Cheese keeping is simple, especially in a restaurant kitchen. Ensuring cuts and whole wheels remain pristine takes treating them with some light care and routine observation, and letting the environment take care of the rest.
Cheese ripens in cave-like environments: a little humidity, some air circulation, darkness, and moderately cool temperatures keep them happy. Light and long exposure can cause the cut surfaces to oxidize. If a holding environment is too dry, the rind will crack and peel. If there’s no air circulation, it may spoil.
Because cheese should be served tempered, there are steps you can take to satisfy your customers and the health inspector. Current food safety regulations for New York establishments state that perishable food out of cold-holding storage is to be discarded after six hours outside refrigeration, or if it registers a temperature over 70 degrees Fahrenheit. But because it is a cured food product, variables exist. Soft and blue-veined cheeses in particular must be kept under close supervision. If they measure more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, they can be red flags to an inspector. It’s wise to cut the amount you think you will need for two to four hours of service only.
Turning whole wheels routinely helps evenly distribute moisture in the paste, which all cheese has to some degree. The harder the cheese, the less moisture it contains. Additionally, the practice of letting overlooked wheels of cheese sit out in open air helps strong odors of ammonia (a byproduct of cheese aging) dissipate.
Containers with fitted lids are great for holding small-format, soft styles like Camembert or coins of chèvre in walk-ins. Blue-veined cheeses do well wrapped in foil, and many natural-rinded styles don’t require much more than a swath of parchment.
Cuts of large, hard cheese resting in indoor temperatures can over dry. Massimo Bottura, chef of the three-Michelin-star Osteria Francescana, advises keeping Parmigiano Reggiano for service under a damp cloth, which provides coverage and creates a moist barrier so the cheese doesn’t over dry.
Cloches can be great for merchandising, as well as protecting your cuts from ambient particles in the air and less-than-ideal room temperatures.
Adding conditioner to Italian pecorino or Grana cheeses, like olive oil, adds seasoning, as well as cleans the rind. A cloth dampened in vinegar or even diluted food-safe sanitizer would be adequate to polish and sanitize your hard cheese rinds, particularly the styles of the Grana cheese family.
It’s important to note that mold isn’t necessarily a bad omen, and is often encouraged by cheesemakers. But if colorful mold appears on your fresh cheeses (two weeks or younger) its best not to serve them. Otherwise, varying spots of white, gray or yellow on the crust are symbols of the transformation that happens to cheeses as they mature. Molds that crop up on the cut surfaces should be removed.
No matter your storage situation when it’s time to keep cheese, think: some moisture, coolness, and low light. And as always, the obvious levels of cleanliness are paramount: clean hands, clean surfaces, clean knives, and clean cold storage units.