The Proper Care and Feeding of Cheese

The cheese available in the United States has changed dramatically in the past decade. From coast to coast, the quantity and quality of locally made cheese has increased, and so has our interest in sampling new and different types. From Brebis (sheep’s milk cheese) to Chêvre (goat’s milk cheese), and from a triple cream to a Tomme, we are wide open to new tastes and textures; but we may not be up to speed when it comes to taking care of this fragile food.

To be able to fully enjoy the flavors of a cheese it needs be stored properly and served at the right temperature. Those delicate wheels, wedges, blocks and logs that have been carefully coaxed to ripened perfection and are teeming with beneficial microorganisms that deserve better treatment than in your fridge and on your counter.

For example: Take plastic wrap. Take it off your cheese, that is, and put it back in the drawer until you need it for other, sturdier foods. Your cheese is alive; it needs to breathe. Don't store it in anything air-tight. Although the cheese at some of the best shops in the world is wrapped in plastic just so people can see it, pick it up, touch it and smell it (in a sanitary way), it is constantly being wrapped and re-wrapped to give it plenty of exposure to air and moisture. The cheese at these proprieters is treated with a reverence usually reserved for holy artifacts; the daily cheese-care ritual includes carefully unwrapping each block, wedge, or bûche of cheese; meticulously shaving off parts that turned shiny where the plastic adversely affected it; and then rewrapping it for display. At most grocery stores, cheese is wrapped in plastic 24/7, which greatly affects its quality. So, if you buy your cheese this way, remember to unwrap it and lightly scrape off any shiny parts when you get it home.

Now that you have your cheese home, how should you store it? Cheese paper is the best option. Most cheesemongers will wrap your cheese in this special two-ply paper – the outer layer is waxed paper and the inner is porous plastic. If you have a small wedge of cheese, cheese paper should be good for the few days that it will take to eat it. If you are storing a hardier cheese, such as a Parmagiano Reggiano, which lasts longer, the paper may need to be replaced periodically. Cheese paper is usually available at a good quality local cheese retailer (like France 44, Kowalski's and Surdyk's), or can be ordered online.

For something more readily available, although not quite as effective, you can use waxed paper. I use waxed paper sandwich bags to wrap my cheese; most of the Twin Cities co-ops carry these. For some cheese, I will wrap them first in the waxed paper and then put them in an open plastic bag so air can circulate. You may have to try a few varieties of wax paper to find one that you like. Some get soggy and others hold up very well.

Cheese domes come in all shapes and sizes and can be used in the fridge or on the counter if your house is cool enough. In France, where I lived for two years as a child, visits to a friend's house for dinner would usually include a fruit course and a cheese course, in addition to dessert. The cheese was kept on a plate and left on the counter to come to room temperature. The plate would have a few small wedges of cheese that would be passed around the table, and there would be just enough for one or two days. In the evening the leftovers would be covered with a glass dome and either left on the cool kitchen counter overnight or refrigerated. 

When shopping for cheese go for quality over quantity. Since the best environment for cheese is either in the cheese cave or on your evening cheese plate – not in your refrigerator – buy small amounts of cheese that you plan on consuming within a week, and ideally in one or two days. If you want a cheese that you will be serving in several days, talk with the cheesemonger to find a cheese that will withstand ripening for a few more days.

Most important, don’t hesitate to ask questions and get to know your cheesemonger or your local cheese artisan. He or she will appreciate your interest, and you’ll be rewarded with a greater understanding about the proper care and feeding of your precious purchase.

Simple Good and Tasty is pleased to welcome Leah Klein, a resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is originally from Canadian Mennonite territory in Ontario. With weekly Saturday morning visits to the Mennonite farmers market, she had early access to artisanal cheese, home-made summer sausages, and hearty German-style bread. She's also lived in France, England, Montreal and New York, each place, she says, adding to her culinary experiences. She enjoys cooking and spending the growing season with her family working and "sampling" at their organic CSA.