Part II of Cheese 101, written by Raymond Hook, cheese consultant in New York City. (Read part I)
This two-part guide is meant to provide the basics needed to navigate, store and enjoy cheese. They are basic rules of thumb, and as with all rules, there will be exceptions but the simple goal is to help you fully enjoy cheese.
Only buy cheese from someone who is passionate. Sounds simple, but can be quite challenging to find. The more they love the cheese, the more they are dedicated to caring for it properly — and selling you the right cheese, not the one they need to sell. Only buy from someone who will let you try it first since personal tastes vary, and you may not like agree with the cheese seller’s opinion. Also, try to avoid buying pre-cut, plastic-wrapped portions since cheese is always better cut fresh and paper-wrapped.
When asked this question I usually reply: Do not buy more cheese than you can eat between now and the next time you can get to the cheese shop. Your refrigerator is not a great place to store cheese. The modern refrigerator now has a frost-free feature, great for not having your freezer turn into a solid block of ice, but it does this by means of a dehumidifier. And it has a fan for air circulation, which keeps your carrots crispy, but the lack of humidity and a fan blowing air over cheese is anathema to cheese. Cheese contains a lot of moisture so the more your fridge dehumidifies, the more water it sucks out of the cheese. Air flow on a surface creates friction and friction causes heat, which isn’t ideal for a delicate cheese.
Also, cheese is a living thing, so don’t wrap it in plastic, you will suffocate it. If you can get French cheese paper, that’s ideal, available at all good cheese shops. I keep my cheese wrapped in French cheese paper, then place it in a large Tupperware-like container. I open it every day to freshen up the air inside (and smell its goodness). If you can’t find French paper, then wrap the cheese in wax paper, or parchment paper, and then in foil, but not too tight. If I know I’m using a cheese in the next day or so, I leave it on a counter, covered in a glass bell. Cheese is more durable than most people think. And, yes it is a dairy product, but it won’t “spoil” if left out of refrigeration for a little while.
Always serve non-fresh cheese at room temperature. Take it out of the refrigerator 60-90 minutes before you want to eat it. The harder the cheese, the longer it needs. You won’t be able to fully taste cheese when its cold — the flavor in cheese is in the fat and when fat is cold, it solidifies. At room temperature, the fat flows freely, coating the taste buds.
Bread or crackers? I always prefer fresh bread, but crackers are great when you don’t have fresh bread.
How much should I serve? Around 1 to 1.5 ounces per person if plated, slightly more if served buffet style. Cheese is rich — a little goes a long way.
What to serve with cheese? Nuts, honey, fresh fruit, mostarda (a mustard-y fruit preserve), and quince paste are all traditional. Just don’t over power the cheese. And of course wine. Wine and cheese don’t just taste great together; they allow you to taste each better. Cheese has fats which coat the taste buds, wine has alcohol and tannins which clear the fats from the taste buds and stimulate the pallet. The more of this stimulating that happens, the more subtle flavors are exposed.