Although the name sounds vaguely German, few kinds of cheese can claim to be so proudly American in history and character as Muenster cheese. Fond of cheese from their homeland, Alsatian immigrants to the United States in the 19th century developed an American analog that only improved upon its European forbear.
American Muenster is a favorite of children and adults alike: a sliceable, meltable delight that is easily incorporated into many cheesy recipes.
Below we've outlined a complete guide to muenster cheese. Resort to the table of contents below to find what you're looking for.
What is Muenster Cheese?
Highly valued for its excellent melting properties and mild, white paste, Muenster cheese is a semi-soft, salted or washed-rind cheese with a mellow, buttery taste and a gentle tang.
This style is an import from Alsatian immigrants to Wisconsin in imitation of a French cheese called Munster (note the spelling difference). Benedictine monks first made Munster in the Alsace region of France, (the region has repeatedly changed hands with Germany for years, and it was part of Germany at the time that immigrants to the United States carried the cheese tradition abroad).
The immigrants tweaked the process to suit their newfound environment, using slightly different cultures and adapting the aging process. The new style of cheese, called Muenster to differentiate it from its European inspiration, is mild, sweet, salty, nutty, and perfect for melting.
How is Muenster Cheese Made?
American Muenster cheese follows a process similar to Alsatian Munster, but with some differences that distinguish it as a unique style. Cheesemakers begin with whole, pasteurized cow’s milk (or, more rarely, goat’s milk).
Large vats heat the milk to around 90°F/32°C, an appropriate temperature for the mesophilic lactic acid bacteria cultures that the cheesemaker adds next. Together, the acid produced by the bacterial cultures along with an enzyme called rennet solidify the milk into gel-like curds.
Workers cut the curds into 1cm squares, cook the curds briefly at around 100°F/38°C, and then ladle the curds into molds for shaping. There, the curds drain with the application of light pressure. Curds then age at high humidity in increasingly cooler temperatures.
During aging, caretakers spray or rub the cheese with a mixture of salt brine and the plant-based colorant annatto. The cheese will finish aging after 2-3 weeks for smaller pieces, while larger wheels or bricks age up to 3 months.
Why is Muenster Cheese Orange?
The orange rind of Alsatian Munster is caused by Brevibacterium linens, the bacteria better-known for making the stinky orange rind of Limberger. This bacterium also contributes to the color and flavor of some top-shelf American Muensters.
However, most American Muenster is instead colored by an orange-red vegetable dye called annatto rather than by bacteria. Similarly, American Muenster does not always go through the rind-washing process, which would allow B. linens to develop. Annatto is added to the rub or brine and washed onto the cheese’s outer layer after the curds have sufficiently drained.
Obtained from the bright red seeds of the tropical achiote tree, annatto is native to Central America. Although it is principally valued for its red-orange color, it is known to contribute a peppery, nutty, gently sweet flavor in high concentrations, which also adds value and originality to Wisconsin-style Muenster.
Different Kinds of Muenster Cheese
American MuensterBecause it is not a washed rind cheese, this style does not become as funky or spreadable as its European ancestors, but some versions can become quite pungent with aging. It is known for its bright orange rind (colored by annatto) and for its salty, meltable paste.
Mild for a washed-rind cheese, this style is still quite funky compared to its American cousin. It has a creamy paste and a sticky rind that is reddish-orange from the growth of Brevibacterium linens.
Although otherwise similar to Alsatian Munster, this AOP (appellation d'origine protégée)-designated cheese often incorporates anise and caraway seeds.
Muenster Cheese Substitutes
This cheese is sharp, semi-soft, and easily melted and sliced, making it an excellent stand-in for Muenster in most recipes. While Muenster tends to be milder than Monterey Jack, an aged Muenster may achieve the same level of bite.
Colby is a semi-hard cheese that melts well and slices without resistance, with a less aggressive flavor than Jack or Cheddar. Annatto confers orange coloring throughout the whole cheese paste (as opposed to on the rind only, in the case of Muenster).
A hard, smooth-slicing cheese, Cheddar melts well but is better-known for its flavor, ranging from mild to very sharp. A mild Cheddar is more comparable to the flavor of Muenster. Like Colby, Cheddar is colored throughout with annatto.
What Does Muenster Cheese Taste Like?
Muenster is an extremely mellow cheese, especially when young. Its smooth and gently tart flavor is offset by a noticeable salt content and the annatto-rich earthiness of the soft rind.
Muenster Cheese Pairings
Muenster pairs well with dry to semi-dry white wines, but it is a hardier pairing with dark beers, such as brown ales, porters, and black lagers. It is also a lovely accompaniment to wet fruits, like apples, pears, and grapes because of its saltiness.
Best Muenster Cheese Brands
Muenster is a competitive category amongst American cheesemakers, and there are some recognized champions of the style. Among these, Decatur Dairy’s award-winning Red Rind Wisconsin Muenster stands out. In the category of store-bought packaged Muenster, Alp & Dell comes strongly recommended. Sargento ranks highly among deli-counter Muenster brands.
Where to Buy Muenster Cheese
Muenster is a hugely accessible cheese. You can find it sliced in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, and it is also available in any deli.
How Long Does Muenster Cheese Last?
Sliced Muenster cheese will last a maximum of 3 weeks in the refrigerator, although a block of unsliced cheese may achieve a longer shelf life. To maximize your cheese’s shelf life, leave the package unopened until you are ready to use it.
How to Tell if Muenster Cheese is Bad
Slices that are aging out of usefulness will crack around the edges and darken in color. When cheese becomes very old, mold may begin to appear on either slices or blocks.
Moldy slices should be discarded, but a block of cheese with some spots of mold is usually salvageable; simply use a sharp knife to cut the mold spots away, then place the cheese in a fresh, clean container. Use the cheese within a few days of this treatment.
Although it does not usually find a place on a cheese platter, Muenster is one of the most recognizable cheeses at any deli counter and is beloved for its functional properties.
Its silky, meltable texture instantly improves a mac and cheese, quesadilla, or casserole; one major pizza chain is even rumored to use it as a pizza topping! If you haven’t yet tried this American classic, we promise, grilled cheese sandwiches will never be the same.