If you’re a lover of robust, tangy, and sharp flavors, then there’s a high chance you’re already an enjoyer of blue cheese. If not by itself, then maybe as a dressing for buffalo chicken wings, a steak sauce, or an ingredient in Quattro Formaggi pizza.
Maybe you even make all these (and more) at home and have a little stash of your favorite blue cheese in the refrigerator right now, be it crumbled or a wedge.
If so, then there’s a question I’d like you to answer: which one is it, and why is it your favorite over all the rest? Those who have the answer ready may not be in need of the introductory part of this article, but I’d advise you to stick around for the latter half; maybe you’ll find something new and exciting.
But those, who only know blue cheese as one type of product, may want to give it a bigger chance. It’s a lot more complex and interesting than one might think, coming in a great variety of flavors and textures. Who knows, you might’ve not even tried the one you’ll like best.
What is Blue Cheese?
While sometimes (often) packaging makes it seem like blue cheese is one singular type of product, in reality, it’s just a general classification of more than a couple of dozen cheese varieties that only have one thing in common: they’ve all been injected by a type of mold Penicillium culture at some point during the production process.
The mold injection is responsible for the distinct way blue cheese looks, with bright strikes of dark veins throughout the pale interior. That’s it; that’s the one thing all of them have in common with one another. The rest of it all differs:
- The aroma can be relatively mild, or it can be punch-in-the-face sharp;
- The texture can vary from soft and spreadable to hard and crumbly;
- The flavor profile can be relatively mellow and moderately savory, or it can be pungent, sharp, and salty;
- While sheep and cow milk (either pasteurized or unpasteurized) are the most common milk types used, It can be made from almost any kind of milk (including goat and buffalo);
- The mold culture can be introduced before the cheese curds form or mixed in after the curds have already formed.
Even the Penicillium mold used can differ. For fairness’ sake, most types of blue cheese are made with Penicillium Roqueforti; however, Penicillium Glaucum is not an uncommon option.
But some blue cheese is relatively mild, and some blue cheese is pungent and sharp. Some are soft and spreadable, and some are hard and crumbly. Some are made with sheep milk, and some with cow milk. Simply sticking a label of blue cheese (or bleu cheese, using the original French spelling to make it seem fancier) on the packaging and calling it a day is a disservice both to the cheese and the potential consumer: not liking a specific blue cheese (strength, aroma, flavor) doesn’t mean you’ll dislike all (or even most) of them.
Let’s break down the most popular types of blue cheese and how they differ from one another.
The 5 Traditional Types of Blue Cheese:
Despite the long list of options, five blue cheese varieties are considered “traditional classics.” Their history goes back centuries, and they’re widely regarded as staple products in their native countries. The production of these cheese varieties is generally tightly regulated, and authentic varieties have been granted PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) or PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) by the EU.
Roquefort is widely considered to be the original blue cheese (and yes, the penicillin mold is named after it!). The legend goes that a young shepherd from Roquefort-sur-Soulzon forgot his lunch of bread and cheese in a local cave when chasing after a beautiful girl. Once he returned to retrieve his items, he found that they were moldy, but ate the cheese anyway, only to discover that it was delicious. According to various historical sources, bleu cheese was found in France as early as 1AD.
Roquefort is made with unpasteurized sheep milk. It’s a semi-hard and crumbly but creamy cheese with dark white paste and bright blue-green veins. It has one of the most pungent smells among blue cheese varieties, along with a sharp, highly salty, and acidic taste.
I was surprised to find just how popular the “is gorgonzola blue cheese” seems to be. A famous cheese in its own right, it has somehow been divorced from its character, no doubt continuous labeling of blue cheese as an independent product playing part.
Indeed, Gorgonzola is a type of blue cheese, the seminal Italian variety of it. The origins have been traced to the 11th-century Milanese town of Gorgonzola, though the claim is disputed.
Gorgonzola is made with whole pasteurized cow milk. It comes in two varieties:
- Gorgonzola Dolce, a soft variety with a creamy texture and mild, buttery flavor;
- Gorgonzola Piccante, a hard variety with a crumbly texture and rich, intense flavor.
Gorgonzola is the most famous variety of blue cheese made with Penicillium Glaucum instead of Penicillium Roqueforti. If you’ve only tasted blue cheese in Quatro Formaggi pizza, pasta sauce, or blue cheese dressing, it was likely Gorgonzola.
Queso de Cabrales is a bit special because, unlike most other types of blue cheese, it’s not made with just one milk variety. Cabrales can be made with either cow, goat, or sheep milk, as long as the milk must be raw and unpasteurized.
Among blue cheese varieties, it has one of the most distinct looks, with a darker, almost yellowish paste and an extensive cover of blue-gray veins, sometimes making it seem like the cheese is more veins than paste.
Cabrales cheese has a firm, but moist and creamy texture, determined by its high-fat content (at least 45%), with a robust, salty, and slightly spicy flavor that gets sharper and more acidic as the cheese ages. Its smell is also on the stronger side.
English Blue Stilton Cheese
Stilton cheese isn’t necessarily a blue cheese; it's commonly produced without adding penicillin mold. One of the most beloved cheeses in the UK, with its roots in the early 18th century, it’s sometimes called “the King of English Cheeses.”
Blue Stilton is made with full cream pasteurized cow’s milk and must have at least 48% milk fat content, which determines its creamy and crumbly texture. It’s an unpressed cheese that forms a natural rind, which is thin, smooth, and moist. The flavor is fresh and creamy, somewhat similar to Gorgonzola Dolce, but tangier.
