- When buying cheese, it’s best to find a reliable source, such as a specialty market, cheese shop, or gourmet foods store that specializes in cheeses. Often, your local farmer’s market and a cheesemaker’s Web site are excellent resources, as you will often speak directly to the cheesemakers, who will ensure that the products are in the best possible condition. When using a retail store, you will want to make sure that the staff is knowledgeable and that turnover is swift. Those consumers that are the most fortunate will live in larger cities and have cut-to-order or cut-and-wrap retailers.
- Check the labels, especially on fresh cheeses, to make sure that the product is well within its expiration date. For larger cheeses that are cut down to smaller amounts, the store label should also include an expiration date near the weight and price amounts. If a cheese is reduced in price for quick sale, it’s generally not a bargain, and your experience will be a less than happy one.
- Check the condition of the cheese, especially for aroma, appearance, and flavor. Less desirable characteristics include ammonia, sour milk, barnyardy or unclean aromas. Further, the cheeses should be characteristic of their style, with an interior that is free of cracks, discoloration, and mold (unless it is a blue cheese). Note that natural rind cheeses, may have a rustic appearance, which is one of their attributes. When possible, taste the cheese before you buy. This is much easier in a cut-and-wrap environment. If you are unable to taste the cheese but want to give it a try, buy the smallest amount possible.
- Because of the wide variety of dietary concerns and restrictions, check labels for the type of milk (cow, goat, sheep) from which the cheese was made, whether it is a pasteurized or raw milk, and whether it uses animal, vegetal, or microbial rennet. If the label doesn’t say, ask. A good cheesemonger will be able to tell you and will be happy to steer you in the right direction, especially if religious, dietary, or animal rights concerns govern your diet. At present, product ingredient labeling is inconsistent, but most good cheesemakers will supply the most important information on their labels.
- In general, buy only as much cheese as you will be able to consume within a few days. If the cheese is wrapped in plastic at purchase, re-wrap the cheese as soon as possible in waxed or parchment paper, as air and moisture are integral to keeping the cheese in the best possible condition. If you get a cheese that is over the hill, return it to the store and ask for a replacement or a refund; most retailers are willing to keep their customers happy.
- Always re-wrap cheese in fresh wrapping, preferably in waxed or parchment paper, after the cheese has been opened to avoid having the cheese dry out or pick up other flavors. Remember that natural cheese is a living organism, with enzymes and bacteria that need air and moisture to survive. Thus, re-wrapping the cheese in paper and then in plastic wrap to create a micro-environment for the cheese is the preferred storage treatment. However, you should not leave cheese in the same wrappings for extended periods of time.
- The recommended temperature range for storing cheese is between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit, at a high humidity level, preferably in the bottom vegetable/fruit bin. To avoid accidentally freezing the cheese, don’t store it near the freezer compartment or in the meat bin.
- Double wrap strong, pungent cheeses, such as blue, aged brick, or washed rind varieties, to avoid having their aromas permeate other foods. It is best to place these cheeses in an airtight container for extra assurance against aroma leakage. And it’s best to store cheeses separately if possible, especially blues, washed rinds and milder cheeses, as they will pick up each other’s flavors.
- If cheeses other than fresh cheeses and blues have surpassed their expiration dates (imprinted on the packaging) or if the cheese develops a blue-green mold on the exterior, make a cut about a ½ inch below the mold to ensure that it has been entirely removed; the remaining cheese will be fine.
- In general, never freeze natural cheeses, as they may lose their texture, and in some cases their flavor profiles will be seriously altered. If you must freeze cheese, allow the cheese to thaw slowly in the refrigerator and use it for cooking, as the texture will become crumbly and dry after it is defrosted.
- If stored and wrapped cheeses are overly dry, develop a slimy texture, exhibit ammoniated or any off odors, it’s best to discard them. If you find these characteristics in cheeses at your local shop, do not purchase them, as they are past their prime. If a retailer’s offerings consistently display the above characteristics, it’s best to find another resource for your cheese.
Cooking With Cheese
- When preparing dishes using cheese, add the cheese at the end of the preparation, especially in sauces, classic risotto, and soups. In casseroles and baked dishes, sprinkle the grated/shredded cheese over the dish the last ten minutes of baking.
- Grating cheese is easier when the cheese is cold. Four ounces of ungrated cheese yields one cup when grated. Adjustments may be made up or down according to the recipe and the amount of cheese needed.
