Cheese 101

CHEESE- a fascinatingly complex, delightfully delicious culinary creation. Every artisan cheese requires the highest degree of craftsmanship, attention to detail, and hard work by the cheesemaker.
We encourage you to get to know the cheesemakers as well as cheesemongers, your neighborhood cheese experts, and ask a lot of questions. Ask how the animals are raised, milk is processed, or the rind is treated. Or ask for pairing suggestions or a recommendation for a cheese that you have never tried before. You’ll find more and more reasons to enjoy wonderful artisan cheeses made in Washington!

HOW TO CHOOSE

Milk—in Washington most commonly you find cheeses made from cow milk, goat milk, sheep milk, or a combination of them. Cow milk is slightly sweet and mild while goat milk is tangy and almost always pure white in color. It’s also the easiest to digest. Sheep milk is sweet and has the highest butterfat and protein content of the three. Different breeds of animals also contribute to the distinct characteristics of the milk and therefore the cheese that is made from it.

Milk is often pasteurized by heating it for a period of time to kill harmful pathogens. In order for a cheese made from raw, unpasteurized milk to be sold commercially in the U.S. it needs to be aged for at least 60 days at a minimum of 35 degrees.

Age—as a cheese ages many changes take place inside and on its surface including dehydration, further acidification, and development of a rind. Younger cheeses are typically softer and slightly sweet, and in many ways similar to the milk it was made from. Aged cheeses tend to be harder and have stronger, more pronounced flavors and aromas. The optimal age of a cheese varies depending on the style of the cheese. Some cheeses are intended to be consumed just within days after it was made while some can be aged for years in well-regulated environments. Generally harder cheeses last longer than soft cheeses. It is important to check the expiration date when buying a cheese or do not hesitate to ask the cheesemaker or cheesemonger how long it will remain at its peak so you’ll get to enjoy the cheese at its best.

Texture—a cheese’s texture can vary greatly depending on its style and age. Different degrees of firmness are typically described as fresh (soft), soft-ripened, semi-soft, semi-hard and hard. Fresh cheeses such as Chevre or Fromage Blanc are usually very soft and creamy. As a cheese ages it loses a considerable amount of moisture resulting in a harder, crumbly texture. Soft-ripened cheeses such as Camembert and Brie ripen from the outside in, and develop a bloomy rind and soft, creamy interior as they ripen.

Rind—rind is the outer surface of a cheese that plays an important role in flavor development and affects the texture of the cheese. There are many types of rinds, from natural rinds (exposed to air and naturally form a hardened surface when aged), bloomy rinds (typically white and encase a creamy soft-ripened cheese inside) to washed or brined rinds (washed with some type of brine or alcohol such as wine or beer). Rinds not only protects the cheese inside during the aging process but are often designed to encourage the growth of various molds on surface to achieve a desired texture and develop unique flavors and aromas.

HOW TO STORE

The most important thing to remember when it comes to storing a cheese is that it is a living organism. It continues to react to its environment and transform itself even after you take it home. It requires very precise control of the surrounding environment to maintain the cheese’s optimal quality or to let it ripen further, which is quite a difficult task to achieve at most homes. Therefore in general it is recommended that you buy only the amount you think you’ll need for the occasion and consume it within a few days from the purchase to make sure you can enjoy the cheese at its peak.

Still there are a few things you can do to make sure your cheese is happy during its short stay at your home. Here are a few things you should know about storing cheeses at home:
Temperature—while the optimal temperatures vary depending on the styles of the cheese in general cheeses should be kept between 35 and 60 degrees. Since most refrigerators for home use are set around 35-38 degrees it is not an ideal place for cheese storage especially for an extended period of time. If necessary, store your cheese in a warmer part of your fridge such as a vegetable drawer. A cool, clean, dark, and relatively humid basement, wine cellar or garage are also good alternatives.

Humidity—cheeses like humid environments. The optimal humidity level for cheeses is about 80% while the refrigerators are set around 30% humidity often causing cheeses to dry out. However, by wrapping the cheese properly you can minimize the moisture loss and maintain a relatively high humidity level.

Wrapping—since cheese is a living organism it needs to be able to breathe. Wrapping a piece of cheese tightly with impermeable plastic wrap will suffocate the cheese often resulting in a slimy consistency, off flavors and smell, and eventually spoilage. Instead wrap a cheese in waxed paper first then loosely wrap again with light plastic wrap to create a desirable environment where the cheese can breathe and maintain its moisture. To keep the cheese happy and extend its shelf the wrappings should be changed every few day.

FormaticumTry Formaticum Cheese Paper, a paper designed specifically to keep your cheese fresh longer at home.
Watch the tutorial videos on their web site and learn how to properly.

HOW TO SERVE

When serving a cheese plate it’s always a good idea to have a diverse mix of cheeses made from different types of milk with different textures, flavor profiles, etc. To enjoy the maximum flavor and aroma it’s best to leave the cheeses at room temperature for about 30-45 minutes. For a smaller appetizer cheese plate serve 3-5 cheeses and 5-10 for a more extensive cheese board. Wait until just before serving to cut the cheeses into wedges to prevent them from drying out. Each person should get 1-1.5oz if a small cheese plate or .75-1oz if you are serving a large cheese plate with more cheeses. Keep in mind that some aged, denser cheeses have lost some of their water content so they should be served in smaller wedges than their younger counterparts.

There is no wrong or right way to eat cheeses. However, when trying multiple cheeses it is helpful to think about the progression. In general it is recommended to start with younger, softer, and milder cheeses then move on to older, stronger, and firmer cheeses so you can appreciate the subtle sweetness or tartness in a fresher cheese before your palate is dominated by a strong, pungent flavor of a blue or well-aged cheese.