How to Care for Farmstead or Artisanal Cheese when you get it home

Birchbark Farm goatshare owners (Co-op members) often look for advice on how to care for cheese. These guidelines were developed by the Blue Cow cheesemonger company of Australia, and we found them very sensible and practical. This is a good set of rules to follow, especially the bold italic text concerning a mild bloom of mold (or mould!) on your cheese:

Modern industrial cheese is manufactured to be kept at 35°F and is predictable both in taste and condition. Because traditional artisanal and natural farmstead cheeses are handmade, they tend to vary with each day’s production. Their character changes with the seasons and with ripening. While there is an optimum age for every cheese, this can vary from a few days to several years. This variation makes it difficult to provide simple advice on how to look after cheese.

A simple rule is to buy just enough cheese to eat right away. If you can’t, review the following care notes to help you get the best out of your favourite cheeses.

Handling

Cheeses are delicate and need to be carefully handled. Some cheeses when ripe are soft and runny and therefore need particular care when handling. When cutting cheese, wear plastic gloves if possible as this discourages the spread of mould, prevents leaving fingerprints on the cheese and stops skin acid from affecting the cheese.

After cutting crumbly cheeses like aged cheddar, draw the flat side of the knife over the cheese surface. This helps to close the exposed pores of the cheese and prevent additional moisture loss.

Storage

Cheese is a living, breathing organism. Because it is a live product, cheese will alter its state as a consequence of the temperature. Always store your cheese below 42°F and, if possible, on the middle shelf of the fridge or cold room. However, you can also store cheese in the vegetable compartment of the fridge where it is usually warmer and moister than other areas.

Keep cheese away from uncooked foods, or foods that can impart other flavours. If cheese is stored for more than three weeks, turn it over so that the natural oils are evenly distributed throughout the cheese.

Wrapping

To encourage cheese to breathe, try to keep it  wrapped in its original packaging whenever possible. Unwrapped cheeses lose moisture quickly and can cause bacteria to grow. Wrap soft cheese loosely with plastic film immediately after use to keep air out and moisture in. Be sure that the seams are sealed. Try not to re-wrap cheese in used film as the fine coating of oil left by the cheese prevents an airtight seal if re-used and therefore, the shelf life of the cheese will be shortened. Cheese often comes in special paper/waxed film wrappings — use these to re-wrap them. If the cheese comes in a plastic clamshell, reseal that clamshell tightly.

Temperature

Most natural hard cheese keeps and tastes best at its ripening temperature, usually 53-60°C. Some of the fresh and soft white rind cheeses need to be stored colder.

Humidity is as important as temperature because all cheeses contain a level of moisture or whey and they can quickly dry out. There is more moisture in soft cheeses than hard varieties. Natural cheeses require an ideal storage humidity of 80% or more and conditions in most houses/refrigerators are too dry for lengthy storage.

If cheese is kept too warm, it will ooze and sweat and feel mushy and soft. It will also usually smell too strong. If it is kept too cold, the signs are less obvious but it can taste bland. To achieve optimum flavour you should err on the warm side for storage of your cheese. But if you want to slow down the ripening to keep the cheese longer, wrap it well and store it in a cool place. However, don’t forget to return it to room temperature to allow the flavour to revive before you eat it.

Hints and tips on cheese care

1. Remember to look at cheese regularly. Smell and touch are good indicators of how cheese is ripening. When you think you have the right taste, eat and enjoy!

2. If a cheese is thick with mould, the atmosphere is probably too wet. But a light bloom on a cut surface or rind is a good sign that conditions are right.

3. If your cheese cracks or becomes really brittle, then the conditions are too dry. While cracked cheese is difficult to rescue, if it has not dried out too much, wrapping it in a damp cloth may revive it.

4. Avoid frequent temperature changes, as this can “shock” the cheese.

5. Don’t discard those little leftover bits and pieces of cheese that you tend to think are useless. See the Blue Cow Recipes section for ‘What to do with leftover cheese’ and how to make a tasty and tempting fromage fort.

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