Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
The cheese board has been a party food superstar for a while now, and it’s easy to see why. Whether it’s the centerpiece of your appetizer table or the main course, a good cheese board is easy to assemble (no cooking required), gorgeous, and a great excuse to try a bunch of delicious dairy. But should you serve cheese straight from the fridge or let it warm up a little bit? And what to do with the half-eaten chunks after the party is over? We spoke to four cheese experts to get the lowdown on serving, storing, and enjoying cheese.
How to Choose Cheese for a Cheeseboard
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik
When planning a cheese board, select a diverse array of cheeses that complement each other. “I always think about balance,” says Julia Hallman, owner of Formaggio Kitchen, a Boston-area cheese shop once frequented by Julia Child. “You have to expect people to eat the cheeses in different orders so nothing can overpower everything else.”
Serious Eats / Liz Thorpe
The next rule of planning a great cheese board is to look for a variety of cheeses (but don’t go overboard; remember you have to store the leftovers). If you’re planning for just a few guests, pick out one hard cheese and one soft cheese for your board; that’s all you need, says Kate Truini of New Curds on the Block, a cheese shop in Connecticut. Adding a few more guests? Add a blue cheese or a washed rind. As you add cheeses, look for a variety of milk types as well. The last piece of advice is to choose what you already love. Hallman says, “I’ve found that the most successful cheese boards are specially curated by the host as a way to show off their top favorites.”
How to Store Cheese
Moisture Content Matters
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik
Moisture content is the most important factor when it comes to storing cheese and, luckily, it’s pretty straightforward. If your cheese is soft, sticky, runny, or gooey, then the moisture content is high, and its shelf life will be shorter. If it’s firm, hard, or crumbly, the moisture content is on the lower end of the spectrum, and, with proper storage, could last several weeks or months. That said, no matter how moist your cheese is, if you don’t treat it right, you’ll be in for a mess much sooner than necessary. Jill Allen, director of product excellence at Tillamook County Creamery Association, notes that while moisture content dictates how cheese is stored, there is one rule to follow regardless of whether it’s a sticky brie or a firm cheddar. “Do not store all cheese the same way—hard, soft, and crumbled cheese all require different approaches to storage,” she says. “But a few things remain constant, like storing your cheese in the coolest and darkest part of your refrigerator.”
Wrap It Up
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
Cheese is continuously expelling moisture as it ages, so trapping this moisture against the surface of the cheese (we’re looking at you, plastic wrap) is a recipe for the proliferation of mold—the bad kind. Unpleasant flavors can also begin to develop as gasses produced by the aging cheese start to build up. All of the experts we spoke to highlighted cheese’s living nature. Letting cheese age gracefully entails allowing it to breathe and expel moisture while preventing it from drying out too quickly. The best protection is made up of two levels: a breathable layer followed by a less permeable layer.
Truini of New Curds on the Block wraps almost all the cheese she sends out the door in specialty cheese paper like this from Formaticum, which features a perforated layer and a wax-coated layer. The perforated layer allows moisture to escape the surface of the cheese, while the wax layer slows the process of total dry-out. She says if your cheesemonger wraps your cheese in paper like this, it’s a good idea to reuse it as long as you can.
Not sure if you have the right paper? Try to pull it apart; cheese paper will separate into two distinct layers. No cheese paper? No problem—wax or parchment paper will do in a pinch. Ashley LaPlante of Rind, a cheese shop in Rhode Island, also recommends the Formaticum paper, but she also suggests a hack: first, wrap your cheese in a layer of parchment paper, then a layer of foil. The parchment paper is slightly breathable, so humidity won’t build up on the surface of the cheese, and the layer of foil keeps it from drying out completely. I asked Truini if it was ever okay to use plastic wrap to store cheese, and she conceded that for hard, dry cheeses at risk of drying out completely, wrapping them in plastic could buy you a few more good days.
