If you're one of those people who's begrudgingly lactose intolerant and has had a hell of a time giving up on cheese, I've got some great news for you. Lactose-free cheese is way more common than you might think. It turns out that many hard cheeses are naturally lactose-free, or have low enough levels of lactose so as not to be a bother. Yes, you read that right. Certain cheeses, though made with actual cow's milk, are functionally free of lactose, the sugar in dairy that causes some people to feel physically ill. And we're talking really good cheeses here—including gouda, cheddar, even Parmesan.
How is that possible? It all has to do with the way they're made. As Liz Thorpe, author of The Cheese Chronicles, explained to the folks at Epicurious, "There are two things that get rid of lactose when milk becomes cheese ... First, you add bacteria that eats the lactose and turns it into lactic acid. Then, when you separate the solid cheese curds from the liquid whey, you're draining off the lactose."
This is why lactose-free cheeses, or cheeses low in lactose, tend to be harder cheeses. After all, those are the cheeses that are separated from liquid whey during the production process. And aged cheeses have even lower rates of lactose because the bacteria has more time to break down the offending lactose.
The general rule if you're looking for lactose-free cheeses is to avoid young cheeses. That means burrata and mozzarella are still off the table, unfortunately. These younger, softer cheeses have more lactose, and that rule about age still holds true for hard cheeses; an aged cheddar will be friendlier to a lactose intolerant person's digestive system than a young one because there's been more time for the bacteria to break down the lactose. Other generally naturally lactose-free cheeses, or cheeses with low levels of lactose, include Mimolette, Gouda, Parmesan, and pecorino. If you're looking for a lactose-free cheese that melts well, stick with cheddar.
So if you've been avoiding cheese because ice cream or milk make you feel sick—but the lack of cheese in your life is driving you mad—it might be time to give hard cheeses another shot.