No one is surprised to find a creamy French cheese, perhaps a strong, crumbly English variety, and maybe even a tangy Spanish offering on a cheese plate. But few expect to see Denmark represented!
In fact, the Danes make several well-regarded cheeses, the most well-known of which is Havarti, a sliceable favorite of grilled-cheese aficionados. Recognizable for its many tiny holes or “eyes” and its sweet, nutty taste, Havarti is an under-appreciated and truly versatile cheese useful for both cooking and pairing.
To better acquaint you with this delicious cheese, we've put together a full Havarti guide. Click on the table of contents to skip around.
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What is Havarti Cheese?
One of the few cheeses representative of Denmark, Havarti was developed in the 1800s by female cheesemaker Hanne Nielson. After traveling around Europe to teach herself cheesemaking techniques, Nielsen returned to her family farm near Copenhagen to conduct experiments independently.
She found that a practice of “curd-washing,” which involved rinsing curds in water before pressing and draining them, resulted in a creamy cheese with tiny eyes. She named it Havarti after her dairy farm, called Havarthigaard.
Nielson began selling the cheese in her Copenhagen shop, and its popularity was assured when even the Danish King and Queen began to request it. Eventually, Danish immigrants brought Havarti to Wisconsin, where creameries have enthusiastically adopted the style.
How is Havarti Cheese Made?
Made from pasteurized cow’s milk, Havarti begins much like any other cheese. Bacterial cultures acidify the milk through lactic acid production, and the enzyme rennet causes the milk to solidify into a soft gel.
Cheesemakers cut the curd into ½-inch squares, whereupon Havarti undergoes curd-washing, a process that is relatively unusual in cheesemaking. It results in the small holes that characterize this style.
In curd-washing, the curd squares are gently cooked, stirred, and swirled in a mixture of hot, salted water. This causes the curds to heal slightly around the outside of each square so that they never completely knit together into a solid mass during the pressing stage.
The small holes in Havarti are the result of spaces left between curd pieces that never fully join. The cheese’s bacterial cultures produce a small amount of carbon dioxide, filling and stabilizing these spaces. This step also pulls excess lactose from the cheese, meaning that bacteria have less substrate to convert to acid, resulting in a sweeter and less acidic cheese.
After pressing and brining, Havarti cheese is aged several months (sometimes up to a year), and is wiped frequently with a very light salt solution to prevent the development of a rind.
Different Kinds of Havarti Cheese
- Standard Havarti
This is the style of Havarti cheese most people recognize. The standard version does not include heat treatment, which would cause binding of the whey proteins to the casein network. Because of this, it can be aged (typically for around three months, but up to a year in some cases) and acquire a hazelnutty flavor.
- Cream Havarti (flodeHavarti)
Made through a similar process to standard Havarti, this cheese is different in two respects. The recipe includes additional cream, and it is treated at a higher temperature, leading to the incorporation of whey proteins to the casein gel.
As a result, it is served young because aging whey proteins leads to undesirable flavor attributes. Powerfully smooth and buttery, it never acquires the hazelnut aroma that typifies standard Havarti.
Havarti Cheese Substitutes
1) Mild Cheddar
Cheddar is firm and very easy to slice. Although it is sharper than Havarti, it also melts well and has similar notes of hazelnut.
Sliceable, mild, and buttery-tasting like Havarti, Emmental does not become quite as nutty with age. Instead, it remains sweet and creamy.
What does Havarti Cheese Taste Like?
Havarti has no rind, and it boasts an intense buttery aroma and a sweetness typical of washed-curd cheeses. When young, the buttery dairy notes most clearly define Havarti, but as it ages it acquires distinct nutty flavors.
Havarti is often accompanied by flavor inclusions; dill is probably the most popular, but caraway, coconut, basil, and other spice flavorings can also be found.
Havarti Cheese Pairings
Famously excellent on a grilled cheese sandwich, Havarti is a versatile cheese that pairs with fruit and nuts on a cheese plate and is also a workhorse ingredient on sandwiches or salads.
Its creaminess allows it to stand up to a strong red wine, like a Pinot Noir or a Zinfandel. For a beer pairing, try it with a stout German doppelbock or an English ESB. Because it becomes soft at room temperature, it is also easy to enjoy simply with flavorsome crackers.
Best Havarti Cheese Brands
The number and variety of Havarti cheeses available online or even at a standard supermarket is nearly overwhelming. Because it is easy-slicing, it is considered a deli cheese.
Deli brands like Sargento and Boar’s Head offer accessible versions. More exciting, specialty Havartis are available through online retailers or by contacting creameries directly; Decatur Dairy, Roth Cheese, and Arla Foods in Wisconsin are cheesemakers distinguished for their awards in the Havarti category.
Where to Buy Havarti Cheese?
To purchase Havarti from award-winning Wisconsin creameries, www.wisconsincheese.com is a the place to start; this searchable website makes it easy to find a dairy that makes just the style of Havarti you are looking for.
For an immediate Havarti experience, you can almost certainly find an example at your local deli or supermarket. These versions are likely to be younger and milder, but they will still have the versatility and excellent slicing quality of finer Havartis.
How Long Does Havarti Cheese Last?
If kept refrigerated, Havarti should last several weeks. However, this style is not intended to develop mold or discoloration. If mold spots appear, cut around them by at least an inch, discard them, and take care not to touch the mold. Refresh the packaging on the cheese and continue to refrigerate.
How to Make Havarti Cheese
Havarti cheese is an intermediate-level effort for a home cheese-maker. The step of curd-washing elevates it above beginner level. However, because it can be eaten fresh, the reward is immediate!
Of course, with the right resources and supplies, you may also choose to age it for a more complex flavor. Several excellent recipes and guides exist to lead you through the Havarti-making process.
Next time you feel experimental, consider adding Havarti to your cheese plate or even using it to top a pizza or casserole. As you enjoy it, spare a thought for the efforts of Hanne Nielson, whose 19th-century cheese-making excursion and experimental Copenhagen dairy farm made it all possible.
You will not be disappointed by this mellow, adaptable, easy-melting cheese!