Keep It Cool (and Slightly Humid)
Cheese that dries out too quickly becomes waxy and can form a hard, inedible skin. This can happen particularly quickly when an exposed piece of cheese is blasted by the cold fridge air. When choosing a spot in your fridge for storage, look for protection from the drying fans. “The fridge is a natural dehumidifier,” Formaggio’s Hallman explains, so she packs all of her cheese-paper-wrapped cheeses in food storage containers before popping them in the fridge. If you’re lucky enough to have a cheese drawer, that’s another great option. The crisper drawer also has humidity control, so don’t be afraid to let your cheeses get up close and personal with your veggies. “The cheese or crisper drawers work well, as the temperature is stable and light doesn’t penetrate the cheese as well,” says Jill Allen of Tillamook.
Overall, the trick is to let your cheese dry out ever so slowly, and the layered approach is the best way to accomplish that. Truini emphasized that, while moisture and mold can make cheese inedible, letting your cheese get a little dry isn’t the end of the world. She suggests grating it for mac and cheese or grilled cheese if it’s at the point where it’s too dry to enjoy on its own. Allen also notes that the cleaner your fridge, the better off your cheese will be. “A fridge with other moldy foods can release additional spores into the air, affecting the cheese flavor negatively,” she says.
For Fresh Cheese, Turn to Food Storage Containers
For cheese like brie or mozzarella, turn to tight-fitting food storage containers.Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
There are some cheeses that may need special treatment, such as the very fresh and very creamy (like chevre or brie), which are not aged long enough to protect them for long-term storage. For these, the best move is to find a food storage container that fits around the cheese snugly and press the cheese in so that there is as little air in the container as possible. For brie and other soft, bloomy rind cheeses, press parchment or wax paper against the cut edges of the cheese before storing it in a container. These soft cheeses have a shorter shelf life, so once you start digging into that batch of fresh cheese, you only have about five days to finish it.
Keep Brined Cheese In Their Brine
If you buy cheese that comes in brine, like Bocconcini or feta, make sure to hold on to as much of the brine as you can for storing the leftovers. Truini warns that sometimes the brine can start to smell “off” before the cheese has gone bad. She recommends washing off any off-putting brine and evaluating the cheese independently before you discard it.
Don’t Toss It—Trim It (Sometimes)
Even when storage conditions are ideal, that long-forgotten wedge in the back of your fridge may have developed a few unfortunate characteristics over time, but don’t assume it needs to be tossed without giving it a second chance.
First, look it over for any unfamiliar moldy spots—trim these off, taking a bit of extra cheese on all sides to be sure you’ve gotten everything. Next, feel for dry, crusty areas, and use a knife to slice these away and discard them. “Once you trim your cheese, give it a taste! If it is still pleasing, then it is still good,” says Hallman. That said, if you have a soft cheese that has moldy splotches, it’s probably best practice to not eat it. “If your soft cheese has foreign mold growing on the cheese, I suggest tossing the cheese, as the mold veins are more adapt to penetrate the entire cheese past and affect the flavor very poorly,” says Allen.
A Few Tips for Storing Cheddar
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik
Jill Allen of Tillamook—a West Coast fine purveyor of cheddar— has a few tips for cheddar-specific storage. She says the block of cheddar in your fridge can be stored for up to ten months, “however, you can store it longer if you maintain the temperature and prevent light penetrations that can cause light oxidation.” Like other harder, less moist cheeses, she recommends double wrapping. “Wrap first in parchment paper, cheese paper, or beeswax reusable paper, which allows the cheese to breathe, and then again in a loosely fitted plastic wrap or tinfoil to allow some breathing room for the cheese.”
And if you’ve got a long-forgotten block of cheddar in the fridge and notice a slimy texture and/or rank smells, it’s probably time to toss it. “Signs of a cheddar ‘gone bad’ could include aromas from storage that have attached themselves to your cheese, such as onion, staleness, and strong ammoniated, musty aromas that have penetrated deep inside the paste of your cheese,” says Allen. “Texture signals of a cheddar gone bad may include a very soft mushy paste that is slimy and smells bad.”
