Murray's Guide to Cheese Basics
Everything you ever wanted to know about cheese! Learn to tell different cheese styles apart, how to make a cheese plate and complete your spread with accompaniments. Should you exhibit enough self-control to have leftovers, we’ll tell you the best way to store them.
Fresh cheese is exactly what it sounds like: Fresh! Cheese! Meaning it doesn’t really undergo any aging, still has lots of moisture, and should be eaten right away. Fresh cheeses have no rind and are characterized by their light, clean, milky taste and a bright white color.
Examples: Fresh Chevre, Fresh Mozzarella, Burrata
Soft Ripened and Bloomy Rinds
The flavor ranges from rich, sweet butter to earthy mushroom with a peppery bite. The texture can be gooey and runny, spongy and tacky, or anywhere in between. A bit of mottling and color variation is expected on the rind of a quality handmade cheese – don’t let it freak you out. The characteristic pillowy white or wrinkly off-white rind develops from molds that are added during the cheesemaking process.
Examples: Brie, Haystack Peak, La Tur
Washed Rinds aka “Stinky Cheese”
When the rinds of these cheeses get washed with a liquid (typically brine, booze, or some combination of both) it encourages a bacterial growth that gives washed rinds their distinctive orange color and signature stank. But don’t fear the reaker! The bark is almost always worse than the bite.
Examples: Epoisses, Taleggio, Grayson
Not quite soft, not quite firm – it’s semisoft! Almost all of these mellow, pliable cheeses are made for melting. Texture can be as soft as whipped pudding or bordering on firm but with a little give when you give it a squeeze.
Examples: Fontina, La Serena, Morbier
Dense and toothsome, firm cheeses are ideal for snacking and slicing. Any cheese that’s firm to the touch but not as hard as Parmigiano-Reggiano fits in here. Flavors are often sweet and nutty, sometimes even earthy.
Examples: Cheddar, Manchego, Alpine/Swiss cheese
Hard / Grating
These aged cheeses have very little moisture and are ideal for grating, but also make a great snack. The flavor can be sharp and salty, or sweet, with hints of butterscotch.
Examples: Parmigiano Reggiano, Podda Classico, Aged Goudas
Blue cheese is known for its signature blue molding, but this category has plenty of variety when it comes to texture and flavor. Blues can be creamy, crumbly, or fudgy; mild, piquant, or meaty. Trust us: there’s a blue for you!
Examples: Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Stilton
How to Serve Cheese
Tricks of the Trade
- Cheese should always be served at room temperature for the best flavor. Take your cheese out of the fridge an hour before serving.
- Having guests over? Three to five cheeses is a good number to serve: fewer can look skimpy, but more could overwhelm your guests and their taste buds.
- How much to serve? Our rule of thumb is to purchase 1 oz per cheese per person. For a party of 8, you would get a minimum of a ½ lb of each cheese. If cheese is all you’ll be serving, get a little more. Most of our gift selections serve 8-10 people.
- Mix it up! Cheese is made in many styles, all over the world, from a variety of milk types (goat, sheep, cow, and water buffalo). Highlight varying styles, textures, appearances, and milk types for a stunning presentation and a wide range of flavors.
- Don't be afraid to experiment. Start with what you like first and work from there.
- Still need help? Contact us! (1-888-692-4339)
Cheese Board vs. Cheese Course
If you’re serving cheese to a larger group it is best to serve big pieces and create a cheese board. We love serving on darker materials like slate or rustic wooden boards for a nice contrast of color. Depending on how many cheeses you’re serving you may want to distribute them among more than one serving board to spread things out.
Each cheese should have its own knife for serving. Just before your guests arrive, cut a few slices to make people less shy about digging in. And accessorize -- cheese looks even more inviting surrounded by fruits, nuts, crusty bread and crackers.
For your next dinner party, go more formal with a cheese course during dinner or for dessert. A cheese plate is arranged in clockwise fashion, working from mildest to strongest, with the first cheese at 12 o’clock on the plate. Pick a few accompaniments, like a dollop of preserves or honey, to create a beautiful plate.
What Should I Serve with Cheese?
Great question! Here are some of our favorite things to serve with cheese:
Nuts help bring out subtleties of flavor and aroma in a cheese. Almonds, toasted hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, and cashews are all great. When you’re enjoying a creamy cheese it’s nice to have something crunchy to bring a little textural variety to the table.
Olives naturally complement sheep and goat's milk cheese. Sometimes they just provide a pleasant, briny interlude between bites, or a pop of color for the table. Don’t forget to leave a bowl for pits!
Dried fruits like figs, dates, and cherries are a lovely sweet-but-not-too-sweet companion to almost any cheese. Sweet things are a great way to balance a salty or pungent cheese – try blue cheese with dried cherries or figs for dessert.
Charcuterie can make the difference between a snack and a meal. Serve thin slices of prosciutto, Serrano ham, and sweet or spicy salamis with aged cheeses like Pecorino and Manchego. Charcuterie is a great way to build a spread that highlights food from a particular country, like Spain or Italy. Leftovers can be used in sandwiches: try prosciutto with goat cheese and fig jam!
Pickles add a lively acidic zip to cut through the richness of any cheese. Don’t limit yourself to dilled cucumbers. Pickled beets are lovely with fresh chevre, and pickled okra or string beans will spice up your summer spread.
Jam balances flavors in the same way as dried fruit, but has a more direct sweetness and a softer texture. A sweet jam is great with a gooey goat cheese spread onto a crispy cracker. Fruit pastes, such as membrillo made from quince, pairs nicely with slices of sheep's milk cheese like Manchego.
