Brie is undoubtedly one of the most famous cheese varieties in the world. Originally from France, it shares a lot of similar characteristics with another French cheese, Camembert; also a rather renowned cheese variety (though nowhere near as popular as Brie itself, especially outside their native France).
Indeed, when the two are placed side by side, most people have trouble separating the two. But there are fairly many differences that set them apart as well and create distinct identities that endeared them both to many a cheese-lover across the world.
In this article, we’ll be breaking down the significant characteristics of both cheese varieties, how they compare to each other, and what makes each of them unique.
What is Brie Cheese?
Brie cheese is possibly the most famous soft French cheese in the world. Its name comes from the historic northern French region Brie (the modern-day Isle of France, north-central region of Paris), likely created by local monks in the early middle ages, possibly somewhere around the 7th century.
Brie is traditionally made from cow milk (though sometimes goat milk can be used). Originally made with unpasteurized whole milk, nowadays, plenty of Brie-style cheese is made with partially skimmed and pasteurized milk with only certain protected varieties with PDO status sticking to original guidelines.
Brie cheese color typically ranges from stark white to off-white with a grayish shade: a result of its famous soft rind that’s, in reality, an edible mold (Penicillium Candidum). The inside of the cheese is darker, a shade of cream white to pale yellow.
The texture of Brie cheese is very soft, smooth, and creamy due to Its high butterfat content (at least 60% and often reaching 75%). If not fully aged, it can even be used as a spread with a press of a knife. The inside of the cheese melts quickly, becoming stretchy and slightly gooey; however, the cheese is able to maintain its form somewhat.
What truly sets Brie cheese apart from other soft-ripened cheese is the flavor profile. Brie cheese taste is very mellow but rich, with complex undertones. Its most prominent flavor notes are cream and butter. Yet underneath, there are distinct nutty and mushroomy notes, with slight but noticeable sweetness, giving the aftertaste an unexpected depth from such a mild cheese.
How is Brie Cheese Made?
The process starts as with any other cheese: raw or pasteurized milk is heated and then imbued with enzymes and rennet to help it thicken and create curdles and yeast culture to foster rind formation. Then the curdles are cut, placed into molds, and drained of whey. The drained curds are then brined so that the paste acidity levels are appropriately regulated and inoculated with mold culture.
From then on, getting the right consistency and flavor profile is a matter of letting the cheese rest and age in the correct environment. This process lasts around 4 to 5 weeks, except for a few specific varieties.
The cheese wheel is traditionally supposed to be between 9 and 15 inches in diameter, cut into triangular wedges for packaging, but more and more often, the cheese is formed into smaller wheels of only 4-5 inches.
Types of Brie Cheese:
If we go deep into semantics, Brie is a style of cheese made according to specific rules to create a particular type of product rather than one specific variety. Certain French varieties of Brie cheese are protected but not all Brie cheese is necessarily French.
Brie de Meaux is the most famous of the protected varieties, with AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) status. It goes back to the 8th century, with a folktale connecting it to legendary Emperor Charlemagne. Made with unpasteurized milk, it has a rather robust flavor for Broe cheese, intensely buttery with distinct nutty undertones.
Brie de Melun is the only other protected Brie variety made with unpasteurized milk. Unlike different Brie varieties, it has a strong and uncharacteristically salty taste, with distinct umami undertones. There’s also a blue variety of Brie de Melun.
Brie Noir or Black Brie is a ripe Brie variety (usually made with either Brie de Meaux or de Melun), matured for up to two years. It has a dark brown hardened rind, a very dark yellow paste, and a crumbly texture. Black Brie cheese taste is intense, deeply earthy, and mushroomy, with noticeable bitter notes uncharacteristic of other Brie varieties.
Brie de Montereau is an unpressed Brie made with unpasteurized, partially skimmed milk. It has a distinct rind with rusty-red dotting. Its flavor is on the saltier side, though not as robust as de Melun.
Brie de Nangis is among the more standard Brie varieties in taste, mellow and buttery. What sets it apart is the texture, a little firmer than is characteristic of other Brie varieties, with a slightly chalky feeling at the center.
Triple Crème Brie is a type of Brie cheese with a butterfat content higher than 75%. It has a softer, creamier texture and richer, more buttery flavor.
There are multiple other Brie varieties with no protected status, produced in various French regions and outside the country, both by small artisans and large commercial creameries. As long as Brie cheese doesn’t claim the name of a specific French region while not being produced within it (and according to its guidelines), it can be made anywhere and will still be authentic Brie cheese.
What to Pair with Brie Cheese:
Most Brie cheese varieties are typically paired with moderately sweet and mellow ingredients that do not overwhelm the mild flavor of the cheese itself but instead accentuate the subtle but complex undertones.
Moderately mellow and crispy fruit is one classic pairing, such as apples and pears it’s often used with as a sandwich filling. Berries are another, especially cranberries, which are often used as a garnish for baked Brie. When eaten raw or laid out on a cheeseboard, it’s often eaten with grapes (one of the most common fruit choices for cheese and charcuterie boards due to the versatile flavor that pairs well with almost anything).
Jams and preserves will do just as well as fresh fruit, particularly those with a bit of a tang, like a cranberry, red currant, or blackberry. A more unusual but interesting option would be pepper jam or fruit salsa, with its spice cut through by butteriness from Brie cheese.
Brie is also a common pairing for most cured meats, particularly salami, pancetta, or salchichon, with robust meat flavor balanced by the cheese’s creaminess. But it’s a rather versatile cheese that can easily be paired with most cured meats.
