Cooking with Cheese

There are an unbelievable number of cheeses today and they are becoming more and more available in our supermarkets. Cheeses are not just for eating out of hand or putting on sandwiches. In this Cooking Tip, I want to discuss how to use cheeses to their best advantage in your culinary creations. This will not be an exhausting list, but will hopefully cover some of the most commonly called for cheeses in recipes. In this first of three Cooking Tips, I want to discuss general storage and cooking tips.

When purchasing cheese, makes sure the packaging is tightly wrapped & sealed and that the cheese does not look dry or discolored. For fresh cheeses, check the date on the wrapper and you want it to be as fresh as possible. Once opened, follow certain guidelines.

First, all cheeses should be refrigerated if you are not consuming it immediately. Store in the veggie drawer at about 35°- 45°F.

Most cheese makers will tell you to remove the cheese from the original plastic wrapping. Similarly, they recommend against wrapping the cheese in plastic wrap. Harold McGee writes in his culinary reference book, On Food and Cooking, that there are three reasons to avoid tight plastic wrap.

  1. Tight wrapping traps moisture and restricts oxygen flow and will promote the growth of bacteria and mold that are not naturally found in the cheese.
  2. Tight wrapping prevents the dissipation of ammonia. Some cheeses have bacteria that naturally emit ammonia and it needs to be released to prevent the development of unpleasant flavors.
  3. Trace volatile compounds and plastic chemicals migrate from the plastic into the cheese.

According to Castello Cheese, it also alters the protective rind that preserves the cheese, eventually removing flavor/texture.

Therefore, the cheese should be loosely wrapped in a more porous material such as wax or parchment paper. After wrapping, you may then either place it in an open plastic bag or wrap in plastic to discourage moisture loss. For extremely pungent cheeses, you may want to place them in an airtight container to prevent their aroma/flavor from permeating other foods. Firm cheeses also do well wrapped in foil.

There is a cheese paper made especially for cheese. The main brand is Formaticum and it comes in both bags and rolls. It is becoming easier to obtain although a bit expensive. Even my local supermarket carries it in their specialty cheese department. I recently received a gift of food storage wrappers made from cotton and beeswax and there are a number of brands available. There are even instructions for making your own. I have not seen a cheese maker mention these but I have been using them and so far, they have done a nice job of maintaining my cheese freshness.

Another recommendation is to replace the wrapping after every use so you don’t introduce bacteria from your hands or other foods.

Some cheeses should be stored in their original packaging. For instance, fresh cheeses such as mozzarella and soft ripened cheeses such as Brie and Camembert. They don’t breathe the same way as harder cheeses do and won’t absorb unpleasant flavors. If they come packaged in a liquid, store them in that same liquid.

What if mold develops? According to the Mayo Clinic and the USDA, if it is a soft or fresh cheese such as cream cheese, cottage cheese, ricotta, fresh goat cheese or if it has been shredded, crumbled or sliced, it should be thrown away. With a hard or semi-hard cheese such as Cheddar, Parmesan and Swiss, they say the mold does not penetrate the entire piece of cheese. So, you can just cut off the moldy part with about an inch border and continue to use it.

What about freezing cheese? It can be done at times but, it is not recommended. Hard cheeses freeze the best. Cut into small pieces (less than ½# and less than 1-inch thick) & wrap tightly in plastic wrap. To thaw, leave in refrigerator for several hours and use shortly afterwards.

Some cheeses freeze better than others, in particular Cheddar, Havarti and Gouda. Soft cheeses should not be frozen. Examples include Brie, blue cheeses and cream cheese. Those high in moisture such as mozzarella can be frozen but they do suffer texturally and are best served in a cooked manner after thawing.

Let’s switch to some advice to help you with using that cheese in your cooking.

  • For grating and shredding, keep your cheese cold as it will be much easier without turning to mush.
  • Removing rinds that are edible is optional; it depends on your taste. Be forewarned, some can be quite intense.
  • In general, you want to use a low cooking temperature for a short amount of time.
  • If you are melting shredded or crumbled cheese into a hot dish, toss it in just before serving.
  • For casserole-type dishes, consider adding a bit of milk or cream so the cheese doesn’t dry out during the longer cooking times. Bake no higher than 375°F so it doesn’t break the cheese sauce.
  • If adding cheese to a béchamel sauce to make a mornay sauce, keep your roux on the lighter side so it doesn’t compete with the cheese. Remove the sauce from heat before adding so it doesn’t break.
  • If just want to use the cheese as a topping, putting it briefly under the broiler is all you need.
  • You can also add cheese chunks to cold dishes such as pasta or a veggie dish, especially fresh cheeses such as Chèvre or Queso Fresco.
  • If you wish to add a little lemon juice to your cheese sauce, do not add so much that it will curdle. Alternatively, you might want to consider adding just the zest, which will give you that nice, bright flavor without fear of curdling.

Some final words on melting and non-melting cheeses. At about 90°F, the milk fat in the cheese melts, which makes the cheese more supple and often brings little beads of melted fat to the surface. At higher temperatures, enough of the protein bonds are broken such that the protein matrix collapses allowing the cheese to flow as a thick liquid.

  • For soft cheeses, this occurs around 130°F.
  • For harder cheeses such as Cheddar and Swiss, it is about 150 F.
  • For very hard and low moisture cheeses such as Parmesan and Pecorino, it doesn’t happen until about 180°F.

Some cheeses are not meant to melt and if you try, they will just get drier and stiffer. These include:

  • Indian paneer
  • Latin queso blanco
  • Italian ricotta
  • Most fresh goat cheeses

You may have noticed that some cheeses get stringy when melted. There is a chemical explanation for this that causes stringiness in cheeses that are moderate in acid, moisture, salt & age. The worst offenders are Mozzarella, Emmental and Cheddar. To counteract this if you wish to use one of these cheeses, try the following.

  • Grate the cheese very finely so it can disperse evenly.
  • Heat the dish as little as possible after the cheese has been added.
  • Don’t let the dish cool too much before serving.
  • Minimize stirring.
  • Include starch ingredients such as flour, cornstarch, arrowroot.
  • If the flavor of your dish permits, add an acid such as lemon juice or wine.

I hope this gets you started in understanding the basics of cooking with cheese. In the next two Tips, we will look at some of the cheeses more in-depth.

Until then, Happy Cooking!