Chutneys are a tasty alternative to more straightforward jams. They bring just the right amount of savory spice and a tangy pickled quality that melds nicely with the texture and nuance of a heartier cheese like grassy English cheddar.
Honey looks elegant drizzled over a speckled slice of blue cheese – and it tastes even better. We also love stronger, more savory honey, like Buckwheat, with mild and milky cheese like Ricotta.
Fresh Fruit makes the table more colorful, more abundant, and more wholesome. Grapes are our go-to – they’re easy to rinse and arrange on a platter, and easy for guests to pluck and enjoy. Fresh berries are nice when they’re in season. Apple with cheddar is another classic combo. Citrus doesn’t work as well, so skip the orange wedges.
Bread and Crackers are obviously going to be served with most cheese, but which to choose? Balance the strength of the cheese with the bread or the cracker. A lighter cheese might get lost with a strong flavored cracker, and something pungent might taste best with heartier bread. For something new, try serving cheese with bread that contains olives, fruit, or nuts. And don’t feel like you always need a cracker with a piece of cheese – sometimes you just want to enjoy the flavor on its own!
Got Leftovers? How to Store Cheese.
The best thing you can do is buy smaller pieces of cheese more often, then you’ll always know it’s fresh! But when you buy too much or can’t make frequent trips to a shop, this is the way to store cheese at home.
Do wrap cheese tightly in cheese paper, which is specially designed to allow cheese to breathe without drying out. You can reuse the cheese paper from the shop, or recreate the effect with a combination of wax paper and plastic wrap. Wrap in wax paper or parchment followed by plastic wrap. The one exception to this is high moisture blue cheese, which stores better in foil.
Don’t wrap with plastic wrap, which suffocates the cheese and can impart a plastic-y taste – yuck!
Don't leave a hunk of cheese floating in a Ziploc bag. You’re basically making a mold terrarium with this method.
Do put wrapped cheese in your vegetable drawer. It’s slightly warmer and moister than the rest of the fridge, making it a less hostile environment for cheese.
Don’t put your cheese in the freezer. Just don’t do it.
Do eventually eat it! Most aged, hard cheese will last a month in your fridge if wrapped well. Semi-firm to firm cheese is best eaten within 3 weeks. If you notice spots of mold on the surface, these can be scraped off with a knife. Fresh, soft and gooey cheeses should be eaten within a week and mold is usually a sign that it’s past its prime.
Don’t forget about it! Make sure to check in your cheese – it may sound strange, but cheese is a living thing. So take a taste, give it a fresh wrapping, and don’t let your refrigerator become a cheese graveyard!
- Cheese Facts
Everything you wanted to know about cheese but were afraid to ask.
Q: Can I eat the rind?
A: If it’s made of cloth, wax, or foil (you know, stuff that isn’t food…), steer clear; otherwise, eat what you want. In general, the younger the cheese, the more edible and palatable its rind. If you’re not sure, eat your cheese from the inside out (meaning from the center of the cheese to the rind). The flavors will be stronger the closer you get to the rind, and if you don’t like the paste just beneath the rind, you probably won’t like the rind, either.
Q: What’s the difference between raw and pasteurized milk?
A: Raw milk cheese is made from milk that has not been pasteurized, a treatment for heating milk to destroy unwanted bacteria. Unfortunately, good bacteria may be eliminated at the same time, including those that aid digestion, promote immunity, and produce cheese with greater flavor and complexity. What we’ve found over the years is that clean, fresh milk and careful cheesemaking determine a cheese’s greatness. Cooked (pasteurized) milk should not be taken as a sign of inferior cheese. In the US, pasteurization is required of all cheese sold at less than 60 days of age, the intention being the elimination of potentially harmful pathogens.
Q: What is cheese aging all about?
A: A cheese cave is like a wine cellar: a place for cheese to ripen until it’s perfectly ready to eat. Murray’s sources cheese in from all over the world, and we ripen more than 100 types of cheese in our caves beneath our Bleecker Street store. Our caves are temperature- and humidity-controlled and staffed by a Cave Manager who takes great care to provide the best environment for cheeses to reach perfection. Our manager also creates special cheeses for Murray’s using seasonal ingredients. Learn more about cave aging here.
Q: My cheese reeks! What's up with that?
A: We've been known to clear a subway car with a bag of cheese cut 15 minutes ago. Cheese wrapped in a bag or box can smell pretty intense, but that's no cause for concern. Just get it into the fridge and remember to give it an hour at room temperature before serving.
Q: How long can I keep my cheese?
A: This is real cheese, not the stuff in a can. That means you're looking at 3-4 weeks maximum, and that's for the hard cheeses like Gruyere or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Fresh cheeses (bright white, no rind) should be eaten with 7 days of opening. Soft, creamy cheeses should be eaten within 10-14 days. If you see small dots of surface mold on your hard cheese, it can be scraped off. It won't hurt you, or the flavor of your cheese, and it beats tossing the whole piece out. Honestly, though. Why store it when you know you can eat it all in one sitting? Call your friends! Don’t have any friends? Drown your sorrows in cheese! You can find more storage tips here.
Q: What does it mean for a cheese to be in (or out of) season?
A: Animals left to their natural cycles do not make milk all the time. No milk, no cheese. Goats and sheep are particularly finicky breeders, and tend to mate in the fall and stop milking during the winter months. That may mean shortages of younger styles during December-April. As for cows, they can produce milk at any time of year, but the early spring and fall milk, when cows munch on grasses and flowers, is considered the most flavorful and fuels singularly delicious cheese.