As restaurants look to establish extra color and flavor in their menus, they are discovering that they can easily add a little bit of blue—blue cheese, that is.
Americans are increasingly experimenting with more robust flavors, so the big, flavorful, and salty taste of blue cheese is no longer restricted to wine and cheese parties and white tablecloth bistros. It’s part of everyday restaurant life.
“People are getting more educated and exposed to foods of all kinds and with many flavors,” says Liz Thorpe, vice president of Murray’s Cheese, a New York cheese retailer. “Today, blue cheese is a common option among Americans, both at home and in restaurants.”
A recent survey by Technomic, a Chicago-based food research and consulting firm, found a 9 percent jump in blue cheese menu items at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants during the past two years. And the cheese is showing up in all types of menu categories.
Consumers “want something different,” says Scott Robert Paul, chef and Southeast sales manager for Wisconsin-based BelGioioso Cheese Inc. Restaurants are seeking “more savory ingredients instead of a slice of cheddar, which has been done forever.”
At the same time, “adding blue cheese increases the perceived quality of the menu items and can be sold at a higher price point,” says Bernadette Noone, director of product management at Technomic.
Although blue cheese is a relatively recent addition to the typical American’s palate, it has been a staple for years in Europe, where that cheese had its origins.
The name blue cheese is derived from the blue veins or spots created by a penicillium mold that grows naturally within the cheese made from the milk of cows, sheep, or goats.
It can be soft or hard, mild or intense, and includes varieties such as Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Stilton, and Cabrales, says John Fischer, an associate professor in hospitality and service management at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and author of Cheese.
“When you’re making a cheese at the outset, you’re deciding if it is hard or soft cheese by how big the curd is” before it is squeezed and pressed, he says. Aging also has an effect, because “the more it ages, the more it dries. Like a sauce, what remains is more intense.”
With blue cheese, “the feistiest varieties have more veining, with more flavor and fat content,” Fischer says.
“Customers came to crave very robust flavors, so blue cheese stuck with the market after the low-carb fad came and went,” says Tom Ryan, a long-time restaurant veteran and the founder of Smashburger, a 55-unit, Denver-based burger chain that launched in 2007.
But not all blue cheeses are the same. Café Express features crumbled Danish blue cheese as part of a Smoked Turkey Cobb salad, which also includes turkey, several types of lettuce, half an avocado, grape tomatoes, bacon, chopped eggs, and homemade croutons in a vinaigrette dressing.
“We had very specific criteria for our blue cheese, and that’s why we chose the more expensive Danish one,” says Greg Martin, corporate chef for Café Express, which has 17 locations in Texas.
“It had to have the blue color, unlike cheaper kinds that can be sort of greenish,” Martin says. “It is not overly salted like an inferior cheese, and it has good crumble. That means it doesn’t gum up or stick together after it is crumbled from a wheel of cheese.”