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Lessons from Laura Werlin: Eating, Storing and Listening to Cheese

“I believe in listening to what you’re tasting, which may seem strange. It’s not something audible, but I think you pick up on texture and flavor best if you tune in,” says cheese master Laura Werlin. Here, she shares tips on enjoying cheese.

Best Way to Store Cheese

A cheese is a living organism that needs air. For a soft-ripened cheese or fresh cheese, I put it unwrapped in a container with a few pinholes that I pierced into the lid. With all other cheeses, I wrap them in waxed paper or parchment, then wrap the paper in plastic wrap. Both systems preserve the cheese while letting it breathe, and keep plastic away from the surface of the cheese. Cheese has an amazing ability to absorb the petroleum flavor of plastic wrap. I’ve found they’re not as affected by Stretch Tite and Costco-brand plastic wrap, so I buy those. They also don’t seem to absorb the flavor of plastic in Cryovac bags, so FoodSaver or home vacuum packing machines aren’t the worst way to store cheese.

How to Taste Cheese

You’ll want to chew it, making sure you expose it to every part of your mouth and palate front to back and side to side. I believe in listening to what you’re tasting, which may seem strange. It’s not something audible, but I think you pick up on texture and flavor best if you tune in. Then swallow and breathe back through your nose. You’ll notice new flavors, and it extends the finish as well. That’s a great way to taste anything, not just cheese. It’s also a good idea to taste two or three cheeses of the same category side by side to compare. More than that and you risk palate fatigue.

Guide to Cheese Pairings

Fresh Cheese + Water

I don’t recommend pairing these with wine because milk doesn’t go well with wine, and fresh cheeses most resemble milk.

Semihard and Semisoft Cheeses + White Wine

Generally speaking, white wine is a better friend of cheese than red. Most all cheeses (except for aged English cheddars, below) tend to strip the fruit in red wines.

Blue and Washed-Rind Cheeses + Sparkling Wines (or Dessert Wines like Ice Wine)

As with other salty foods like oysters and caviar, the bubbles tend to lift the richness and salt of these cheeses off the tongue. Sweet wines also make a nice contrast with the creaminess and salt.

Aged Cheeses + Sherry, Madeira and Vin Jaune

These wines have nutty flavors that work beautifully with the nutty flavors of aged cheeses. Aged cheeses tend to strip the fruit out of table wines, making them taste off.

Aged English-style Cheddar + Big, Fruity Red Wine

These cheddars seem to be the only cheeses that can stand up to the fruit of a big red wine.

The Ultimate Cheese Plate

A great cheese plate has a full range of textures, flavors and milks. Even if you can only include three, a soft cheese made with goat milk, a semihard with sheep milk, and a blue, washed-rind or hard cheese made with cow’s milk is a great way to go. Sometimes it’s even better to go with one perfect cheese, too, which guests can linger over.

How to Pick Cheese

A good cheese monger will ask you more questions than you’re going to ask them, because it’s their job to figure out what you like, not yours. And they should ask about all of your food preferences, not just cheese. Because a person who likes cream sauces will like a soft-ripened cheese. A person who doesn’t like peppery things won’t like a sharper, pungent cheese. But it’s always a good idea to ask for a sample. A great cheese is one that tastes good to you.

Best Cheeses for...

A Grilled Cheese Sandwich? The best grilled cheeses combine a stretchy cheese like cheddar, Gruyère, an unaged Gouda, Monterey Jack or mozzarella with a creamy cheese like Brie or gorgonzola (one that melts but doesn’t stretch). If I’m feeling really indulgent, I’ll grate some parmiggiano reggiano and add that to the butter that I’ll spread on the outside of the bread.

Mac and Cheese? Pretty much the same holds true for mac and cheese as grilled cheese: A combination of stretch and creamy cheeses works best. For added crunch, I’ll grate a hard cheese like parmiggiano reggiano on top before baking.

A Cheeseburger? Burgers require a cheese with real flavor, like Gruyère or Emmentaler. Sometimes I’ll also put a creamy cheese in the center of the meat patty before I cook it, for an added surprise.

Fondue? Fondue originates in the mountains, so I like mountain cheeses: Emmentaler, Gruyère, appenzeler, Jarlsberg.

A Salad? I like creamy, crumbly or shaved hard cheeses that can contribute flavor and texture. I don’t like semisoft or semihard cheeses; those remind me too much of chef’s salad, where the cheese is rubbery and doesn’t add anything. If the cheese is supercreamy, I’ll put it on a crostini and call it a crouton.

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