Blue cheese overwhelms me, but not because of its flavor. The number of varieties commercially available is what blows my mind. Blue cheese is one style of specialty cheese that can be found almost everywhere, with wildly differing quality and flavor. The varieties range from the nondescript grocery store containers of moist and salty crumbles to the crowd-pleasing but bold traditional Roquefort or Gorgonzola to the mild amber paste of a nutty Stilton to the mouth-numbing crunch of a leaf-wrapped Spanish Valdeon. The United States even has a few excellent artisan examples. On our coast, some notable blues I’ve found are made by Rogue Creamery in Oregon, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese in Point Reyes, California, and Twin Sisters Creamery in Ferndale, Washington.

Perhaps my fascination with blue cheese is a bit more personal: raised with a Midwestern palette, blue cheese was always seen as an extreme food, even too extreme for salad dressing. In my family, you never ordered the blue cheese dressing because it might be too strong. As an amateur cheesemaker and cheese taster, I’ve learned that blues should be destined for more than dressings and sauces—quality blues should be eaten the same way any other excellent cheese is enjoyed—alone my preference or on a cracker. The more variation of paste color, blue or green mold veins and strength, the better. There is nothing outrageous or strange about a good blue cheese—it is just another flavor variation in this artful food that uses mold, bacteria and milk.

At its heart, blue cheese is all about two molds: Penicillium roqueforti blue mold and Penicillium glaucum green mold. In the case of a quickly maturing petit blue—a variation of Brie, except it uses blue P. roqueforti instead of white P. candidum—the mold powder is added to the milk before processing. For longer-aged blue cheeses, the mold powder is actually added to the curds after they have settled for a period of time. Have you ever wondered why some blue cheese veins seem so straight that they form a pattern? That’s because blue mold thrives with oxygen, and the best way to get oxygen into the center of the cheese is to pierce it with a sharp and skinny metal rod during maturing. In the home cheese kitchen, I simply use a kabob skewer, but commercial blue cheese piercing machines BCPMs are much more thorough and fast, and look like a torture device you might see in a horror movie.

Following the common factor of blue or green mold, the process for making blue cheese and the time for aging it varies greatly. The longer a blue cheese is aged—like any aged cheese—the more the flavors will change and develop, some mellowing, others intensifying. Other molds may grow on the outside of the cheese and will either be suppressed by the affineur that’s a fancy word for a person who monitors the aging of cheese by washing the rinds, or in some cases, those molds will be allowed to flourish. The process for making the blue cheese involves some room-temperature ripening times to let the milk or curds get good and sour. For my petite blues, the bacterial culture sours the milk during a ripening of nearly two hours before rennet is added for curdling, and for aged blues, the milk is not ripened. Instead, the curds are left to drain for a day or two for this to happen. Once the curds of aged blues—like Gorgonzola or traditional Roquefort—have drained, the curds are broken into chunks, are sprinkled with P. roqueforti or P. glaucum powder and are pressed into mold forms for aging.

I have yet to make an aged blue, but I have made several variations of a petite blue that is made in the same style as a Brie, and usually ends up with a similar texture. The piercing usually causes a little bit of water loss, so the end result is that the paste has been a little drier and crumblier than a Camembert, and more blue-cheese like. The first time I made it, I had trouble regulating temperature, and the holes I poked in the cheese did not really fill in with blue mold. The first batch also had a really healthy bloom of blue mold on the outside of the cheese which I just left there. In subsequent batches, I figured out that an early piercing was better—just as the blue mold began to bloom on the outside of the rounds—and that a cooler temperature for affinage was essential around 52 degrees instead of the usual 55. Another trick I learned from my online cheesemaking friends was that, beautiful as I believed the blue mold to be, it is traditional to scrape it, leaving the surface a little more aesthetically pleasing for those eating it.

On a recent trip up the coast of California and Oregon, I decided to put a blue cheese board together for my family who lives on the coast of Oregon. I found three blue cheeses made by Rogue Creamery in Grants Pass and Central Point, Oregon: their Caveman Blue, Oregonzola and Smokey Blue. Just to round out the tasting, I found a grocery store house brand blue cheese Lucerne—Vons/Safeway. Of the cheeses on this board, the Caveman Blue disappeared first. In contrast to Rogue’s other blues, which were pretty sharp and strong, Caveman Blue was a creamy, nutty, and pleasant experience. Rogue’s Smokey Blue, cold-smoked over hazelnut shells, is exactly what you might expect—smokey flavors sublimely married to the flavor of the cheese. I find that smoked cheeses often have a bitterness most likely due to liquid smoke or overpowering flavor, but Rogue’s blue is an exception. The house brand blue was especially interesting as a contrast to the other blues on the board—it lacked blue veins, was watery and salty, though it did have a sourness reminiscent of a traditional blue. When it came down to it, it did not stand up to the quality of the other cheeses.

Wanting to push my luck even more, I put together another cheese board, this time at a local church gathering. Among other cheeses, I presented Twin Sisters Creamery’s Whatcom blue and Long Clawson Creamery’s Stilton. Except for the rind on the Stilton, on the board, these blues looked similar, but the Whatcom was sharp and sour, while the Stilton was nutty and so mild, it almost didn’t seem like a blue cheese in comparison. But one thing happened that surprised me: on a cheese board that also contained flavored Jack cheeses a popular item at one Southern Oregon creamery, both blue cheeses on this board were the first to disappear. This is another sign to me that people’s palettes are changing, and are ready to try something with more flavor, and a sign that our domestic cheese can stand up to the best standards of international cheeses.