Everything you need to know about eating and cooking with curds
Really great cheese is a precious commodity. It's a labor-intensive product, which means it doesn't come cheap. But more importantly, like fine wines and spirits, cheese owes its existence and legacy to extremely dedicated, obsessive individuals focused first and foremost on perfecting their craft. That perfection is what you're paying for, and you might as well get your money's worth, amiright?
It's all up to you: Mistreating a cheese will inevitably result in a less delicious cheese. Conversely, when you're good to your cheese—when you show it some respect and some TLC—you can rest assured that your cheese will return the favor.
And yet, cheese criminals abound. I should know: I live with one. Even worse, I used to be one. So what changed? Mainly, I entered the food industry and found myself surrounded by smart, driven people who knew a hell of a lot more about cheese than I did. When I started listening to their advice, I started getting way more out of my cheese-eating experiences. Best of all, none of that advice is actually hard to follow; it takes just a little more planning and a little extra effort for big, funky-nutty-salty-grassy-creamy all-around delightful rewards.
So before you dismiss these commandments as snobbery, I urge you to give them a shot. You may just be surprised by how much you like being a cheese snob yourself.
The 10 Commandments of Cheese Etiquette
1. Thou shalt not serve cheese straight out of the fridge
Anyone who's encountered a catered plastic tray of cubed up cheeses is probably intimately familiar with this particular offense. You know what I'm talking about—that stiff, hard wedge of brie, that bland hunk of chilled Swiss. And it's only more egregious when you're working with a special fancy-pants cheese you trekked all the way to the gourmet grocery store to procure.
Most people are pretty good about letting soft, creamline cheeses like brie or Humboldt Fog come to room temperature—otherwise you don't get that deliciously runny, buttery texture—but I can't even count the number of times I've encountered chilled semi-firm and hard cheeses.
Here's the thing: ALL cheeses should be served at room temperature. First off, we perceive flavors better at temperatures nearing our own body temperature. Second, as cheese softens, its fat-soluble flavor compounds get better access to our taste buds. And third, aromas are more volatile at warmer temperatures, which means you can smell (and taste) the cheese better. In other words, the colder a cheese, the less you'll be able to detect its full range of flavors, and you definitely won't be enjoying the same texture the cheesemaker painstakingly engineered. Eating a cold piece of 25-dollar-a-pound cheese is gonna make it taste a whole lot more like its sad flop of a five-dollar-a-pound cousin.
So what should you do? Excepting fresh cheeses, which only need about thirty minutes, you want to let your cheese rest, covered but out of the fridge, for at least an hour. Yes, a full hour, not 10 minutes, or 20 minutes, or just-gonna-have-a-little-nibble-minutes, but long enough for the cheese to reach an ambient temperature from edge to edge (obviously, if you have a massive hunk of cheese, or cheese best served super runny, you'll need to wait longer; and if you're working with a paper-thin sliver, you can dig in way sooner).
2. Thou shalt not return unwrapped or partially exposed cheese to the fridge
I happen to live with someone especially prone to committing this particular cheese crime, and it's infuriating. So this is me begging, just one more time: Once you've enjoyed that room temperature cheese, please don't stick it back in the fridge with its edges exposed. A cheese's moisture content is very carefully composed, and once you bring it into your home, you want to try to mimic prime storage conditions as well as possible. Leaving unwrapped or partially wrapped cheese in the fridge is basically a recipe for a big, dried-out, hard-as-a-rock, flavor-sapped rind. Worse, it's prone to picking up other flavors from the fridge. I don't know about you, but I'm not really into cheese that tastes like my Chinese leftovers. Which brings us to...
3. Thou shalt not wrap cheese in plastic wrap
Yes, I know. This is a tough one. And to be totally frank, this is probably the cheese crime I'm most guilty of committing myself. Does the Serious Eats office fridge contain a hunk of excellent Parmesan wrapped in plastic? Yes. Are we proud of that fact? No. No we are not.
"Cheese is a living, breathing thing, and without proper oxygen, it will suffocate," explains Stephanie Stiavetti, author of Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese. "Your best bet is to wrap it in a finely porous material, such as cheese paper, parchment paper, or breathable plastic wrap made especially for cheese." If that sounds pesky, what you can do is rewrap your cheese in the paper your cheesemonger used and then wrap that package up loosely in plastic—it'll stay breathable while helping the cheese retain its moisture. You can find more cheese storage tips here.
4. Thou shalt not refrigerate fresh mozzarella
Okay, this one's a little melodramatic. Sure, if you're lucky enough to have access to never-been-refrigerated, super-duper-fresh mozzarella, and you plan to eat it that day, then yeah...don't refrigerate it. Seriously, we tested it out, and after just three hours in the fridge, our mozzarella was noticeably firmer and less juicy than an identical ball left on the countertop for them same amount of time.
