Soft cheeses don’t get enough credit. Beyond happily putting out a plate of Brie and crackers at cocktail parties, most people don’t tend to give soft cheeses themselves much thought. Obviously, their creamy texture is delicious when smeared on crackers, but there is so much more to know about these rich cheeses.
Soft cheese can be made from cow, goat, or sheep’s milk and come from all over the globe. The most common, familiar types include feta, Brie, ricotta, Camembert, Chevre, Roquefort, gorgonzola, cotija, and panela, and they’re categorized by a tangy creaminess that you can’t find anywhere else. But there’s more to know than the fact that they are delicious, so arm yourselves with these facts on all the that soft cheeses offer so you can better enjoy them beyond your next cocktail party.
1. Nothing Lasts Forever!
Although the exact time varies by type, a good rule of thumb to remember is that hard cheeses last months, and soft cheeses last weeks. But that’s only if you handle them correctly. Which is why this next point is so important:
2. Stop Wrapping Them In Plastic
Please! One reason soft cheeses don’t keep as long as their hard cousins is because they don’t have a hard rind, so it’s your job to protect them from the refrigerator smells that can seep into them. We recommend keeping your cheese in a humid drawer within the fridge, loosely wrapped in wax paper. Try your best to avoid plastic wrapping, as cheese can absorb flavors and chemicals from it. If you’re using plastic, they’ll go bad faster and there’s nothing worse than buying expensive cheese only to see it get rotten before you can eat it.
3. Serve Them At Room Temperature
Although soft cheeses do need to be refrigerated when you’re not eating them, when it comes time for consumption, they’re best at room temperature. Ideally, you want to allow a soft cheese to sit out wrapped on the counter for at least an hour before unwrapping and serving.
4. …Because Of Their Molecular Makeup
Cheese is made up mostly of fat, which expands and contracts relative to the temperature. when at room temperature, the fat molecules grow larger, allowing for a richer, more varied taste on the part of the consumer.
5. They Pair Beautifully With White Wine
You’re going to want to look for a bright, fruit-forward white wine like a Sauvignon Blanc or an off-dry Riesling. The acidity of those whites cuts through the richness of a soft cheese much better than a red wine, which will coat the mouth with tannins and makes it harder to taste the cheese.
6. But Water Is Actually Terrible With Them
In fact, drinking water while eating soft cheese can lead to indigestion. Because of those same fat cells that we shared with you earlier, drinking water with soft cheese can lead to a bad situation. Think of the way that a fat-soluble substance like butter reacts with water, and imagine that going on in your stomach.
7. There’s A Right Way To Eat Them
Always smell your cheese before you take a bite, to get all your olfactory processes working at once. And if you want to get the most out of the flavor, cheesemongers suggest you breathe out through your nose when it’s time to swallow, which triggers what’s called the “retro-nasal effect”—it keeps the aromas swirling in the back of your throat, which allows you to enjoy the full, layered complexity of the cheese.
8. That Pregnancy Thing Is An Urban Legend
Many soft cheeses are made with raw, unpasteurized milk, and therefore contain the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, which can lead to a rare but serious condition called “listeriosis.” It’s relatively rare in the United States, with only about 1,600 cases a year, but pregnant women are especially susceptible, so most expectant mothers avoid all soft cheeses, at least until the baby is born. That said, raw-milk cheeses are no longer allowed to be sold in the United States unless they’ve been aged for sixty days, so just check the pasteurization status of any soft cheese before you eat it, and you should be good to go!
9. You Can Eat Them If You’re Lactose-Intolerant
Amazing, right? Even though it’s counterintuitive, some soft cheeses—like mozzarella and ricotta—are un-aged, and thus have low levels of lactose (under five grams), which in most cases makes them safe to eat. But before you get too excited about this, make sure to remember that only SOME soft cheeses are safe for the lactose-intolerant. If you have an issue, definitely check it before eating!
10. Soft Cheeses Are A Great Cooking Ingredient
In addition to being the star of a cheese board, soft cheeses are also a delicious addition to many recipes. You can fold chevre into scrambled eggs, mix blue cheese with breadcrumbs to make a crust for a juicy filet, or take Plated Head Chef Elana Karp’s advice and whisk some mascarpone into a vegetable- or meat-based sauce for a creamy texture and rich, tangy flavor. That’s what we did in the Wild Mushroom Papardelle with Mascarpone recipe above. The opportunities are endless!
Doesn’t it make soft cheeses even more delicious to have all this insider information on them now? And if you’re stocking up on soft cheeses for an appetizer or an after-dinner treat at a party, aim to buy three ounces per guest. That works out to about a serving size, although you can always do more if you’re dining with cheese-lovers!