In the cheese world, fontina is a challenge to clearly define. Depending on where and how it is made, it can vary in intensity, from mildly milky to earthy or mushroomy, often with a pleasant sweetness that enhances other ingredients. Some are described as being nutty or sharp. It has a reputation for melting well and is the perfect addition to lasagna, pizza, stuffed chicken breasts, omelets, and more.
The “true” fontina, which is in a class by itself, has been made in the northwest corner of Italy since at least the 13th century. This cheese, Fontina Val d’Aosta, has Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) status, meaning that it must be made according to exact specifications. If you can find it at your local supermarket, it probably costs upwards of $20 per pound. You’re more likely to spot more affordable cheeses labeled fontina, fontal, or fontinella. Some, puzzlingly, are described as “Swedish-style.” Though a few are made in Europe, most of these cheeses are made in America.
For this tasting, we rounded up seven cheeses labeled either fontina, fontal, or fontinella, priced from about $0.40 to about $1.00 per ounce, as well as an authentic Fontina Val d’Aosta, and tasted the cheeses plain and baked in breakfast strata.
We noticed differences as soon as we unwrapped the cheeses. The Fontina Val d’Aosta had a hard, reddish-brown rind. Others were covered in red wax or a flaky brown coating, and a few had no visible rind. The texture of the cheeses varied as well: Half the cheeses were firm and dry, almost like Parmesan, while the other half were as soft and squishy as room-temperature Monterey Jack. Most melted evenly and completely when baked, but two were a little less gooey than the others, even after an hour in the oven. Flavors varied, too. Our tasters praised samples that were clean, milky, and faintly sweet—though one was so delicately flavored that it got a little lost in the crowd. More intensely flavored cheeses fell in the middle of our lineup and could be sorted into two camps: sharp and tangy or funky and earthy.
So what is the average home cook to do when a recipe calls for fontina? To understand what to look for in the supermarket and why, we first needed to understand how these cheeses are made.
First, the gold standard: Fontina Val d’Aosta. According to tradition and the rules of a special consortium, this cheese must be made using raw milk from a single milking of a single breed of cow, called Valdostana, that grazes in Italy’s Aosta Valley. The milk is heated, cultures are added, and then the mixture is stirred in stainless-steel or copper vats. Rennet is added to make the curds separate from the whey. The curds are then cut and formed into a mass that’s wrapped in fabric and placed in a mold to be stacked and pressed. Wheels are submerged in brine and then removed and aged in caves for at least 80 days. As they age, air circulates around the wheels and they’re salted and flipped regularly; this encourages moisture loss and helps develop the cheese’s natural rind. Wheels made according to these rules are stamped with a distinctive greenish-blue consortium seal and the DOP trademark.
Companies that aren’t making Fontina Val d’Aosta can change any step of the process—and they do. First, the milk. All the other cheeses we tasted were made with pasteurized milk. The milk is heated during pasteurization to destroy potentially harmful microorganisms and ensure consistency in the finished cheese, but the process also kills off some of the milk’s most flavorful compounds. According to Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Dairy Research, it makes a difference. In its unpasteurized state, milk, including the distinctive milk produced by those Valdostana cows, contains both “wild bacteria as well as native enzymes” that contribute significantly to the flavor of the finished cheese. It was a big reason why the Fontina Val d’Aosta we tasted had such a distinctive earthy, mushroomy flavor and the other cheeses, all made with pasteurized milk, were much milder.
At this point in the production process, cheesemakers who are not making Fontina Val d’Aosta make a series of decisions to produce one of three styles of cheese: “Swedish-style,” which resembles a creamy style of cheese made in Sweden; “Italian-style” fontina and fontinella, inspired by sharp aged Italian cheeses and made in America; and a third style, fontal, a cheese that shares qualities with both of the other two categories. In addition to one Fontina Val d’Aosta cheese, our lineup contained two Swedish-style fontinas, three Italian-style fontinas, and two fontals.