How to Serve Cheese
Or, How to Temper and Plate Cheese
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik
Cold temperatures dull our senses of taste and smell and can give the cheese a harder, waxier texture. So, if you want to bring out the best in your cheese, give it a chance to come to room temperature before you serve it. “Temper your cut cheese after removing it from the refrigerator,” says Allen. “The cool refrigerator will hinder flavors and textures. I recommend to only temper the cut portion that you will be eating or serving, as tempering the entire block or wheel of cheese each time will change the textures and flavors the more times it is brought to room temp.”
An hour is usually the perfect amount of time, but you may need less in warm environments (like a summer picnic) or for super tiny slivers of cheese. If your kitchen is cooler, give yourself more time to get your cheese temps up. Keep everything covered while it warms up; you can tent your cheese board with plastic wrap or leave your wedges resting under a bowl while you wait. Soft and medium cheeses will get stickier as they warm up, so avoid a tight wrap.
If you’re thinking ahead to how you’ll store the cheese, keep in mind that exposed surfaces will dry out much more quickly than intact ones, so don’t slice, crumble, or schmear more than a few sample pieces. Serve cheese with the appropriate knives (like this all-purpose set) and perhaps invest in a nice wooden serving board or even just use a wooden cutting board.
How do you know if cheese has gone bad?
“If you have a cheese that gets pushed to the back and forgotten, it is important to inspect it,” says Formaggio’s Hallman. “Surface mold can be scraped or cut off revealing a happy cheese underneath. Once you trim your cheese, give it a taste! If it is still pleasing, then it is still good.” Unpleasant ammonia smells begin to crop up on cheese that is past its prime. If your cheese reaches this point, it may be time to say goodbye. While surface mold is generally not a problem, beware of any new mold that appears on crumbled, shredded, or very soft cheeses—this mold cannot be safely removed and may pose a contamination risk.
What’s the best way to use up leftover cheese?
“There are so many ways to use up leftover cheese!” says LaPlante of Rind. “Mac and cheese is always a good go-to, toss it on a burger or in a grilled cheese, make an au gratin veggie dish, make fondue or another cheese dip, put it in some soup or a sauce to add body and flavor…the list goes on!” Once Kate Truini has amassed a sufficient amount of cheese-ends, she sends them into the food processor to create a one-of-a-kind shredded cheese blend that she can use for whatever she’s making. The drier cheeses grate easily without gumming up the machine.
What type of cheese knives do you need?
When I asked the cheesemongers what kinds of cheese knives they recommend, a few shapes rose to the top. For soft cheeses, a very thin blade is useful for gliding through cheese without becoming a gooey mess. Look for one with an offset blade for easy maneuverability. For firm cheeses that have a tendency to crumble, choose a grana knife, which has a wide, teardrop shape. To use this knife, stab the point into the top of the cheese and gently twist until some chunks of cheese fall loose. For artful serving, Truini suggests breaking off a couple of pieces of cheese and then serving the wedge along with the knife for guests to continue to serve themselves. A great multipurpose blade combines a medium-thickness knife with a forked tip for transferring cheese from board to plate. The last thing you’ll need to round out your collection is a great spreader for those soft, smearable cheeses.
Why We’re the Experts
Julia Stimeck has worked as a professional baker for over seven years in both restaurants and production bakeries. She is currently the assistant catering manager at the Rhode Island School of Design. She has written multiple articles for Serious Eats, including a review of bundt pans and an article on how a kitchen scale makes you a better cook.We spoke to four cheese experts to find out how to best store your queso, be it brie or cheddar: Kate Truini, owner of New Curds on the Block in Connecticut; Julia Hallman, owner of Formaggio Kitchen in Massachusetts; Jill Allen, Director of Product Excellence at Tillamook County Creamery Association; and Ashley LaPlante, owner of Rind Cheese Shop in Rhode Island.