My parents are pretty lucky; they have a personal cheese specialist they can just dial up whenever they have questions about cheese. (That’s me!)
“Hey, we’re at Costco and they have an imported cheese show. Do you know Chimay cheese?”
“Hey, we bought a Lancashire Bomb today! How do we open it?”
“Hey, can I put fig spread on this goat cheese?”
“Hey, look at this cheese they had at Trader Joe’s. Is it any good?”
Or, my favorite:
“Hey, you remember that Comté we had in the fridge when you were here? We finally opened it and it has little white dots on it. Is that normal?”
Usually, what happens in this situation is that I ask them to send me a picture of whatever blemish it is that they’re concerned about. They have always already cut it off and thrown it away before calling me, so I don’t have a fair chance to assess the thing visually.
I have asked them to dig mold out of the trash for me, but they won’t do it. Oh well. How else is your personal cheese specialist supposed to help you out when she lives 2,000 miles away?
(Moral of the story: if you are worried about cheese blemishes, ALWAYS take a picture so you can show your cheesemonger when you ask him or her if something is normal.)
This brings me to today’s issue: knowing how to tell the difference between cheese that is still good and doing its thang, and cheese that is bad and should not go in your mouth.
In order to assess a piece of cheese, you need to use all of your senses. (Except sound, I guess. You can listen to the cheese, but it may not tell you what you want to hear.)
Give the cheese a once-over with your eyes to determine if things look alarming or weird. If you aren’t sure what the cheese is supposed to look like, you can look it up online or in a cheese book. There will usually be descriptions of the cheese that cover normal appearance factors and abnormalities that need not be worried over.
Or you can snap a picture and show it to your cheesemonger, if you have time. (Most knowledgeable cheesemongers will be able to help you out, especially if you have already taken the time to smell the cheese and notice anything else about it that seems amiss before you contact your monger.)
If the cheese is not a cheese that is supposed to be covered in bloomy, white mold or perforated by blue veins, be on the lookout for mold—specifically blue, black, or green mold. While blue and green molds aren’t always bad, they can be the red flag for something amiss with your cheese–and usually the other senses, especially smell, have to be called in to make a final determination.
Orange splotches on the rind of soft-ripened cheese are OK, and are called “bricking.” I have had people argue with me before that bricking is bad, but it’s just a normal part of the aging process (e.g., breakdown of amino acids) for soft-ripened cheeses. Some will have no bricking, and others will have it; either way is OK.
Small tufts of grey or black, fuzzy mold are normal on bloomy-rind cheeses and natural-rind tommes; this mold is called cat fur, or mucor, and is harmless in small amounts.
Patches of white mold growing on the paste of most cheeses can easily be cut off and the cheese can be consumed with no issues. Large stretches of white and green mold are usually not a great sign, but unless they consume every surface of the cheese and are super hairy, they can probably also be cut away. On cheddars, you want to cut off about 1/4″ of the moldy parts of the cheese.
Neon-colored mold growth is bad in almost all cheeses—think highlighter-pink or -orange splotches in a Gouda or blue cheese. That said, (not neon) pink is fine in some blue cheeses, like Gorgonzolas or Stiltons.
Cheese can become discolored or dull as it ages, particularly if it’s been sitting under a bright light or it’s been wrapped in life-sucking plastic wrap. (Always opt to store your cheese in paper if you have the choice!) That said, discolored cheese isn’t necessarily always going to taste wrong.
White spots on the cheese that aren’t fuzzy could be salt crystals, calcium lactate, or tyrosine crystals–particularly on aged goudas, Alpines, and cheddars. These crystalline spots are totally fine and even add to the flavor of the cheese.
Calcium lactate shows up on younger cheddars, and looks like it could be mold, but it isn’t; if you look closely, it’s not furry. Salt crystals show up on washed rind cheeses and aged hard cheeses that have been washed during affinage. Finally, tyrosine crystals are present in aged goudas and the like, resulting from the breakdown of amino acid chains as the cheese ages; these are what give the aged cheeses that pleasant crunch that we look for in them.
Once you’ve looked at the cheese, feel it.
If it’s a soft, fresh cheese like Mozzarella, Ricotta, or Pecorino Fresco, is it super sticky and tacky? If so, it may be over the hill. These cheeses can be wet or wet-sticky, but once they get that dry-sticky feeling or become super slimy, it’s best to let them go.
If it’s a hard cheese, oily and greasy is usually OK, especially if the cheese has been kept ambient (out of refrigeration). In general, slimy is an undesirable texture for hard cheeses.
Blue cheeses can be slimy or greasy, especially as they like to weep and release oils everywhere if the temperature isn’t perfect (or even if it is, sometimes). The grease can just be scraped away with the back of a knife.
