Not too long ago, one of my dear readers submitted a question to the blog (something anyone can do, by the way; it’s nice to get a message from someone who isn’t a spambot). That question was as follows:
Can a cheese be too old to eat?
The question was prompted by the video I posted of me cutting a wheel of Vintage Grand Ewe that was, uh, pretty vintage. And it is a good question.
Before I go on, I will preface my response by saying that this is kind of a different question—but not entirely—from the question of how you know whether or not cheese is still good. And I answered that question back in March.
The main point of differentiation is how the cheese looks. Does it look gnarly? Then go back to my post titled, “Is my cheese still good?” and see if that helps you.
Does your old cheese look fine? Well, this is the post for you, my friend.
You see, cheese is a living thing. From its conception, each cheese is an ecosystem of microscopic organisms. They live, they eat, and they die. Some of them are killed on purpose (as in pasteurization), others live out their natural cycle during the life of the cheese.
Those little guys munching away on proteins, sugars and whatnot are part of the complex array of factors that give cheese its flavor.
Like their little teeny organisms, some cheeses have a much shorter lifespan than others. Soft, fresh cheeses, soft-ripened cheeses, and softer washed-rind cheeses just don’t last as long as harder cheeses. They go through proteolysis (protein breakdown), start to smell like ammonia, their rinds turn brown and dry, and then they lose their moisture and become crusty, brittle chunks of refuse, fit only for the compost heap.
If you have those cheeses in your fridge for a long, long time, they probably are too old to eat.
And yet I know for a fact that a hermetically sealed package of fresh chèvre can last unopened in the fridge for over a year and still be totally fine. Don’t ask me how I know that; I will only say that it is possible.
Why? Because the way in which the cheese is packaged—in totally sealed plastic, with all air removed—prevents the cheese from continuing to go through its natural life cycle. The happy little cheese bacteria that need air and warmer temperatures are totally dormant in a sealed package in the cold refrigerator. Thus the cheese is stuck in time, as it were.
But as soon as you open that package—man oh man! You’d better eat that cheese, stat!
And then there are the harder, more aged cheeses. Most basic cheddars are not aged for longer than a year. But there are cheddars that are aged for two years, three years, four years, and so forth. They are all fine to eat—and are intended to be eaten that way.
It sort of follows that you could continue to age a harder cheese for years and years, and it will become “vintage” and more aged.
Temperature and humidity can either speed up or slow down the breakdown of a cheese. Either way, aging really is a process of the components in the cheese breaking down over time. Hence in older cheeses you get a harder paste, a funkier or harder rind, white tyrosine crystals where the amino acid chains have broken down, stronger flavors, more pungent scents, and so forth.
For goudas, the aging process leads to a butterscotchy flavor, loads of crunchy tyrosine crystals, and a rind that is so hard it could kill a cheesemonger.
In cheddars, extra aging often means more pungent (or “sharp”) flavors, either earthy or tart, a firmer consistency, and the inclusion of those candy-like tyrosine crystals—as well as the funkiest, most fart-smelling cloth bandage ever that also could kill the cheesemonger trying to peel it off so she can cut the cheese for you.
If you leave a low-moisture cheese lying around, it will just continue to get older and harder. If you leave a blue cheese to sit forever, the blue mold will just consume more and more of the paste, leaving behind gnarly blue veins and a peppery, spicy flavor. And if you keep a pickled cheese submerged in brine, it will just become saltier and more pickled—just like a cucumber.
Like, if you were bopping around in the water on a vacation in Greece, and you found a totally sealed amphora and opened it, you might discover perfectly preserved Feta from like 3,000 years ago. In theory, if there was enough salt in the brine protecting the cheese, and no air touched it, it would still be good.
Obviously, you should not eat ancient cheese you find in the sea. Leave it to the archaeologists to decide whether or not it’s still good, OK?
The point is this: under the right circumstances, old cheese could still be good to eat.
Most of the time, your cheese is living in the wrong environment for it to taste any good. It’s being strangulated by unbreathable plastic wrap, then you wrap it in saran wrap or stick it in a Tupperware with a different cheese covered in a mold that’s like “I’m coming for you, bro.” Then, you put it in the back of your refrigerator, it gets frost bitten, you forget about it for like two months, and then when you rediscover your sad, frost-bitten cheese, the other cheese’s badass mold totally got all over it, and it might be a goner.
Now, I’m not suggesting you keep cheese around long enough for it to receive a vintage.
But if you store your cheese properly (in cheese paper or parchment paper, preferably in a crisper drawer of your refrigerator), keep it separate from your other cheeses, and don’t subject it to extreme levels of heat, cold, humidity, or dryness, your cheddars, goudas, swisses, tommes, and the like will likely become harder and more flavorful.
Whether or not those flavors are ones you want to taste is another story.
And again, if you are ever in doubt about whether or not you should taste your cheese, please refer to this set of instructions I have prepared for you. Or take a picture, and ask your cheesemonger.