Cheesemonger Steve Jenkins claims that if he'd known these straightforward constants at the outset of his career, his "cheese learning curve" might have been shorter. Jenkins shares Cheese Precepts from his book, Cheese Primer.
1. Cheese is a living, breathing substance. It is the purest and most romantic link between humans and the earth.
2. Find an impassioned cheesemonger, or encourage a receptive retailer.
3. While you can't judge a book by its cover, you can judge a cheese by its exterior rind or crust. Go for the natural rinds and avoid the plastic, wax, and paint.
4. The younger the cheese, the less flavor it will have. Most cheeses taste best when they've been aged somewhere between bland youth and sharp maturity.
5. Cheese should be cut fresh for you. Avoid the precut or grated, plastic-wrapped, weighed and priced offerings.
6. The edibility of a cheese's rind is a matter of taste and common sense. Unless you like the flavor of mold, trim it away. Likewise, most natural rinds are not only unclean, they are probably gritty and bitter.
7. Cheese is best stored in the refrigerator as close to the bottom of the appliance as possible. The vegetable compartment is ideal. Wrap cheeses in aluminum foil, waxed paper, or plastic wrap and don't worry about segregating various types. [Ed. note: Learn more in the excerpt Storing Cheese.]
8. The harder the cheese, the longer it will stay fresh -- up to a month in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator. Expect cut pieces of soft cheeses to last less than two weeks.
9. Cheese suffers enormously from being frozen. Don't do it.
10. Cheese must be brought to room temperature before it is served. Leave it wrapped while it is warming up.
11. When serving two or more cheeses, select from divergent milks, textures, and flavor intensities rather than shape, color, or origin. [Ed. note: For more, read the excerpt Preparing Cheese Plates or check out Jenkins' 6 tips for pairing cheese and food.]
12. Serious cheese requires serious bread. Serious bread is a handmade, artisanal loaf where the crust is as important as the inside. Crackers are suitable for ordinary cheeses.
13. Choosing wine to serve with cheese is not something to get all worked up about. Cheese is partnered best with wine produced near the cheese's home, but what really matters is that neither overwhelms the other.
14. Great cheese will make an average wine seem greater than it is and an average cheese will drag down a great wine.
15. In recipes, cheese should be incorporated toward the end. Use low heat to melt cheese. If a recipe calls for browning under the broiler, use shredded or grated cheese.
16. A proper fondue is a wonderful thing; you've simply forgotten.
Steven Jenkins is vice president of Fairway Group Services at Fairway market. He is the author of the books Cheese Primer, which won a James Beard award, and The Food Life. His writing has appeared in numerous food publications.