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Nov 12, 2003 05:17 PM

Cheese Ripening

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Forgive my ignorance but how does one tell when a cheese is "ripe"? I assume that different cheeses ripen at different times and there is much to this scientific process. But, can I tell from looking at it at the gourmet/grocery store? What should I be looking for? I am a huge lover of all things dairy and I am trying to expand my cheese palate. I have heard that once a cheese is cut, the ripening process stops. I suspect that in many nonspecialty grocery stores, the person,ahem,cutting the cheese does not know or care whether it is ready. While I search for a trustworthy cheesemonger, is there any information that chowhounds can arm me with to assure I get the best product? Thanks.

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  1. Correct. Once a block or wheel of cheese is cut, it stops aging. Most neighborhood supermarkets and even some specialty stores cut all or most of their cheeses without testing for ripeness. Good cheesemongers use special tools and keep good records to ensure they don't cut their cheeses too early.

    Generally, hard cheeses like cheddar and parmesan get harder and darker as they age. Ripeness is determined by personal taste. If you like your cheese extra sharp, look for something aged over two years. A mild cheddar will be considered ripe after 3-6 months aging. Sharp cheddar is ripe after 1 year.

    Soft cheeses like Camembert and Taleggio become runny and develop a strong smell as they ripen. This type of cheese should be left out at room temperature for about 30 minutes before serving.

    2 Replies
    1. re: KP

      Thanks so much for the info. Another question. How ripe is too ripe? A week ago I bought some gorgonzola at a high end specialty grocery. Now I love stinky cheese but this had a strong ammonia taste that was really unpleasant. What happened to this cheese? (Please note that I have eaten gorgonzola many, many times so I know what it is supposed to taste like) Thanks

      1. re: Aunt Bea

        An ammonia taste or smell means the cheese has gone bad. I guess you could say that this characteristic of soft cheeses is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, it makes it easy to tell when they are too ripe, but it's also bad because they actually have the ability to go bad.

        Hard cheeses never really reach a state of becoming overripe, they just keep getting sharper and more crumbly with age. It's not rare to find cheddars or reggianos aged four years or more.