Unsalted nuts are another popular pairing, especially when Brie is eaten raw. Again, the preference falls onto nuts with sweeter flavors like hazelnuts, Marcona almonds, pecans, and walnuts are the most common options.
Lastly, honey is the most popular ingredient to pair with Brie cheese in almost any configuration. It’s poured over cheese and fruit in sandwiches, used as a garnish alongside nuts and cranberries for baked Brie, or eaten alongside the cheese as is, by itself or with crackers.
What is Camembert Cheese?
Camembert is a soft French cheese, often mistaken for Brie due to its looks and texture. Like Brie, Camembert is covered with a soft rind of edible mold, either bright white or somewhat grayish, encasing a pale smooth paste a shade of cream or pale yellow.
Relatively young compared to Brie, it was created at the end of the 18th century, with the initial recipe a result of refinements made to Brie cheese. Or so the folktale goes: a cheesemaker from Normandy, Marie Harel, used to make proto-Camembert, a soft French cheese variety popular in her region. She worked with an Abbot from Brie to refine the recipe, incorporating Brie-making techniques; thus, modern Camembert cheese was born.
Camembert texture is similar to that of Brie cheese, soft and buttery, at least while cold or at room temperature. It’s more receptive to heat and tends to melt quicker while losing its shape and becoming runny.
The true difference between the two lies in flavor profiles. At first bite, they might seem similar, as Camembert cheese is also strongly creamy and buttery, but its undertones are more prominent, easily dominating the flavor. Camembert cheese is more intense and savory, with well-pronounced nutty and mushroomy notes and a distinct acidic tang not present in Brie,
Camembert’s aroma is also more robust, even somewhat pungent, compared to Brie’s.
How is Camembert Cheese Made?
Once again, the process starts with milk being warmed and mixed with mesophilic bacteria, rennet, and yeast. The milk can be whole or skimmed, pasteurized, or unpasteurized, though pasteurized is more common nowadays.
The curds are then transferred to Camembert molds and drained of all whey. This process step is more complicated and lasts significantly longer during Camembert production: the molds need to be turned every 6 to 12 hours and drained for up to 48 hours overall.
Once the cheese is given form, it’s infected with an edible mold (Penicillium Camemberti) and left to ripen. Camembert tends to mature faster than Brie and is fit for consumption as early as after three weeks.
Unlike Brie cheese which was initially formed into large wheels to be cut in wedges, the Camembert is typically molded into 4-inch pucks weighing around 9oz. But as with Brie, production methods are slowly changing, and finding a Camembert wedge nowadays is almost as common as finding a small-sized Brie wheel.
Types of Camembert Cheese:
Similar to Brie cheese, Camembert isn’t by itself a protected term, so Camembert-style cheese can be produced anywhere in the world. The standard Camembert cheese is sometimes labeled as Camembert de Caractère, which means Camembert of character.
There is only one Camembert variety with protected status, Camembert de Normandie. It holds both French AOC and the EU’s PDO (Protecting Designation of Origin). It’s traditionally made with unpasteurized milk, though there’s been a slow but inevitable switch to pasteurized milk in the recent decade. Primarily due to the export complications with unpasteurized cheese. Due to this change in the production process, Camembert de Normandie, made with unpasteurized raw milk, is often marked as Au Lait Cru.
Camembert de Normandie has a rich and buttery flavor characteristic of all Camemberts, but with somewhat lighter, grassy, and fruity undertones. The earthiness and grassiness are more pronounced in Camembert, made with unpasteurized milk.
Classic Camembert has a lower butterfat content than Brie, with around 35% to 45%. But sometimes, more cream is added to the milk before the curdles form, bringing up the butterfat content. Camembert made with extra cream is labeled Double Crème Camembert. Double Crème means that the fat content of the cheese is over 60%. Brie is automatically considered Double Crème cheese and doesn’t require additional marking.
Interestingly, the Double and Triple Crème cheesemaking tradition emerged in mid-19th century Normandy, making Camembert a natural choice for the experiment.
What to Pair with Camembert Cheese:
Camembert cheese is often paired with similar ingredients to Brie cheese, and while it can definitely work with them, its robust flavor allows for more versatility.
For example, while the crispy, moderately sweet fruit works just as well with Camembert as with Brie, it can also do a better job balancing sweeter fruit like figs, apricots, and peaches, which aren’t considered to be the best pairing options for Brie. Berries, due to their sweet-and-sour flavor, also work best with Camembert. Even citrus such as oranges and tangerines can work when properly riper and on the sweeter side, yet still maintaining the characteristic zing.
Spice, especially a combination of sweetness and spice, pairs particularly well with Camembert, so unique spicy preserves and condiments like pepper or tomato jam, fruit salsa, or mango chutney are all pairings worth exploring.
Similar to Brie, it pairs well with almost any cured meat you can think of; salt, sweetness, or spice, all well-balanced with the rich buttery flavor, more robust than Brie, and harder to overwhelm. I particularly enjoy pairing it with spicier ones, like chorizo, pepperoni, and soppressata.
Can I Use Camembert Instead of Brie?
Despite the differences between the flavors and texture of Brie and Camembert cheeses, they’re typically considered to be the best substitutes for each other. While not 100% ideal, their similarities in texture and dominant flavor notes make them easy to pair with similar ingredients, primarily when used in more complex combinations.
You might need to regulate the heat a little more carefully when using Camembert instead of Brie, as its form isn’t as easily maintained. Otherwise, unless each cheese is tasted separately, these differences are easy to either ignore or compensate for.