New & NowCheese

Learning to Love the Ugly Stepchild of the Dairy World

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First, the cold hard facts: From 2015 to 2016, “The cottage cheese category’s dollar sales increased 1.2% to $1.1 billion.”

This is straight from the May issue of Dairy Foods magazine (for all your lactose news needs). In short, cottage cheese is having a resurgence. The oft-maligned food is being reconsidered, with a keener, more creative eye. (We are a society, after all, that now considers quinoa a breakfast food and roasted kale an acceptable stand-in for potato chips.)

But I’m not here to talk about the renewed love affair with cottage cheese that has gripped the nation. This is about one woman’s own cottage cheese awakening.

It’s Saturday morning, 8:04 A.M., precisely 4 minutes after the Trader Joe’s in Brooklyn has swung open its doors for a day of breakneck, angry shopping. I’ve got an eighth of a caffeine buzz from the complimentary shot glass-sized coffee I just downed. Today’s free sample—meticulously portioned squares of a jelly-filled breakfast bar—quickly followed. (Rules to live by: Never turn down a free sample.)

I’m not a shopping list girl—I show up early so I have some time to pace the aisles, plotting elaborate feasts that usually end up with me eating what I like to call “Desperation Hummus” hunched over my kitchen island. But shopping without structure also leaves me wide open to new frontiers. I alight on the dairy case, ready to snatch up an enticing package of string cheese. I contemplate a tub of feta, whose final cubic centimeter, despite my best intentions, will no doubt sour before I can use it all up.

Eyes scan over a pint-sized tub: cottage cheese.

The word association begins: Cottage cheese. Diet. Low fat. Jazzercise. Jane Fonda. Leotard. Spandex. Neon.

Notice that most of these words have very little to with food.

Despite aerobics videos playing in my head, I decided it was time I gave cottage cheese a shot. See, I’d never even tasted it before. I was one of those kids who hated cheese growing up (or was that just me?) and gagged at the thought of consuming the strange, watery stuff. But now, armed with a fully-matured palate (I eat olives now!), my interest was piqued.

I tucked the tub into my basket, which up to this point held only string cheese and a package of chocolate-covered potato chips (how did those get in there!?). I hastened to the checkout before I could change my mind.

The cottage cheese dressing on Jamie Oliver's Smoked Beets will make a C.C. lover out of anyone.

Fast forward to later that day…

It took only a spoonful to decide: I liked it. I liked the nubby, squeaky curds. I liked the sour and salty taste. It was rich and creamy, but not heavy. Cottage cheese inspiration flickered into view, the excitement of something new (and unusual) to incorporate into my cooking.

That single bite had me convinced. In my own little corner of the world, cottage cheese had ARRIVED.

To say cottage cheese is “back” would be discrediting its long-time devotees (in 2013, the equivalent of 2 pounds per every person was consumed in the U.S.—that’s over 600 million pounds of cottage cheese). We’ve even touted its merits on this very site. Claiming cottage cheese as the new kefir/crème fraîche/labne/other-en-vogue-dairy-product would be diminishing its unique properties. Cottage cheese is its own beast.

Cowgirl Creamery's Cottage Cheese Pancakes with Crème Fraîche
Cowgirl Creamery's Cottage Cheese Pancakes with Crème Fraîche

It’s not fey or fluffy (looking at you, ricotta). It’s stocky and reliable. It’s without the suave silkiness of Greek yogurt, the charmer that gets along almost too well with most everything. Cottage cheese has got a funk and a feel that doesn’t fit in everywhere. It’s a little bit socially awkward. Not to get too armchair-psychologist here, but maybe that’s why I identify with it so much: I’ve always valued the underdog, the overlooked.

Cottage cheese, in its earnestness, has found its way into my heart and onto my table:

  • Dolloped on toast, a lumpy daybed for roasted and burst cherry tomatoes, toasty chopped hazelnuts, or seeds of varied trendiness (hemp? chia?).
  • As the Triple C (Cottage Cheese Classic): Mixed up with chunks of syrupy, sugary fruits. I’m partial to the candy-sweet ataulfo mango, myself. The O.G. accompaniment is pineapple, and not for nothing. It’s a winning combo.
  • In a comfy-cozy rice and mushroom casserole (don’t stop reading! Resurrect the casserole!) from Heidi Swanson.
  • FRIED. Uh huh. Whisked up with eggs, flour, and salt, formed into patties, and plopped into shimmering oil. Hot sauce optional.
  • On pizza. (Here, I’d drain it first to get out some of the moisture). Plays nice with other cheeses and roasted red peppers.
  • In its little black dress, a couple grinds of black pepper and a splash of olive oil.

And in its natural state, unadorned, proud of who it is.

Fresh ricotta is practically a cottage cheese doppelgänger.
Fresh ricotta is practically a cottage cheese doppelgänger. Photo by James Ransom

Cottage cheese incites many opinions. Over low-fat versus full-fat (I’ve only experimented with full-fat). Over additives (many brands use thickeners and stabilizers like xanthan and guar gum.) Over superior brands. (One message board I found had over 200 comments arguing curd size, relative sourness, and optimal creaminess).

For me, I’m not overthinking it. Plain, uncomplicated cottage cheese wouldn’t want me to.

Any other foods that incite more condemnation and scorn than they deserve? Tell us in the comments!

Tags: Cottage Cheese, Long Reads, Ingredients