Ask Dr. Cheese: Trying Blues on for Size

Blue cheeses come in a range of sizes and formats, from 10-ounce wheels of Saga Baby Blue to the 25-pound Gorgonzola Dolce. What impact does cheese size and shape have on the development of blue veining? In this interview with San Francisco Chronicle cheese columnist Janet Fletcher, consultant Neville McNaughton of CheezSorce explores some of these technical issues.

Q: Can blue cheese be made in any size?

A: There are no short answers to a question like that. You have to style the cultures to fit the needs. How is Gorgonzola Dolce able to be as big as it is, to have the dimensions it has? Because they choose less aggressive molds and starter cultures. When you don’t have the inhibitory effect of salt in a large format, you need to have mild blue cultures.

Q: A little more, please, on that relationship between salting and format?

I’m a fan of Fourme d’Ambert so let’s look at that. It’s about 120 millimeters (4.75 inches) in diameter, so the distance the salt has to travel is less than 3 inches. Even Danish Blue doesn’t have more than 3 inches to the center.

In the case of Stilton, which is more than 8 inches in diameter, the curd is salted before it’s hooped. So the blue mold develops in the presence of salt at all times. Danish Blue is salted on the surface only, so the blue mold develops without the inhibitory effect of salt. As a consequence, you have to use more salt to arrest the blue development. This is my conclusion. It’s why some blue cheeses have a heavy white zone at the edges, because salt is extremely inhibitory.

Q: So are there any upper or lower limits for blue cheese formats?

With a small format, like Bleu de Bresse, the challenge is getting the cheese to be open enough to carry the blue, particularly when the fat levels are elevated. There’s not a lot of veining in Saga or Bleu de Bresse because they’re not that open. You can use an aggressive mold with a small format because the salt gets in there quickly.

If you want to make a large-format blue that’s not as mild as Gorgonzola Dolce, pre-salting the curds and whey in the vat would be a good idea. But there are practical limits to size because blues are fragile. I can’t imagine what an 80-pound wheel of blue would be like.