by Allison Mott, BFC Cheese Department
The short answer is, no. The longer answer is, sometimes.
Salt turns out to be a surprisingly important component of cheese. During the manufacturing process, it helps the curds contract and expel moisture, which is important for getting the cheese dry enough to age properly. Cheesemakers apply it to a newly-made cheese to halt acid production, because a cheese that is too acidic will become brittle and bitter. Salt helps to control microbiological growth, favoring the proliferation of some bacteria over others. This has implications for food safety, and also for flavor development, since bacteria determine the pathways by which bland milk becomes flavorful cheese. And finally, salt slows decomposition, explaining the prevalence of brine-soaked cheeses such as feta in hot climates.
So, what if the doctor tells you to cut down your sodium intake? Do you have to give up cheese? Absolutely not. Here are some strategies for finding lower salt alternatives.
If you’re looking for a firm, aged cheese, consider the Swiss styles. These cheeses, developed high in the Swiss Alps where salt had to be carried up on foot, employ special cutting and heating procedures, which allow the use of less salt to reach their moisture targets. Interestingly, the lower salt content also allows a bacterium to flourish, which produces carbon dioxide gas, resulting in the holes characteristic of Swiss cheese. So, if you see holes, you know you’re looking at a lower salt cheese. Jarlsberg, for instance, though not strictly speaking a Swiss cheese, has lots of flavor but only 175 mg of sodium per serving (145 mg if you choose the low-fat version).
The non-aged, fresh cheeses, like fresh mozzarella, chèvre, and cream cheese are generally salted very lightly, primarily for flavor. Vermont Creamery chèvre, for example, is only 45 mg per serving, and their mascarpone and creme fraîche have no added salt. And who doesn’t know the pleasures of a slice of fresh mozzarella layered with fresh tomatoes, basil, and a drizzle of olive oil. All very low sodium. Be careful about cottage cheese, though. Most varieties depend on salt to make them palatable.
For you DIYers out there, try making your own salt-free cheese from yogurt. Line a colander with cheesecloth. Dump in your favorite brand of plain yogurt. Layer it, if you wish, with herbs of your choice, and let it drain for several hours— the longer you let it drain, the firmer it will become. You can even pull up the edges of the cheesecloth, twisting them to make a bag, place the bagged cheese between two plates, and add a weight on top for a few hours. (An iron frying pan works well.) The resulting cheese will be firm enough to slice, though crumbly, and flavored just the way you like it. Stop by the cheese counter and we’ll tell you how to make homemade paneer—perfect for Saag Paneer, and the local fresh spinach is in!
To salt or not to salt? Whichever you choose, there is a cheese for you.