Laurel Miller is a fearless traveler who will eat anything—at least once. I will never have the guts–er, cojones–to embark on even half of the trips that she’s taken, but I’ve been entertained by her travel adventures and misadventures for years. (Ask her about the near-fatal flight in South America—it justifies why she depends on Xanax to get over severe flight phobia, and why she named her blog Snacking on Xanax.)
When grounded, the semi-Seattle-based journalist writes about cheese. She is a contributing editor to Culture, a beautiful magazine dedicated to cheese. She also is the author, with Thalassa Skinner, of Cheese for Dummies, released May 8.
I thought she’d be the perfect person to ask a few cheese-related questions that are occasionally thrown my direction. Below find Laurel’s tips on storing cheese at home, her explanation of the legalities of raw-milk cheeses, and her opinion on old cheese:
Q. Is cheese vegetarian?
A. It depends. Most cheese (with the exclusion of some fresh varieties) is made with rennet, an enzyme found in the stomach lining of young ruminants (cud-chewing mammals such as cows, sheep, and goats). It’s used to coagulate the curds in cheesemaking. Today, many cheesemakers use non-animal (also known as vegetarian) rennet from microbial and yeast-derived coagulants, or various species of thistle. As a rule, most European artisan cheesemakers tend to use animal rennet, and thistle rennet is common in Portugal and parts of Spain and France.
Q. Is there such a thing as vegan cheese?
A. Not as far as I’m concerned!
Q. Are raw-milk cheeses legal in the US?
A. Yes, so long as they’re aged for over 60 days. The same goes for imported cheeses. It’s a very complex and divisive issue, and something we cover in Chapter, uh, 2 of our book. Personally, I believe there’s a place in the market for both raw and pasteurized milk cheese; what the public needs to understand is that just because a cheese is pasteurized, it doesn’t mean you can’t get sick from it. Ultimately, it comes down to the quality of the milk and sanitation and handling practices of the dairy/cheesemaker, and the affineur, distributor, and retailer.
Q. I notice that aged cheeses are always more expensive than young cheeses. Why would you want old cheese, anyway?
A. Unlike acting or modeling, when it comes to cheese, age is a good thing. They’re more costly because the longer a cheese is aged, the longer it takes the cheesemaker to turn a profit on it. As long as it’s taking up space, and not on the retail shelf, there’s less room for other cheeses to be made. But not all cheeses taste good young, and in fact some of the greatest cheese treasures in the world are aged from one to five years: think Parmigiano Reggiano, Goudas, Cheddars…
Q. I don’t have a cheese cave! What’s the best way to store cheese at home?
A. Unless Williams-Sonoma starts marketing DIY cheese caves (please, no), don’t worry! You can purchase special cheese paper. (Formaticum is the most popular and can be ordered online or found in most cheese shops.) It has two layers: a permeable membrane so it can breathe, and a paper layer to retain moisture. Or you can DIY using stuff already in your kitchen. The key to storing cheese is letting it breathe, because it’s a living thing and will continue to ripen.
Here’s the lowdown on storage, from Cheese for Dummies, Chapter 7, which is on Serving and Storing Cheese:
*Fresh: These cheeses have a very short shelf life, so eat them as soon as possible. The most important thing is to keep them from oxidizing, so keep them sealed in their original container (which may or may not contain brine), or tightly sealed in plastic wrap.
*Semi-soft, soft-ripened, semi-hard, and washed rind: Seal these cheeses in plastic wrap or waxed paper, and store them in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Place in the humidifier/vegetable crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Because cheese continues to ripen as it ages be sure to air out the cheese every day or so by unwrapping it, and letting it sit at room temperature for half an hour or so.
*Blue: Wrap blue cheese in waxed or butcher paper and store it in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Place it in the humidifier/vegetable crisper drawer of your refrigerator.
Q. I’m a Cheddar fan, but I want to branch out. What cheese categories should I look into to impress my friends?
A. If you love Cheddar, then chances are you’ll enjoy other sharp cheeses with earthy or “meaty” flavors. Try Landaff, from New Hampshire, or Wavreumont, a Belgian Trappist cheese. Both are available at many cheese shops or online.
Q. If I like fresh goat cheese, what other cheeses should I try?
A. Goat cheese is very distinct in flavor–that tangy characteristic– because of the chemical composition of the milk. It may have a mild “goaty” flavor, but it shouldn’t full-on reek of goat. That’s a sign of a poorly made cheese or bad milk. If you crave the tanginess of fresh goat cheese, which is known as chévre, try créme fraîche, fromage blanc, goat ricotta, or crescenza di stracchino, which is made from cow’s milk. You’ll also probably love young, surface-ripened goat cheeses such as crottin, or other varieties. Ask your cheesemonger to recommend some; I love the ones made by Vermont Butter & Cheese, but every region of the U.S. has excellent versions.