Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Keeping That Cheesey Goodness

How often have you spent a fair amount of money of a nice piece of cheese and had it dry out or get moldy in the fridge? Or bought some from the supermarket, brought it home and it has that distinct je ne sais quoi of the plastic it was wrapped in? In doing research for my article for Culinate.com on buying cheese, I learned some interesting tidbits about storing cheese and keeping it in peak condition once you get it home.

I mean, if you're spending $8 to $20 a lb. for cheese, you want it to taste like the place it came from, with the fragrance and flavor of fresh milk, grass or the sea. So, assuming you've bought your cheese from a reputable cheese-monger or supermarket cheese department and it's still at the height of its flavor and perfection, what should you do? If it's wrapped in plastic, unwrap it quickly. Cheese contains living organisms that need to breath, and plastic cuts off the air supply. Plastic can also trap gases and moisture next to the surface of the cheese, causing off-tastes of ammonia and other unpleasantnesses.

If your cheese is securely wrapped in cheese paper, it's fine. This paper is made of two layers, a thin breathable layer that wicks moisture away from the surface of the cheese, and a waxy paper outer layer that keeps the moisture from escaping and drying it out. A Portland company, Formaticum, has come out with a line of French cheese paper printed with a map of the U.S. and founder Mark Goldman's favorite artisan cheeses (one of which is Twig Farm in Vermont). His packages of 15 papers are now available at Foster & Dobbs, Steve's Cheese and New Seasons markets and come with 15 handy sticky labels, all for around $7.50.

The other option for wrapping, according to the experts I spoke with, is simply wrapping it tightly in wax paper and keeping that in an airtight, Tupperware-type plastic container in the fridge. The other advice I got, which makes sense if you think about it, is to only buy as much as you need for a few days or, as Tim Daly of Steve's Cheese said, "Buy less more often." That way you're assured your cheese is as fresh as it can be and you'll be happy when you bite into it.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Kathleen,

In considering cheese storage, it is useful to remember that cheese predates the refrigerator. Refrigerators desiccate food, and also allow flavors to mingle. There are more gentle approaches.

In our experience, a good place to store cheese, fall through spring, is outdoors. Once monsoon season hits, the air is moist, never stale, and the temperature mostly perfect. After all, the PNW winter shares many features with a cave. We keep a table beneath the overhang on the north side of the house. A bowl inverted over the cheese keeps rodents at bay. Root vegetables need similar conditions, ideally placing them where they get some drift from the rain, but not a direct soaking. Sauerkraut is stored there as well, though we move it indoors during cold snaps. Unheated mud rooms should work well. Cheese used to be kept in the pantry under a glass or ceramic dome called a cheese bell.

In New England, cheddar cheese and a myriad of other foods benefitting from cool, moist conditions, were kept in a spring house. Milk and other perishables were stored in a crock or bottle set in the cistern. Cheese was kept on a shelf nearby. The big wheels, about two feet across, were wrapped in cheese cloth and waxed. I suspect wedges were cut from the wheel and then the wound was repaired with some cheese cloth and wax. The wedge would be brought into the house and set under a cheese bell in the pantry. Eric Sloane has some good illustrations of spring houses in his book, The Age of Barns.

Anthony

kab said...

Wow, Anthony, what a wealth of information! It's a good reminder to us citified folks that there are alternatives to the fridge. In your comment I can smell the wet air, the earth, the cheese and sauerkraut as I walk out the back door and down the wooden stairs. Thanks for that picture and the memory of those smells!