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How Can I Tell When a Cheese Is Ripe?

culture's summer 2010 centerfold cheese: Dinah
As with fruit, a ripe cheese seems to be a good thing. But when can you tell when it’s at that peak stage and not gone over the edge?
Knowing what to look for when selecting cheese will help you pick out that perfectly ripe piece.

When examining bloomy and washed-rind cheeses, look at the cream line. This translucent layer just below the rind signals where the bacteria on the surface have begun to break down the proteins in the paste—from the outside toward the center. This layer is softer and usually more assertive than the middle and adds a welcome variation in flavor and texture from the rind and center paste. But here’s the important thing: the wider the cream line, the riper the cheese. Left to age, the cream line would overtake the smooth, compact interior, leaving a core that is more liquid than paste. Generally speaking, you’ll want to avoid soft cheeses that look very runny and are wrapped in plastic. While the interior may be just ripe, the cheese closest to the rind is likely to be overly assertive and ammoniated. This means the flavors and textures could be out of balance because the cheese has matured too much.

Semisoft or firm cheeses tend to hold up better over a longer time. In the case of semisoft cheeses that are wrapped in plastic, the color of the paste should be bright and fresh looking—not slimy or greasy. The greatest enemy for hard cheeses is either being stored at too high a temperature in plastic wrap, in which case the oils from the cheese will start to pool on the surface, or not being wrapped sufficiently. In the latter case, the surface of the cheese will appear dry and cracked.

The key for you and your cheesemonger is to learn the right balance of ripeness for each cheese according to your tastes. That’s why it’s wise to ask for a freshly cut piece of cheese, rather than feeling obliged to choose what is already in the counter, especially if it looks overly ripe or subpar. Cheese is living and breathing, and each one will ripen differently based on the environment in which it has been kept.

Cheesemonger Nathan Raskopf

Nathan Raskopf is a cheesemonger at Whole Foods Market in Raleigh, North Carolina. He started in 1999, “At the time,” he says, “I didn’t know much ... about cheese.” When Nathan switched to the Specialty team at Whole Foods in 2000, he immediately fell in love with cheese.