Stichelton is a cheese similar to Blue Stilton, with one significant difference: it’s made with unpasteurized milk.
Danablu is the youngest cheese on this list; it was invented only at the beginning of the 20th century. Yet, it’s considered one of the seminal Danish cheeses and is only one of three that the EU has granted PGI status.
Danablu (often marketed as Danish Blue in the US) is made from full-fat pasteurized cow milk. It’s usually white or pale yellow in color. Danablu has a semi-soft, creamy, and crumbly texture and a more mellow flavor than most other types of blue cheese, though still with distinct sharpness and a savory, slightly bitter bite.
The Modern Classics:
While neither considered as seminal as the five varieties described above nor consumed anywhere nearly at their level, the following types of blue cheese all have established themselves as ones worthy of attention and have slowly but steadily widened their consumer base.
French Bleu Cheese Varieties:
France, unsurprisingly, has the most varieties of blue cheese, each with a distinct texture, flavor profile, and production style.
Fourme d’Ambert from Auvergne is almost as old as Roquefort, dating back to Roman times. Made from raw cow milk, it has stark dark-blue veins, a creamy texture, and a mild, mushroomy, slightly earthy flavor.
Bleu du Vercors-Sassenage from Rhône-Alpes dates back to the 14th century. Made with pasteurized cow milk, it has a soft and buttery texture and a mellow, slightly sweet flavor.
Bleu d’Auvergne is another Auvergnese specialty made with raw cow milk. The significant difference from other bleu cheese is that it’s made with Penicillium Glaucum. Bleu d’Auvergne has a moist but crumbly texture, with a sharp, spicy, and grassy flavor.
Bleu de Bresse is one of the newer bleu cheese varieties; developed in Bresse after WWII. Its texture is somewhat reminiscent of Brie, soft, creamy, and spreadable. Bleu de Bresse is more mellow, both in flavor and aroma than most other blue cheese varieties, with only a slight bite.
Bleu de Gex is an unpasteurized cow milk cheese from the Jura region. Its aging period is shorter than most bleu cheese, and subsequently, it has a milder flavor, mostly nutty and buttery, with a bit of spiciness from the mold.
Spanish Picón Bejes-Tresviso
Another protected blue cheese variety from Spain, Picón Bejes-Tresviso, is made from a mixture of sheep, cow, and goat milk. Its color ranges from dark ivory to yellowish, with large blue veins. The cheese texture is semi-hard and buttery, while the flavor is savory and slightly spicy.
Cambozola is another soft and creamy blue cheese made with whole cow milk and cream. It looks similar to Brie (or Bleu de Bresse, if you will). The recipe was developed in the 1970s, making this one of the youngest cheeses on the list. Cambozola has a robust aroma and a sharp flavor with buttery, nutty, and slightly sweet undertones.
While the name is derived from French Roquefort, this seminal Polish blue cheese has more in common with Danablu, as it’s made with cow milk. Rokpol has a white interior with widespread dark blue-green veins. Its taste is more robust than Danablu, savory, with a moderately acidic bite.
English Shropshire Blue
Shropshire Blue is likely the most visually distinct cheese on this list since its interior is dark yellow, almost orange, instead of some shade of white. The color comes from annatto, the same condiment that gives Yellow Cheddar its signature color.
Invented in the 1970s in Inverness, it’s made with pasteurized cow milk and vegetable rennet. Shropshire blue has a semi-soft, moist texture (creamier than Stilton) with a sharp, salty, slightly sour flavor.
Canadian Bleu Bénédictin
Quite possibly the most famous artisanal blue cheese in the world, Bleu Bénédictin is made only at one specific establishment: Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, located in Quebec. It came to prominence in 2000 after winning the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix.
Bleu Bénédictin has a texture that ranges from semi-hard (towards the rind) to semi-soft and creamy (towards the center). The paste is yellowish, dotted with dark blue-green veins. The flavor is more on the mellow side for blue cheese but still quite salty, with a nutty and mushroomy flavor.
English Wensleydale Blue
Similar to Stilton cheese, Wensleydale Blue isn’t an independent type of blue cheese. It’s simply a sub-type of Wensleydale cheese mixed with penicillin mold during the production process. Wensleydale is commonly blended with other ingredients like dried fruit, honey, herbs, etc., so it was but a natural progression of things when 19th-century cheesemaker Thomas Nuttall decided to blend it with a mold culture. Blue Wensleydale’s flavor is more mellow than Roquefort, Cabrales, or English’s own Blue Stilton, closer to Danablue or Gorgonzola Dolce.
What Other Types of Blue Cheese are There?
The list above might cover a wide variety of blue cheese types, but it’s not nearly all. The handy thing about the blue cheese classification is that any cheese that’s been mixed with a penicillin mold (be it Roquefort or Glaucum) can enter the list, no matter where it was produced and what type of milk was used (cow or goat, pasteurized or unpasteurized, whole or skimmed).
Many countries have their own version of blue cheese, though lesser-known, especially outside their native borders than Roquefort, Gorgonzola, or even more local favorites like Bleu d’Auvergne, Shropshire, or Rokpol. Some of these lesser-known examples would be Swedish Adelost, Swiss Bleuchâtel, English Dovedale (another PDO variety), or our own Maytag Blue (an artisanal US cheese produced exclusively by Maytag Dairy Farms in Iowa).