In my February column, I addressed several questions that are frequently asked when customers visit the shop. Those questions pertained to the dietary topics of low-fat, low-salt and lactose-free cheeses. In this column, I answer several more questions that are often asked. My answers are based on information and experience gathered over fifty-one years in the specialty food business, and they are the opinion of the Cheese Shop.

 Are there any vegan cheeses available at your shop?

Since we are a cheese shop, we carry natural cheeses that are – by definition – made from milk. That said, vegan cheeses are not actually cheese, but a non-dairy alternative that can be soy- or nut-based. Although you may enjoy the taste of non-dairy cheese, these products do not offer the authentic taste or texture of real cheese. In addition, they are nutritionally different.

My recommendation is to eat these cheese alternatives if they taste good to you, not simply because they represent a mock version of cheese.

When does stinky become bad?

This is a fun topic. Some cheeses have little or no aroma. I store others (such as Stinking Bishop from England) double-wrapped and behind closed doors in the walk-in cooler. I may or may not also keep a clothespin handy for my nose when it comes time to open the cheese.

All kidding aside, many cheeses are designed to be – let’s say – aromatic. The washed-rind family of cheeses are known to be particularly sharp to the nose. Unlike soft-ripening cheeses that contain a white bloomy mold on them, these cheeses are washed with a different kind of mold. They are then allowed to ripen in a moist room where a rind is allowed to develop. As a general rule, these orange-hued cheeses are more pungent and stronger in flavor.

Examples of washed-rind cheeses include Chaumes, Epoisses, Livarot, French Munster, Grayson, Pont Le’Veque, Limburger, and the aforementioned Stinking Bishop.

Fortunately, a cheese will become more noticeably odiferous before starting to turn. So, if you can handle the odor, that cheese is probably still fine to eat. Even soft-ripening cheeses that ammoniate with age will become less desirable before they become bad or unsafe to eat.

Is it okay to eat moldy cheese?

Cheese mold is generally not harmful. It is often found on cheese that has been exposed to the air too long or that has sat around for too much time. If a cheese has been pre-cut for too much time before it has been sold, it can turn moldy. This type of mold is not the kind that ripens an aged cheese enjoyably; it is simply moldy cheese. Your wedge of cheese should always be cut fresh at time of purchase to allow for the best shelf-life at home.

Should you discover a piece of cheese in your home that has grown moldy, it is fine to cut, scrape or even wash the mold off, in order to eliminate it. A couple of exceptions remain: blue cheese and fresh cheeses, such as ricotta or sour cream. The latter are not ripening cheeses and thus have not developed enough good bacteria to ward off the bad.

What is the best way to store cheese?

Have you ever opened a wedge of cheese, cut a piece off, then rolled the remaining cheese back into the same wrap and returned it to the fridge? Then, have you ever re-opened that same piece, only to find it dried out, and possibly even moldy? The common assumption from this scenario is to assume you have bought an old or overripe piece of cheese. But more than likely, your wrap job was the culprit.

It is very important to protect your perishable investment, so let’s discuss the best ways to do that.

One method involves a new cheese paper on the market that is designed to help keep cheese properly.  The theory is that these new papers allow for an oxygen exchange that lets cheese breathe within the paper. These qualities are especially important in the case of soft-ripening Brie-style cheeses, as the paper allows good white mold growth to continue to ripen those types of cheeses.

The second, most commonly-used method for cheese storage is some sort of plastic cling wrap, such as Saran. The main difference between cheese paper and plastic wrap is that the latter maintains all moisture, without the exchange of oxygen.

Although marketing might have us using only this new cheese paper, I have to say that when used properly, I have often found better results with plastic wrap over the years. The key to using plastic wrap is to replace the wrap each and every time the cheese is opened. Plastic wrap only clings properly the first time, so subsequent uses will not ensure the same amount of air tightness. The absence of air tightness can allow cheese to dry and mold. In addition, any surface mold that might be present on a cheese before cutting can be re-introduced to the newly-cut surface.

In my opinion, the practice of storing cheese in a “cave-like” condition can be important – not only when a cheese is first made, but during its normal aging period. At this time, the cheese wheel has not yet been cut. The cheese retains its own natural rind, offering superior protection from drying.

Once a cheese is cut and ready for consumption, different conditions ensue. The cut cheese, now void of its rind, has new surfaces that are exposed. Its natural moisture barrier has been removed. At this point, it becomes more necessary to protect the cheese from drying.

In addition, once you cut a soft-ripening Brie-style cheese and expose the new surface to air, that cheese will no longer continue to ripen. Prevention of moisture loss is now more important than continuing the ripening process. If you purchase a whole wheel of cheese, or a cheese with a lot of natural rind, cheese paper might work best. However, if the cheese has been cut, with little rind remaining, then I have found plastic wrap to work best.

I recommend that you buy only what you will use within a couple weeks, and also that you buy your cheese fresh-cut to order. Don’t panic, however. Buying cheese the day before you intend to use it is not necessary, as long as the above steps are taken. To avoid holiday lines, you can safely purchase cheese a week early with no problem.

Paul Partica, The Cheese Shop


Frequently Asked Questions: Part II