerant.
  • France produces the most goat cheese: 92,918 tons in 2014.
  • Fresh goat cheese has about half of the fat, calories and cholesterol of cream cheese and makes a fine substitute on your breakfast bagel. 

Cultivation

Goats are raised all around the world and cheese making has been a useful way of preserving excess milk for millennia. Many varieties from light and fluffy chèvre to the rich, caramelized Gjetost of Norway reflect the unique geography and culture of the region where the cheese is created. 

No matter the variety of cheese, all goat cheeses (and all cheeses for that matter) start with the same process. The milk is heated and  a coagulant is added to encourage the whey and milk fat to separate. The resulting curds are scooped out of the whey, salted and pressed to remove excess moisture. The cheese can then be served, flavored or aged to enhance its flavor. 

Seasonality

Goats can be bred year round so fresh cheese is always available. But many goatherds prefer to kid (birth goat babies) in the spring when milder temperatures are easier on fragile newborns. Traditionally it is this sunny season that brings new baby goats to the farm and the flowing milk results in a peak in the production of young, fresh chèvre.

Environmental impact

Like all animal products, how the animals are raised determines their environmental impact. However, cheese production adds an extra layer of resource usage. In addition to the processing of cheese, aged cheeses must be cooled and stored for extended periods of time, adding to their carbon footprint. And hard cheeses which have had the moisture pressed or aged out of them are more concentrated so, ounce for ounce, represent a more significant resource count than softer cheeses. 

Conversely, however, hard cheeses are more intensely flavored because of their concentration and are eaten more sparingly. And artisanal cheese producers most frequently raise their animals on pasture, which has a much less detrimental impact on the environment than animals raised in confinement

To limit your goat cheese's impact on the environment, source your cheese from local producers who are raising their animals in the fresh air and sunshine where they belong and are using traditional methods rather than factory processing to make their cheese.

Characteristics

Goat cheese takes many forms. Some types that are commonly made with cows' milk, such as cheddar and Brie, can be made with goat milk instead. And other varieties are unique to goat's particular brand of goodness. A few of the most popular styles include: 

Chèvre is another name for fresh, un-aged goat cheese. Its texture is fluffy and pillowy. Chèvre is often sold in vacuum-sealed logs and discs, which are perfectly fine; however, the sealing process can compress the paste. For the airiest chèvre, look for cheeses that are loosely wrapped, wrapped in cheese paper or offered in a resealable container. Chèvre is sometimes flavored with ingredients such as peppercorns or coated with herbs such as dill. 

Soft ripened goat cheeses often have a light, bloomy or wrinkled rind or are lightly coated in vegetable ash to protect them as they age. These cheeses are creamy and buttery with a more pronounced goat's milk flavor that develops as they ripen. 

Aged goat cheeses have a pronounced, assertive flavor that fully expresses the personality of the milk from which they are made. These cheeses can range in texture from soft and oozy, such as  , to firm and crumbly like goat Gouda.  

Goat feta is made from pressed curds that are cured in a salt brine. Like cow and sheep feta, goat feta is tangy and crumbly with a distinct goat flavor. 

What to look for

The rule for finding the best tasting goat cheese is the same for finding the best version of any cheese. Look for independent producers who are dedicated to their craft. As Monty Python would say, "Blessed are the cheese makers." Cheese made by hand under the watchful eye of a trained cheese maker will always be superior to a product stamped out on an assembly line. 

Nutrition and effects on the body

Sixty five percent of the world's fluid milk consumption is from goats' milk, not cows'. Goat milk and cheese contain smaller fat globules, which make the cheese easier to digest. So eaters who are lactose intolerant can often consume goat cheese with no ill effects. 

An ounce of goat cheese has 80 calories, six grams fat, 4.5 grams saturated fat, zero grams monounsaturated fat, five grams protein, zero grams carbohydrates, 130 milligrams sodium and 20 milligrams cholesterol. Goat cheese has less than one microgram of Vitamin K per ounce.

What to Do with It and Cooking

Fresh goat cheese is the most versatile. You can serve it as is as part of a cheese platter or on top of a salad. Goat cheese is terrific blended with cream cheese for an easy spread for crackers or crostini. Fresh goat cheese is terrific to cook with as well, and there are myriad recipes that demonstrate its versatility as a pizza topping, quiche ingredient, base for a sauce, layer of a tart and so much more. 

Storage

Fresh goat cheese that has been vacuum-sealed can stay in the refrigerator unopened for two months. Once it has been opened, it will be good for five to seven days. Aged cheese that has been cut will keep for five to seven days in the refrigerator as well. 

It's best not to wrap cheese in plastic. It needs to breathe to maintain flavor and shelf life. You can store fresh or aged cheese in a resealable container or a small glass bowl with a dish slid over the top to make a lid.

Stretching your food dollar through preservation

Fresh goat cheese can be frozen. Aging is in itself a preservation method, allowing the cheese to be enjoyed months after it is produced. 

Recipe

Goat Cheese Crostini

Goat cheese is easy to have on hand and leaps at the chance to help out when you're in a pinch in the kitchen. Make these crostini when unexpected guests pop by, your kids are screaming for a snack or as a light lunch. The flexible recipe serves as a canvas to use up any flavorful little bits you might have in the fridge. If you don't have anything to top the crostini, just drizzle them with a little honey and serve them up.

Ingredients:

1 baguette, cut crosswise into 1/4" slices

1 tablespoon olive oil

5 ounces of fresh goat cheese

Salt and pepper

Assorted toppings such as sliced olives, toasted walnuts, roasted red peppers, grilled vegetables, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions, fig jam, diced tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes, sliced pears or peaches, minced herbs such as dill or basil (optional) 

Method:

Preheat broiler. Arrange baguette slices on a cookie sheet and drizzle with oil. Place under the broiler until brown, 2-3 minutes. Using tongs, turn the slices over and brown the other side, an additional 1-2 minutes. Remove from the broiler. When cool enough to handle, spread with goat cheese and season with a sprinkle of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Top or drizzle with honey, as you like, and serve.