- When cooking with cheese on the stovetop, cook cheese over low to medium heat, as cooking over high heat, or for long periods of time, will cause the cheese to separate.
- Remember that aged cheeses have more concentrated flavor than younger cheeses and often require less additional seasoning.
- Dishes prepared with cheese and cooked in a microwave oven should be cooked at lower power settings, to prevent the cheese from separating.
- Simple greens can be transformed into elegant salad courses by the addition of crumbled feta, blue, soft-ripened goat cheeses, or grated hard cheeses, along with toasted nuts and sun-dried fruits, such as cranberries or cherries. A simple vinaigrette, with a trace of Dijon mustard is the classic dressing.
- Soups topped with cheese croutons are delicious, simple, and elegant. You can use French bread slices, sprinkled with a bit of olive oil and crumbled chevre, cheddar, or semi-soft cheese. Place under the broiler until the cheese has melted before adding to the soup.
- For tips on using cheese in your holiday meals, check out this guest post from Carolyn K, “Fête de Noël Avec Fromage: Meal Planning for the Holidays.”
- When putting together a cheese board, to be served before or after dinner, remember to limit your selection to no more than five different cheeses. Serve cheeses of different sizes, shapes, and flavor or texture profiles to create diversity and add interest to your cheese board. Strong, pungent cheeses shouldn’t be placed next to delicately flavored cheeses, and try to have individual knives for each cheese.
- Even modest cheese trays can be elegant when attention is given to the presentation. Try serving cheeses on a wooden board, marble slab, straw mat, or flat wicker basket. Do not overcrowd the serving tray, as your guests will need room to slice the cheeses. Serve bread and/or plain crackers on a separate plate, or in a wicker basket.
- Apples, pears, grapes, strawberries, fresh figs and melon add variety to a cheese board, especially if cheese is being served with cocktails. Additional accompaniments can include nuts, such as walnuts or Marcona almonds, fig cakes, and any manner of condiments, such as floral honeys, wine jellies, and Italian mostarda.
- When designing a menu, consider when you want to serve cheese. Serving cheese after the main course, prior to or in place of dessert, adds an elegant touch to casual dinners. If served with cocktails, before dinner, remember that cheeses can be filling. Serve in limited quantities and variety.
Pairing Cheese and Wine
There are no “rules” in pairing cheese and wines, and much depends on personal likes and dislikes. Like having a good cheesemonger, having a good wineseller is equally important and should be someone whose opinions you trust and whose knowledge of wines is good. In many cases, you will discuss many characteristics found in both wine and cheese. Good cheese and wine pairings take some thought, and it’s important to consider both the wine and the cheese’s texture and flavor profiles before making final selections. Remember, the goal is to create harmony and balance between the wine and the cheese and not overpower one with the other. Excellent resources for American cheese and cheese/wine pairing practices are The New American Cheese (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2000) and The All American Cheese and Wine Book (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2003), both by Laura Werlin.
- Keep pairings simple: pick one distinct wine and one distinct cheese that pair well. For example, full-flavored cheeses, such as creamy washed rind cheeses require medium to full-bodied wines, such as Merlot, Zinfandel, or Syrahs. Likewise, pair light cheeses with light wines, such as Rieslings, Pinot Gris, or Pinot Noirs.
- Pair wine and cheese according to the area of origin or even on the local region. Just as the growing conditions impart particular characteristics (called “terroir”) to a region’s wines, these same characteristics may be imparted to the cheeses through the vegetation on which the animals graze.
- Do not limit yourself only to still table wines, but branch out and try sparkling wines, late harvest and sweet wines, as well as fortified wines such as sherries and ports. In particular, blue cheeses pair extremely well with dessert wines such as late harvest Viogniers and Rieslings and Muscat wines. Also, creamy cheeses pair well with with sparkling wines and Champagne, as the bubbles help to cleanse the palate and refresh it for another bite.
- Explore the varieties of cheeses based on their sources of milk. For example, fresh goat cheeses are mild, lemony, and somewhat acidic in their flavor profiles and creamy in texture. They pair well with crisp white wines, such as a Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, and especially Rieslings. Aged sheep’s milk cheeses pair well with Gewurtztraminers and fruity Zinfandels. Aged cow’s milk cheddars go well with sherries.
- Remember that wines aren’t the only beverages that go well with cheese! There is an ever-growing number of artisanal and craft beers, as well as craft ciders available that create interesting and fresh flavor combinations, which can also inspire you to experiment and broaden your culinary knowledge.