By Paul Partica, The Cheese Shop Of Centerbrook
Many food items spoil quickly if removed from the refrigerator and allowed to reach room temperature. Cheese is not one of them. Milk is one of them and this is how cheese was, well, accidentally invented.
I’m told that hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, cheese came to be by happenstance. Yes, the process was an accident. As the story goes, cheese was discovered by a traveling nomad who was carrying milk in a leather pouch for his night’s meal. This pouch happened to be lined with the stomach of a calf, then commonly used for its ability to hold water. The milk in the pouch mixed with the natural rennet found in this lining causing the milk to separate into curds. Hence, whey and cheese were invented. Since that day, over 12,000 new cheeses have been created.
Historically, the basic advantage of making cheese has been its ability to store milk for longer periods of time. Often farmers could not sell all of their milk before it would spoil. Getting milk to market was a timely and difficult process as well. With the coming of cheese, a farmer could store and sell his product when the timing was good.
As an added bonus, one could reduce the size of storage to one-tenth its original volume. When you separate milk into curds and whey, the final product is condensed to this ten percent portion. Most of the butterfat content remains with the curd or cheese. Therefore, when reduced to ten percent, whole milk’s 4% butterfat content will create a whole milk cheese with a butterfat content of approximately 40%.
Of course, all of this was long before electricity and today’s modern refrigerators. Cheese had to be stored and kept at a cool, room cellar temperature. Salt was the natural preservative in most cases. Temperatures would vary during different times of the year, with the warmest period being just less than sixty degrees. Cheese was often kept on kitchen counters for days at time.
How long can you keep cheese at room temperature? You can find many technical opinions on this topic. I offer the following guideline as it relates to my experience over the last 45 years.
Cheese is not as perishable as one would think. The exception to the rule is fresh cheese, which does not go through a ripening process. Therefore, fresh cheeses such as cottage or ricotta should not be left at room temperature for long periods of time. In addition, mold found on fresh cheese is a sign of spoilage and it should be discarded.
All other cheeses fall into the ripening classification. As a cheese begins to ripen, a build-up of good bacteria occurs. You may be aware of the 60-day rule, which basically states that any harmful bacteria present in the milk or cheese will die within this time period. After 60 days the cheese is considered safe. At this point the good bacteria have effectively eliminated the bad. This is why raw milk cheese, such as 30-day old Brie from France, is not allowed in this country.
Cheeses meant to be eaten young have a shorter life span than others at room temperature. Examples would be soft-ripening and washed rind cheeses such as Brie, Camembert, Chaumes, Limburger and Fromage D’Affinois. This does not mean that they cannot tolerate room temperature for a short period of time. As all cheeses ripen faster at warmer temperatures, it is actually a common practice for cheesemongers to store cheeses at room temperature for several days to facilitate the ripening process. When doing this, moisture loss needs to be monitored as this can dry out and essentially ruin a cheese.
Aged cheeses can stay at room temperature for much longer periods of time. An aged Reggiano Parmigiano or Pecorino, for example, can stay out weeks without spoilage. The only issue here is sweating, which dry out the cheese. Softer or younger cheeses may change shape a little but this does not necessarily mean spoilage. When shipping cheese without ice packs, we always recommend refrigerating cheese overnight upon arrival, then bringing it back up to room temperature before serving. I remember many years ago displaying a two hundred pound wheel of Swiss Emmenthaler at room temperature for several weeks. It developed a bit of a “flat tire” appearance from being so soft, but after a few days in the walk-in we had a beautifully-aged Swiss to sell.
As a general rule, you need not be alarmed by “best buy” dates in aged cheese. If the cheese looks and tastes good, it is. I typically receive shipments of different lots of cheese with varying best buy dates. And I often discover that the younger date is riper that the older one, and that I need to sell the younger date first. Some of this might be due to the temperature during shipping or if a cheese might have been set on a warm shipping dock for an extended period of time.
Other problems can arise during shipping such as temperatures that are too cold or possible slight freezing. Once a cheese freezes, the ripening process stops. Actually, most cheeses can be frozen, but for this reason, make sure the cheese is ripened to your liking before doing so. (One exception to freezing cheese is cheddar. I do not recommend it as you will lose the texture and it will become grainy.)
When thawing cheese, always do so in the refrigerator and not at room temperature, as the temperature of the cheese needs to rise slowly. And lastly, a little mold found on a properly ripened cheese is not harmful. Simply cut or wash it off the wedge, then it is ready to eat.