If you hadn’t expected a centuries-old Italian cheese to be made in a Swedish style, get ready for a surprise: The Swedish-style fontinas were quite similar to gouda, a mild cow’s-milk cheese from the Netherlands. The main reason is the cultures—those specific strains of bacteria that are added to the milk and are responsible for much of a cheese’s flavor and texture. In the case of both Swedish-style fontina and gouda, Sommer explained, manufacturers use citric acid–fermenting cultures that create “a very detectable” buttery flavor and distinct tanginess. The two cheeses look similar, too, since both are often coated in red wax.
The Italian-style cheeses in our lineup were made with cultures similar to those used to make aged Italian cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Asiago. That’s why the Italian-style products in our lineup were sweet, sharp, and nutty in a way that many tasters described as “reminiscent of Parmesan.” The fontal cheeses we tasted were tangy and buttery like Swedish-style fontina, but without any earthy or funky notes, suggesting that they were made with similar cultures.
After adding the cultures, cheesemakers mix in a coagulant that causes curds to form. The curds are then cut to a specific size before being cooked. For Swedish-style cheeses and likely for the fontal as well, the curds are fairly big, around ⅜ inch, while the curds for Italian-style cheeses are as small as a grain of rice. Sommer explained that when the curds are cooked, the proteins in the cheese shrink and expel whey, which is mostly water. The size of a curd determines how much moisture is retained or lost. Smaller curds have a higher ratio of surface area to volume and therefore expel more whey than larger curds. Another reason why smaller curds dry out faster than larger curds is that in smaller curds, the whey doesn’t have as far to travel.
Manufacturers also adjust the temperature at which they cook the curds depending on the cultures they use. The cultures used to make Swedish-style fontina are active only below 102 degrees. The cultures used for Italian-style fontina are active at up to 130 degrees. As a result, more moisture is expelled from Italian-style fontina since it can be cooked at a higher temperature.
As a general rule, cheeses become firmer and drier as they age. The majority of the Italian-style cheeses we tasted were aged at least two months, while one of the Swedish-style fontinas was aged just three weeks. (The maker of the other Swedish-style fontina would not share this information.) The cultures are partly responsible for this difference in duration: The cultures used to make Swedish-style fontinas can become bitter if they’re aged too long.
But there’s more to controlling moisture loss than just time. Manufacturers also closely monitor the temperature and humidity of their aging rooms as well as control the amount of air that circulates around their wheels. Most of the manufacturers told us that they allow their cheese to cure in the open air for a period of time. Some are then covered in wax or placed inside plastic bags, which essentially stops moisture loss, or coated in a thin, breathable plastic layer, which slows moisture loss, for the remainder of the aging phase.
Higher-moisture cheeses are smoother, softer, and squishier. Lower-moisture cheeses, unsurprisingly, are firmer and drier. To get a clearer sense of the differences, we asked an independent lab to measure the moisture levels of the cheeses in our lineup. The Fontina Val d’Aosta and the three Italian-style fontinas had the lowest moisture levels (around 34 percent) and were the firmest in our lineup. Two of them didn’t melt quite as smoothly, but moisture isn’t the only explanation; other factors, such as aging and calcium content, can influence how well a cheese melts. The Swedish-style fontinas had considerably more moisture, about 40 percent, and the two fontals had the most of all, 41 and 43 percent, so it’s no wonder these cheeses were soft at room temperature and yielded such melty, smooth strata.
Most of the products we tasted had 8 or 9 grams of fat per serving, which indicates that they were made with whole milk. One of them had more, 10 grams per serving, and that extra fat and richness bumped it to the top of our rankings. There was a big range in sodium, from 170 to 250 milligrams per serving. Although that’s a big enough difference to taste, there wasn't a correlation between our preferences and the saltiness of the cheeses.
If you enjoy assertively flavored cheeses such as Gruyère or Comté, you will love Fontina Val d’Aosta. But our tastings convinced us that you can get great results with an affordable supermarket fontina, too. Our top scorer was a delightfully buttery, tangy Swedish-style cheese from Boar’s Head. It was flavorful enough to enjoy on its own and melted perfectly, enhancing both the flavor and texture of the strata. Like the other Swedish-style cheeses, it had a distinctive red wax coating similar to those commonly found on gouda. It may be made in Wisconsin in the Swedish style, but Boar’s Head Fontina Cheese is a worthwhile fontina in its own right.