Ask a Cheesemonger

Here are some answers to our most frequently asked questions. Not finding what you're looking for? Stop by and ask us in person (we love chatting cheese) or give us a ring.

(510) 250-6033 in Oakland  or  (510) 250-6074 in Berkeley


Q: What are the crystals in cheese?
A: Calcium Lactate. As cheese ages, the milk solids (largely proteins & fats) become more concentrated and dense, resulting in a harder texture. The crunchiness common in many aged cheeses (Parmigiano Reggiano, aged goudas, many hard mountain cheeses) is crystallized calcium lactate.

Q: How do I store my cheese at home?
A: Cheese is a living food that needs to breathe, so it's best to wrap your cheese in wax or parchment paper or some other breathable layer. To prevent your cheese from drying out, place your paper-wrapped cheeses in a plastic baggie or container, or keep them in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator where it's cool & humid. If all you have is plastic wrap, be sure to use a clean wrapper each time.

Q: What should I look for in selecting a cheese?
A: At the cheese counter, taste accounts for everything. A good cheesemonger will always offer you a sample of what you're buying and cut you a fresh piece.

Q: What is a washed rind cheese?
A: Washed-rind cheeses are those that are washed periodically during affinage with a brine solution, beer, wine or other liqueur. This treatment fosters the growth of certain bacteria specific to washed-rind cheeses, and generally these will have an earthy, stinky aroma, an orange cast to the rind and a fruity flavor. While some are quite strong & aromatic, such as Epoisses and Taleggio, others remain relatively mild, like Brebirousse d'Argental.

Q: What cheeses are lactose-free?
A: While all cheese contains some form of lactose, those who are sensitive to cow's milk can often digest sheep or goat milk cheeses easily. Lactose is located in whey, the fluid component of cheese, so the more a cheese is aged and the drier it becomes, the less lactose it will contain. Some people are sensitive to the lactose in milk while others are sensitive to the milk proteins themselves, so it's important to first identify the problem and then select your cheese accordingly.

Q: Raw milk cheese. Is it safe to eat?
A: Absolutely. In the U.S., all raw milk cheeses must be aged a minimum of 60 days before they may be sold. By this time, any harmful pathogens that may have survived in a raw milk cheese are evident and the product is discarded. The most dangerous pathogens particularly love to live in soft, very young cheeses (typically those aged less than 60 days), so the more aged a raw milk cheese is the safer it will be to eat. Very aged raw cheeses like Gruyere or Parmigiano Reggiano carry no greater health risk than pasteurized equivalents.

Q: What is the difference between raw and thermalized cheeses?
A: Thermalization is a heat treatment meant to increase the safety of milk by eliminating some, but not all, of the naturally present microflora. This heat treatment varies in temperature and duration, but is generally not heated as high or as long as pasteurization.

Thermalization is an effort to compromise between the safety benefits of pasteurization and the flavor benefits of active microflora. Legally, raw cheeses are those that have not been pasteurized, regardless of whatever processes may or may not have been applied to the milk. In the U.S., thermalized cheese falls into the category of raw simply because it hasn't been pasteurized.

Q: Who should avoid raw cheese?
A: Pregnant women are often advised to avoid raw milk cheeses, particularly soft-ripening ones. Anyone with a compromised immune system may choose to avoid raw cheese as well. The more aged a raw cheese, the smaller the health risk.

Q: Why are some cheeses orange, like cheddar or gouda?
A: Most orange cheeses contain a natural vegetable dye extracted from the annatto berry, which imparts an orange hue without any additional flavor.

Q: What's the difference between single, double, triple crème cheeses?
A: This refers to the butterfat content of the cheese, measured by dry volume. Single crème cheese typically contains about 45% butterfat by dry volume; double, 60-65%; triple, 70-75%. As a reference, pure butter contains about 85% butterfat by dry volume. Many soft, buttery cheeses are also very high-moisture, so the measurements per actual ounce of cheese will be quite different than those by dry volume.

Q: Does blue cheese contain gluten?
A: The simple answer is, usually not. This question comes at a time when many people have to alter their diets due to Celiac disease, wheat allergies or gluten intolerance. This is not a black and white answer.

The mold culture that is used to inoculate blue cheese was originally derived from mold that grew on loaves of rye bread. Some blue cheeses still use this traditional culture in their cheese making recipes. However, many producers procure their mold cultures from mold houses that produce a gluten free variety that is safe to eat for people that are allergic to gluten. Those who have a severely negative reaction to gluten should research if the company uses a traditional or gluten free mold culture.

Q: How do you make a good cheese plate?
A: While there is no one way to fashion the perfect cheese plate, there are themes that you can follow to ensure success.

Basic Variety:

Choose a cheese from each milk type (cow, sheep, goat), and a blue cheese, with varying textures.

Place of Origin:

Most cheese producing countries offer an extensive variety from which to choose, from each milk type and in a wide range of textures, appearance, and flavor. (Example: Spain: Leonora (semi-soft, goat's milk), Mahon (firm, raw cow's milk), Manchego (firm, sheep's milk), Valdeon (semi-soft to semi-firm depending on age, blended cow and goat's milk blue).

Milk Type:

A selection of 3 to 4 cheeses in differing texture, appearance, and flavor profiles will create a lovely course.

Vertical tasting vs. Horizontal:

A vertical cheese tasting starts with a simple flavored cheese and progresses towards a complex cheese. A horizontal cheese tasting is where the cheese can be different in style but obtain the same intensity of flavor.

    As you might have noted, variety is the one theme common to each option. Oftentimes, cheesemongers are asked to help customize a selection according to the food and beverage items that will be served along with the cheese. So as always, when in doubt, ask your monger!

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    Rockridge Market Hall
    5655 College Avenue, Suite 201
    Oakland, CA 94618
    phone: 510-250-6000

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