By Paul Partica, The Cheese Shop of Centerbrook
Like many things in life, when you know the answer to something it seems simple to you. That may be why we often forget to explain things to others that we take for granted. This applies to the specialty food business as well. Customers ask me questions almost every day, so I thought it might be time to write about a few of those most frequently asked.
Question: How long should you leave cheese out before serving?
Answer: Cheese should be brought to a cool room temperature (under 70 degrees). This usually takes about an hour. However, please consider the time of year and current temperatures. For example, a hot summer day does not require leaving cheese out for an hour since it will likely succumb to room temperature in just a few minutes.
It is important to leave the cheese wrapped during this process and unwrap it just prior to serving time. You merely want to warm the cheese; unwrapping may cause moisture loss and dryness. If you prepare a wrapped cheese tray, do keep crackers off the tray. They will absorb the moisture from the cheese and quickly become soggy. Always serve crackers separately on a plate or in a bowl or basket.
When it comes to cheese, your taste buds are like tulips that open up at room temperature. When food is too hot or too cold they close up and you don’t get the full flavor. For me, there is one exception to the room temperature rule: I prefer cheddar cold. For some reason, I don’t like the texture of this cheese at room temperature.
Question: How long can you leave cheese out at room temperature?
Answer: Cheese is not as perishable as you would think. Any cheese that goes through an aging process can be left out for long periods of time. The exception to the rule would be the fresh cheese family: cottage, ricotta and fresh mozzarella, for example. These cheeses do not go through a ripening process and can quickly turn from sweet to sour in just hours.
Long before electricity, cheese was originally made as a way of storing milk for long periods of time. Caves and cool basements were the refrigerators of the day.
A couple of things can occur from leaving cheese out. One, cheese can ripen faster at warmer temperatures. Secondly, cheese can begin to sweat and become oily at warmer temperatures. You might find this a little messy; just wipe the cheese dry and refrigerate when you can. Bring the cheese to room temperature once again before serving. Harder, older cheeses such as Reggiano, Pecorinos and aged Goudas can stay out for days, if need be. There are still people who keep their weekly portion of cheese at room temperature, never seeing the inside of a modern refrigerator.
I recently read an article that stated it is not good to bring cheese to room temperature, refrigerate, and then bring to room temperature again. After 45 years of doing just that, I could not disagree more. Have you ever seen a good cheese shop that did not keep cheese at room temperature?
Remember to leave cheese out only at a cool or moderate room temperature. I would not keep cheese out in a room that is over seventy degrees.
Question: Can you freeze cheese?
Answer: Yes, with some exceptions. You can have relatively good luck in doing this, but know that some cheeses freeze better than others. When freezing cheese, be sure it is already ripened to your satisfaction. Once you freeze it, you will stop the ripening process forever. This will be most important with short-life cheeses such as Brie, Camembert and washed rind selections. After you thaw them, they will not ripen anymore.
It is important to thaw frozen cheese in the refrigerator and not at room temperature. This process could take a few days depending on the size. If you thaw too fast, the consistency will change.
There are some cheeses that freeze very well. The best examples are fresh goat cheeses. In many cases, you will not know the difference. If you do, add a little olive oil and fresh herbs, or maybe a little Acacia honey. My results have been very good.
There are some cheeses that do not freeze well. Cheddar is the best example. After freezing, you will like find it inedible, grainy and with little similarity to its original taste. It will not even be acceptable for cooking.
With this noted, it is really best to buy cheese freshly cut and only buy what you will use in a week or two. You will be much happier with the taste and overall quality.
Question: What’s the best way to keep cheese?
Answer: When not in use, cheese keeps best wrapped in ether cling film (Saran Wrap) or cheese paper. In short, cheese paper’s purpose is to wrap the cheese and still allow it to breathe, keeping the ripening and aging process intact. However, in the life of cheese, this is more important during its aging process and path to perfection, long before you buy it. Once the cheese is cut and exposed to oxygen I feel the most important thing you can do is to stop moisture loss. In my world, there’s nothing worse than a dried-out piece of Brie – or any cheese for that matter.
For the short time you will keep the cheese, I suggest that you wrap it in fresh cling film every time you open it. This type of product only clings properly the first time, so change it every time you open the cheese. If you use the same film twice, you likely will find that your cheese will dry up and mold much faster. This poor condition is usually blamed on the cheese, wherein the fault duly lies on the re-wrap job. Additionally, if any mold occurs on the cheese, re-applying the same covering just re-introduces it to the freshly-cut piece.
If you already knew all of this, come apply for a job.
Hear Paul discuss this topic and more the first Wednesday of every month on “Talking Cheese,” a new iCRV Radio show airing live at 9:00 am and re-airing at 2:00 and 6:00 pm. Go to www.icrvradio.com to tune in.