That said, if you've got a ball of supermarket mozz or want to make the awesome fresher-than-fresh stuff last longer, then refrigerate away—just be sure to follow our instructions for resuscitating it before serving: an hour-long soak in a warm, salted milk bath. Sure, it sounds weird, but you'll be shocked by how well it works.
5. Thou shalt not freeze fresh cheese
To be more specific, definitely don't freeze fresh, high-moisture cheeses. When putting it to the test, we found that fresh mozzarella, for instance, suffered some significant textural changes after less than a day in the freezer. I'm talking a rubbery, almost dry texture. Our guess? All that moisture forms ice crystals which disrupt the protein structure of the cheese. It's a hypothesis supported by what we've found with lower moisture cheeses: namely that harder, drier cheeses like Parmesan hold up quite well in the freezer. But before you go ahead and freeze, make sure your cheese is wrapped properly: first in paper, then plastic, with a finishing layer of tin foil to keep out any foul odors.
6. Thou shalt not deface the wedge
There's some very particular etiquette when it comes to slicing and dicing your cheese for a cheese plate. For starters, don't dice it and don't pre-slice it—you'll just give it more surface area from which moisture can escape.
Once you're ready to dig in, here's how it's gotta go: MAINTAIN THE WEDGE. The only thing more frustrating than someone cutting off that pointy tip of perfect center-of-the-wheel cheese is knowing that the culprit probably has no idea what they've just done.
As cheese ages, crazy things happen. What exactly those crazy things are depends on the aging environment (things like terroir, humidity, washes, wrappings of leaves or wax, naturally occurring yeasts and bacterias, and so forth), and the ingredients that went into the cheese itself (additions of ash or mold spores, for instance). And one of the most beautiful, unique, interesting parts of a great cheese is that all those factors create something that doesn't taste the same in the middle as it does at the edge. In fact, the center of a cheese often has a more concentrated or nuanced flavor, while the edges may be more mild or, in the case of bloomy rind cheeses, exhibit a creamline.
So when you buy a wedge of cheese, it's been cut from the wheel like a slice of pie, in order to provide a taste of the entire radius of the wheel. That pointed tip was once that delicious, unique center of the cheese, and when you slice it off, you're basically turning to your fellow diners and saying, Hey, screw you! Instead, slice along the edge, maintaining the wedge's triangular shape and enjoying the full range of the cheese's flavor, from center to rind. That said, the precise approach to doing so varies from cheese to cheese—this is a great quick-reference sheet for pretty much every variety you're likely to encounter.
7. Thou shalt not violate the brie
Hands down my biggest pet peeve is spotting a gorgeous wedge of brie across a room and arriving to find a mere shell of rind. Not only does it disappoint me and totally violate commandment number six, but I actually think it's kinda gross, like I've been left to dig around in someone else's trash.
Here's the thing: that buttery, creamy, spoonable center you love so much owes everything to that rind. Bloomy cheeses have a living rind, which "breaks down the fats and proteins of a cheese, causing an increasingly creamy to runny texture over time," elaborates resident cheese expert Liz Thorpe. And guess what? Sometimes the rind is delicious, and when it's not, it's totally inoffensive (if it tastes foul, there's something wrong with your cheese). But if you really must extract your brie from its rind, then please, for the love of God, do it on your own plate.
8. Thou shalt not buy pre-grated or crumbled cheese
Remember what I said about pre-cubed and sliced cheese? The same applies to pre-grated and crumbled cheeses, only times infinity. If you've ever let your grated Parmesan sit around in the fridge only to find that it's transformed into a tupperware of bland, waxy fingernail clippings, you have an idea of where I'm going with this: the more surface area of your cheese is exposed to the air, the more rapidly it's going to lose the flavor and texture that made it special (or even palatable). And honestly, how much time does it actually save you? Invest in a good cheese grater and a nice hunk of cheese and you'll never go back.
9. Thou shalt not contaminate the cheese
If you're serving a cheese platter, take care to provide a utensil for each cheese—whether there are some cheeses you want to avoid or you want to taste each cheese's unique traits, you shouldn't have to pollute the flavor of one cheese with a knife slathered in another. Low on knives? A cheese plate doesn't need a thousand different cheeses—just a few that are worth paying attention to.
10. Thou shalt not let the cheese languish
This one's just common sense: if you're left with bits and pieces after a party or picnic, make sure to use up those delicious nubs! Maybe with an easy, elegant mixed cheese quiche? Or really anything you like; just check out our tips for cooking with cheese before you get started, or hop over to our massive, cheese-packed recipe collection.
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