For soft-ripened cheeses, is the rind super hard and brittle? If so, chances are good that this cheese has been mistreated and may not be in great shape on the inside.
While many blue cheeses carry notes of ammonia or other chemicals in their natural aroma, the major smell you want to avoid in soft-ripened cheese and many semi-soft and semi-firm cheeses is that of ammoniation. If it smells super ammoniated, it is probably going to taste like ammonia, too.
This smell comes from the protein breakdown in the cheese as it gets older. The older it gets, the more the proteins are breaking down, and the cheese gets smellier and smellier.
Now how the cheese smells or is supposed to smell all depends on the cultures that created in the cheese in the first place, but there’s a line between “good” and “bad” that a seasoned cheese sniffer can root out.
There are all sorts of random aroma notes you can get from cheeses, all totally acceptable—baby poop is one of them, god knows why—so a “bad smell” may not be a bad thing for the cheese. If alarm bells go off, like, “oy, this smells rotten!” or “oh god, ammonia!” then maybe exercise caution with this cheese.
I get it, not everyone is going to put everything in their mouth to check if it’s still good. But once you’ve inspected a cheese visually, smelled it, and touched it, and you still have doubts, the only other way to tell if it’s still good is to taste the cheese.
As a true Human Garbage Can, I have tasted a lot of really bad cheeses, as well as rancid nuts, stale crackers, and past-their-prime preserves—all within the scope of my quest to be a really great cheesemonger and ensure that any samples I give out are good samples, and that any product I sell is top quality. I have tried a great many cheeses that looked, smelled, and felt awful, but turned out to taste delicious.
Based on my experience, the most important piece of advice I can tell you about tasting cheese to see if it’s still good is this: when it’s bad, YOU WILL KNOW IT. Because when cheese is genuinely, truly bad, it tastes BAD.
Sometimes it won’t hit you until the end—like, “Nah this is fine, it’s kind of good. Oh wait, maybe not. Oh, oh my god, somebody give me a cracker! Anything! Argh!” Other times you will know right away: “Nope. Nobody eat it; it’s bad.”
Usually, “bad” can mean “extremely bitter,” “chemically as all get out,” or “like eating plastic wrap.” There are also shades of “highly unpleasant with no redeeming qualities.” This goes beyond preferences for a certain cheese–yet if you know you don’t like goat cheese in the first place, you probably shouldn’t be the one tasting it to see if it’s still good.
The discolored cheese that sat underneath show lights for too long may actually taste just fine, even pretty good. It may also taste like death. There’s only one way to find out, and that involves putting a small piece of said cheese in your mouth, letting it sit on your tongue, truly tasting the cheese, and then deciding if you need to spit it out or can swallow it and eat more.
The key is to have unwrapped the cheese first and let it breathe for at least 10 to 15 minutes. This allows any plastic-wrap fumes to dissipate, and for the cheese to warm up a bit to a more desirable temperature.
The most tricky type of cheese to taste-test is actually soft-ripened cheeses. Sometimes the rind goes bad before the paste; this means that you have to taste the cheese all at once, and then taste the paste separately from the rind.
I’ve tasted a number of brie-style cheeses that had a really beautiful, wonderful paste—but that paste was encapsulated in a nasty, bitter rind of doom. Cut the rind away, and your mouth rejoices! Problem solved.
Some final notes:
Like any good cheesemonger, I can assure you that the best method to avoid having to tell if your cheese is still good is twofold: 1) purchase cheese from a reputable cheesemonger who you know has fresh, good quality cheeses and would not lead you astray; 2) buy small enough quantities of cheese at a time that you don’t have tons leftover.
Essentially, buy what you can eat tonight if you can, or buy what you can eat this week if you can’t get to the store as frequently. My parents live in the middle of nowhere, so they have to plan shopping trips and buy cheeses that are going to last them until the next trip to town—and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Yes, you can freeze cheese, and it will essentially be OK if you keep it sealed properly and don’t thaw it out too fast.
Yes, the “best by” or “sell by” date on cheese is often an arbitrarily decided number that means nothing, often means “best on or after,” or can be thrown out the window and totally ignored. Cheese is good if it smells fine, feels normal, and isn’t covered in horrifyingly highlighter-pink splotches or carpets of black mold.
This is a gross generalization, of course, but you get my point: cheese is a living thing and the window of “good” versus “no longer good” depends on the individual cheese, the environment in which it lives, and how well it is cared for. Just like a pet, but a pet you want to eat.
And yes, cheese that is hermetically sealed is practically going to be good forever as long as the packaging stays sealed and you eat it quickly once the packaging is opened. But you might not want to eat it a year after the “best by” date. Just sayin’.