Hello and welcome back to our cheese nerdery series. After learning how to cut cheese, using specific cheese knives for each type and also the essential cheese plate accoutrements to serve with the various kinds of cheese, today I’m addressing the question I am most asked during our in-person and virtual wine & cheese tastings: How should I be storing my cheese?
Cheese is a living, breathing organism. Just as with any living thing, we take steps to preserve and extend its life. The flavors, texture, moisture content and aromatic bouquet of cheese degrade over time. It is where and how we’re storing our cheese that greatly affects its well-being.
My very first advice––one which I still struggle with myself––is buying smaller quantities of cheese and more often, to avoid long-term storage. Ideally, you shouldn’t buy more cheese than you can consume in 2-3 days. If keeping your cheese is a must, however, proper storage will help prolong its life and reduce waste.
The number one rule to do this will probably come as a shock. But ask any cheese monger, any cheese maker or any cheese nerd like me, and they will all tell you the same.
Rule #1 – Don’t refrigerate the cheese.
Yes, you read correctly. From the moment the curds are separated from the whey, cheese begins to lose moisture. Refrigerators accelerate this dehydration process. The good news is that it’s safe to store cheese at room temperature, and there are also many ways to do this. Plus, you won’t have to sacrifice too much kitchen counter space, or cope with ebullient odors in your house.
So, instead of a drawer in your refrigerator, when storing cheese, prefer one or all of the following, which prevent cheese from drying out while also allowing it to breathe:
- A wooden box with a hinged or tight fitting lid. I use a box that once contained a large bottle of wine.
- A cloche, glass dome, or a cake stand with a tall(ish) cover
- A cheese “vault”
- I also love the concept of a cheese grotto, though I’ve never owned one
Tip: You can also recycle those round balsa wood containers (typical packaging for softer, creamy cheese like Camembert)
Rule #2 – Don’t use plastic wrap.
Remember how I said about cheese being a live, breathing thing? Well plastic and that concept obviously clash. Cling film suffocates the cheese, cuts off oxygen and imparts a chemical aftertaste. Over time it also fosters an ammonia flavor and possibly even harmful bacteria in the cheese. So if your purchased cheese came wrapped in plastic, rewrap it the right way as soon you get home. Smell and taste your cheese. If you pick up chemical notes or flavors, use a knife to scrape off a thin top layer around the cheese. This will remove the area of the cheese that’s been affected by the packaging.
Instead of plastic film, freezer bags, or vacuum packaging, for properly storing cheese, prefer one or all of the following, which allow it to breathe, but also protect it from drying out. These alternatives to plastic also contribute to sustainable living by cutting down on the use of disposable wraps, since they can be used multiple times:
- Unbleached cheesecloth
- Cheese paper
- Parchment paper
- Wax paper (best for softer cheeses)
- Aluminum foil (best for blue cheeses)
- Beeswax wrapper (best for firm to hard cheeses)
Tip: For cheeses that sweat a lot (think medium-aged to firm Pecorinos) you should ideally replace/wash the wrapping at every use.
Rule #3 – Isolate the blues.
Blue cheese is a flavor dominatrix. With the sharpest taste around and the aromatic baggage of a boy’s locker room after a tournament, if improperly stored, the blue funk will infuse any milder specimens nearby. And drive family members away.
To avoid this, double-wrap blue cheese in aluminum foil, then store in its own sealed glass container/mason jar. This is the one exception to Rule #1. If properly stored and isolated from other foods, blue cheese can last 7-10 days in the crisper.
Rule #4 – Let the mozzarella be.
Very fresh cheeses, such as ricotta, burrata or mozzarella, should sit in a ceramic bowl, soaking in their natural whey liquid. But all things considered, such perishable cheeses should not be leftover anyway! In case they do, any parts left over can be used as ingredients (to top pizza, crostini or focaccia, to enrich a pasta sauce, swim in a soup, etc.).
Rule #5 – Trust your gut.
I get a LOT of questions on what to do when a cheese looks or smells awful. My answer is always, trust your instinct.
Many people avoid eating cheese because they are put off by mold and generally feel uncomfortable around spores, or audacious smells. I totally get that, I used to be that person! Now blue-veined, stinky cheeses are my favorites.
But it’s important to know when and how much is too much.
- When you unwrap a piece of cheese and find patches (or a carpet) of green/grey/fuzzy mold clinging to the surface, don’t panic. Just slice it off. The rest of the cheese is perfectly fine to eat.
- If on the other hand an orange/pink slime forms on the surface of a fresh soft cheese (like a young goat cheese) it may be past its prime. This does not apply to washed rind cheeses, whose exterior is purposely tacky, orange/pink. Think Taleggio, Epoisses, Pont l’Eveque, Reblochon, Stinking Bishop, Vacherin, and many others.
- If you get a persistent whiff of ammonia, go ahead and trust your gut and throw it out.
- Essentially, if a cheese looks or smells like chemicals, it’s probably off and should be discarded.
I hope you learned something new, and will put in practice the rules to extend the life, and make the best of your adored formaggi.