It’s easy to feel intimidated by fancy cheese. There are hard-to-pronounce French names, some really curious smells, and centuries of history and tradition in every bite.
I’ve worked in cheese for 6 years now. I teach classes on cheese, its history, how it’s made, and how to pair it. I can pair any given cheese with wine, spirits, beer, or cocktails in my sleep.
But there’s a cheese pairing category out there that doesn’t get nearly enough attention: snack foods and cheese. Yeah, you heard right. Instead of getting out the $7-a-box artisanal crackers, try using your favorite snack food — pretzels, chocolate bars, potato chips, even Doritos! — as a base for your cheese. It may not be what you’re used to but trust me on this…
Cheese doesn’t have to be fussy or fancy — it should be fun (and, of course, utterly delicious)! And there’s something about sweet and salty snacks that makes us feel like kids again, more willing to experiment. There’s no Doritos sommelier* out there judging us, so you’re free to gleefully play with your food and find the combos that work for you.
I’ll admit, I’ve done my fair share of experimenting. Here are some standout cheese-and-snack-food pairings that I love and think you may too.
*though if this is a real job, I would like to submit my application, please.
This is my holy grail snack and cheese pairing. Harbison is a bark-wrapped brie-style (cheese nerds call this style “bloomy rind”) cheese from Vermont, with rustic vibes and a cult following among cheesemongers. It tastes like you went to the green market, bought a basket of wild mushrooms, sauteed them in butter, and took them on a picnic deep in the woods. When Harbison is ripe and at room temperature, it has a gooey, fondue-like texture that’s perfect for dipping.
Play around with different potato chips — I’ve sometimes enjoyed salt, and vinegar chips with Harbison, and some truffle-heads enjoy truffle chips — but Harbison is both complex enough and delicate enough that I like for it to have the spotlight. Plain potato chips impart crunch and a bit of starch, and you’re left with a perfect bite.
As far as I know, kimchi and cheese is not a traditional pairing. It is, however, an exceptional one.
When Americans think of brie-style cheeses, we generally think of milky, mild, and vaguely mushroomy cheeses that mostly remind us of butter with a rind. But when the French (who invented this style of cheese) think of brie-styles, they generally think of more strongly-flavored cheeses, with notes of broccoli, cauliflower, onions, and garlic. There’s big broccoli energy in those French brie-styles, or at least the ones made for the French palate.
Camembert Fermier is a bloomy rind made in France with the French flavor profile in mind. When paired with kimchi, food with big cabbage energy, something very strange happens. The vegetal flavors zero each other out, and the pairing goes completely buttery. It’s bizarre and fascinating. If you’re the type who stocks kimchi in your fridge for a quick snack, get yourself some Camembert Fermier and go to town.
How to find Camembert Fermier cheese
If you’re interested in this type of cheese but are having trouble finding it, ask at your local cheese counter for a brie-style cheese with more vegetal flavors. There are fewer of these cheeses in the United States, but they do exist. The producer, Ferme de Jouvence, also makes a Brie Fermier that is similarly great with kimchi.
If there’s one thing crunchy FUNYUNS lack that their onion ring cousins have (other than real onions), it’s a good dip. That’s where Epoisses, an oozy French cheese packaged in a little round wooden box, hits the mark.
The first thing you should know is that Epoisses is notoriously stinky. I have, at one point, called Epoisses’s aroma, “like stinky feet with a yeast infection.” It’s so smelly that it’s (falsely) rumored to be banned on the French subway. But if you’re brave enough to give it a shot, you’ll realize that it smells far scarier than it tastes. When you temper the aroma with fat, protein, a dreamy oozy texture, and bacon-like flavor, suddenly there’s much more to it. It’s hard to just have one bite. It’s like the difference between chomping on straight anchovies versus throwing one filet into a dressing. Balance is key!
You can dip a baguette or some cured meat in Epoisses. Both are lovely. But if you want to up those meaty, umami flavors in the cheese, dip FUNYUNS instead. The crunch makes a delightful textural contrast with the oozy cheese, and the cartoony onion flavors bring out extra bacon-y flavor. You’ll never be afraid of stinky French cheese again.
Milton Creamery Prairie Breeze is a fairly new, sweeter style of cheddar, which some folks call an Alpine cheddar. It’s the George Clooney of cheeses. Everyone likes it, and it’s perfect in just about every situation. There’s no sugar, but some added cultures unlock flavors of toffee, caramel corn, and grilled pineapple. It’s creamy but has those crunchy cheese crystals that we all love. If you’re ever unsure which cheese to bring to a party, bring Prairie Breeze.
One of my favorite snacks to pair with Prairie Breeze is SKIPPY SUPER CHUNK Peanut Butter. Just spoon it right onto your cheese slice, and enjoy. You could have it with any peanut butter, really, but I like a bit of sweetness from the PB to show off the desserty flavors in the cheese, and the crunch of the peanut butter meshes beautifully with the crunchy cheese crystals.
Enjoy this pairing in the morning with coffee, and pat yourself on the back for a protein-rich breakfast.
Quicke’s is an iconic British clothbound cheese producer who’s been in the dairy game for about five centuries now. Their Devonshire Red Truckle is a play on the classic cheese Red Leicester, colored a deep orange with annatto (the same coloring used in grocery store cheddar).
One tasting note I always get from Quicke’s is horseradish, layered in with notes of grass and freshly rained-upon soil. You can practically taste the landscape that those happy cows live on.
When you pair Red Truckle with DORITOS Nacho Cheese Flavored Tortilla Chips, it’s like mega DORITOS. You get that zippy, bold, quintessentially cheesy flavor, but oomphed 10 times over by the complexity of the Quicke’s. Totally wild. The orange cheese atop the orange chip is also striking.
When you age gouda a few years, you get deep, delightful notes of butterscotch, caramel, and toffee. It’s the most desserty cheese ever, especially when you add in the amino acid crystals that come around when it’s more than a year old.
Roomano is one of the more desserty aged goudas out there, and pairing it with a chocolaty Crunch Bar makes it doubly crunchy and doubly desserty. Next time you entertain, serve this as the dessert course and prepare to be hailed as a genius.
Use a mini Crunch Bar as a “cracker” for a piece of Roomano. Don’t worry if the cheese doesn’t slice into a perfect rectangle — most cheesemongers will just take a chunk off and serve it that way.
Stilton is a classic British blue cheese, and Colston Bassett’s version is especially balanced. You get some peppery flavor from the blue mold, but it’s layered in with other savory flavors into the creamy yet crumbly cheese in a way that can even win over blue cheese haters. If you REALLY want to win over those haters, pair it with KitKats. Yes, KitKats.
The maltiness from the KitKat wafers brings out toasty flavors in the Stilton, especially on the rind (one of my favorite parts of Stilton), and lets the blue mold shine in a totally accessible way. It’s like a bit of salt atop a chocolate chip cookie, the contrast that brings everything together.
Christine Clark is a professional food and beverage nerd. She’s a Certified Cheese Professional by the American Cheese Society, with bylines in Food52, Wine Enthusiast, VinePair, Epicurious, AllRecipes, and more. You can follow her on Instagram here or check out her website here.