By Paul Partica
One of the most popular of all cheese families, and probably the most misunderstood, is the soft-ripening type. Often, when describing a certain cheese to a customer as “soft-ripening,” many nod their head in polite agreement but seem to have no idea of what I am talking about. This is why those of us in the cheese business will most often just define a soft-ripening cheese as “Brie-like.” Most people know what kind of cheese Brie is and can readily identify with it in those terms.
I think it’s time to discuss this very important cheese group in a little more detail. Soft-ripening cheeses are very young cheeses that vary in weight anywhere between eight ounces and five pounds, but can sometimes be as large as three kilos in size (seven to eight lbs). This type of young cheese starts with an introduction of bacteria called Penicillium Candidum (Camberti), which is sprayed on the outside of the cheese. This produces a white mold which is often referred to as the “fleur” or “bloomy rind.” A young cheese might look like it was just lightly snowed upon. This is done as soon as the cheese is firm enough to keep its shape. At this stage the cheese is somewhat hard and has a chalky texture. It would be slightly bitter to the taste if tried.
The center of the cheese is referred to as the core. As the snow-like mold does its work, the cheese will begin to ripen from the outside in. The ripened part will soften and change to a supple, creamy texture that can be described as having a delicate “earthy” flavor, with a faint hint of mushrooms. If the cheese were to be cut in half, you would see three layers: a hard chalky white center covered by a softer, somewhat thick honey-like top, and a bottom layer. When the cheese core fully disappears the cheese is considered ripe.
All of this action takes place within the first thirty days in the life of a soft-ripening cheese. The cheese is now ready for shipping. If any soft-ripening cheeses are destined to be shipped to the United States, they must be made from pasteurized milk, according to FDA’s regulations. This is so that any harmful bacterial will be killed off by the good bacteria. After 60 days, cheese is considered safe for consumption, but since soft-ripening cheeses are imported before they are 60 days old, they do not meet the requirement. No cheeses under 60 days old that were not made with pasteurized milk are allowed in our country. Period.
When these young cheeses make their way in to food stores they have a short shelf life of three to five weeks. If the cheese continues to ripen past that time, unwelcome changes start to take place. The white snowy mold will begin to change to a reddish brown color and ammonia, a by-product of bacteria growth, will become present. The cheese will actually smell of ammonia. A cheese in this condition will often be referred to as “ammoniated.” At this point, the cheese has become too strong and offensive to eat.
Most cheese aficionados are aware of the ripening process and know how important it is to have a cheese in perfect condition. It is a delicate dance. If eaten too young, the cheese will have no flavor. If eaten too old, the cheese will be overly strong, with too pungent a taste.
Unfortunately, proper ripening is only half the issue. Moisture loss can be even more important. If the cheese is not kept under proper conditions, regardless of the age of the cheese, it can become dry and hard, losing all the creaminess you would expect from a soft-ripening cheese. This moisture loss is dependent on maintaining proper humidity levels during refrigeration, as well as proper wrapping. If a soft-ripened cheese is very firm to the touch and has a hard rind, it is likely the cheese is already past its prime. So if you are in search of the perfect cheese, you need to be aware of the age of the cheese, and how it was treated along the way.
In evaluating the condition of your cheese, you must also take into consideration its temperature. A warm, 75-degree cheese can mask the hard core. The opposite is also possible, wherein an extremely cold cheese could give the appearance of a big core still present.
You also need to consider is the thickness of the cheese. Brie-like cheeses with a thickness of an inch or less should be fully ripe when eaten. However, you might find a thick soft-ripening cheese of about two to three inches, like Humboldt Fog, too overripe on the outside if you waited for the inside to be fully ripe. So with this kind of cheese, you would eat a thick soft-ripening cheese somewhere in between young all-core and fully ripe. This would be strictly a matter of taste.
One problem to bring to your attention is the matter of Brie and Camembert. Earlier I mentioned the need for these cheeses which are under 60 days old to be made from pasteurized milk. Well the matter has been taken even further. Many years ago, ten to fifteen approximately, the cheeses were further over-stabilized to give certain markets a long shelf life. Did you notice how these cheeses never get soft and runny? Once upon a time, the definition of Brie was a soft creamy cheese that, when ripe, runs like honey. As a result, I sell very few Bries or Camemberts these days. I would also like to clarify that Brie and Camembert are very much the same cheese, both sharing largely the same recipe, the only true differences being the location where they are made and the size of the cheese. A Camembert is usually eight ounces while Brie will vary, up to seven or eight pounds. If the Brie was made to an eight ounce size, the only difference in taste would be due to the age or condition of the cheese. When buying these cheeses forget the name; think only of the condition.
To review, in purchasing a great soft-ripening cheese you need to be aware of how ripe the cheese is, what the moisture loss has or has not been, and what the current temperature of the cheese is. I’ve said this before, but now even more important than ever is the need to try before you buy.