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Food and Drink

Is my cheese (which might be orange) still safe to eat?

Dear Stabby offers advice on storage and explains: why do some cheesemakers add color?

Do you have a cheese question for Dear Stabby? If so, please write to her alter-ego, Wendy M. Levy, at wendy@commonsnews.org. Or, better yet, write a letter on actual paper, preferably accompanied by a photograph of your favorite cheese, and mail it to her, care of this paper, to P.O. Box 1212, Brattleboro, VT 05302.

BRATTLEBORO—A few months ago, in response to the steady stream of questions I receive from confused cheese lovers, I created an alter ego, Dear Stabby.

Please allow me to assure you that my alias should not be taken as a threat. The only knives I wield are to dissect a cheese.

So, let’s see what this month’s mailbag brought.

* * *

Dear Stabby: I lost power for about 16 hours. Now that the power is back on, what do I do with my cheese? Do I need to throw it away?

I opened up the deli bag of sliced American and the block of cheddar, and they smell and look pretty much the same. Are they okay to eat? —Juiceless in Jacksonville

Dear Juiceless: Thank you for writing. This is a question many of us in the woods may have to deal with during the aftermath of lightning storms and heavy snow and ice.

Yes, your cheese is fine.

With aged cheeses, such as your sliced American and blocks of cheddar, the worst that could happen without refrigeration is mold, and that can happen in refrigeration as well.

If you don’t see any mold, then don’t worry. If you do see mold, don’t have a fit. Simply scrape the mold off the cheese and give the cheese a new home.

By “new home,” I mean either proper double-layer cheese paper or a seal-tight container. Please do not wrap your cheese in cling film. The point is not to have plastic hermetically sealing the cheese, so a zipper-lock plastic bag is fine, too.

The other change you might notice in unrefrigerated cheese is it has an oily surface. That’s because the butterfat in your cheese — mmm, butterfat — has risen to the top. There’s nothing wrong with it, other than being shiny.

If you want to be a purist and aren’t afraid of your food, don’t put that cheese back in cold storage. Temperature fluctuations are not a friend of cheeses. Keep the cheese in a container, or on a plate beneath an upturned bowl, on your kitchen counter.

Most cheeses other than American and cheddar are fine out of refrigeration for 16 hours or so, too. Harder cheeses don’t need to be chilled at all. Softer cheeses, like Brie, will get runny. So grab a baguette or a spoon and dig in.

It’s important to remember one thing: your cheese is no longer in the same family as fresh milk. It has been transformed to a different food category. Before the industrialized world had refrigeration, we made cheese to deal with surplus milk, and we enjoyed its nutrition and flavor when the animals stopped milking.

In the United States, most of our cheeses spend needless time in refrigeration when they could be lounging comfortably at room temperature. Plus, they taste better that way.

The only cheeses you really need to worry about are fresh cheeses like cream cheese, fresh mozzarella, and fresh ricotta. They have too much moisture in them to leave out for a long time; bacteria thrive in moist environments.

If you have experienced a loss in power and you have fresh cheeses, rely on your senses to determine their condition. Open the cream cheese or the fresh ricotta. Stick your nose in it. Does it smell okay? Taste a little — it won’t kill you. Does it taste sour or bitter? You’ll know pretty quickly if the cheese has turned. If it has, there is no salvaging it. Toss it.

With fresh mozzarella, its appearance will tell you a lot about its quality. If it’s in water, is the liquid really cloudy and is the cheese flaking apart? In both the brined and the wrapped fresh mozzarella balls, are there little blisters all over the surface?

This tip also goes for refrigerated cheese that you’ve had for too long.

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, it’s time to donate your fresh mozzarella to the compost pile.

* * *

Dear Stabby: At our dinner table last night, my wife asked “Why the hell do some cheesemakers dye their cheese orange?!”

I could probably find this answer online, but that’s boring. Horrified in Halifax

Dear Horrified: While it does seem weird to add coloring to cheese, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Most cheesemakers color their cheese with annatto, and that’s simply an extract from the seeds of the achiote plant. If you put on a blindfold and tasted two cheeses made exactly the same way, but one was orange, you could not tell the difference.

So, if annatto doesn’t change the flavor of cheese, why bother?

To answer that, we need to step back to the 17th century. According to food scientist, cheese expert, and University of Vermont professor Paul Kindstedt, this is when English cheesemakers began skimming off the top.

Literally.

Instead of sending all the milk’s delicious butterfat to the cheese vat, they could skim off the cream and sell it or make butter from it.

But doing so changed the color of the cheese.

The milk from grass-fed cows tends toward the very yellow, and a lot of that color is concentrated in the cream. (Did you ever notice that skim milk looks almost blue?)

So, by adding coloring agents, unscrupulous cheesemakers could trick consumers into thinking their rich, golden-colored cheeses were full-fat, when in fact they were made of pale, thinner milk and colorful plant extracts.

The idea caught on, and it also allowed cheesemakers using grain-fed cows to achieve a consistent, eye-catching appearance in their products.

Today, a variety of full-fat and low-fat cheeses, especially cheddars, are made with annatto coloring. Some cheeses would hardly be recognizable without it.

Mimolette, the French cheese resembling a cross between a bowling ball and a moon rock, has a deep orange color. According to legend, its production was commissioned by Louis XIV, who wanted a French cheese to compete with the popularity of Edam; adding annatto set it apart from its Dutch opponent.

Double Gloucester and Red Leicester would be almost indistinguishable from Cheshire without annatto.

Shropshire Blue, first developed in the 1970s in Scotland and now made in England, would look identical to Stilton were it not for annatto.

Here in the states, cheesemakers in New York and the Midwest jumped on the orange bandwagon, but Kindstedt said the idea never took hold in Vermont.

This might be why it looks so weird to us.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #317 (Wednesday, August 5, 2015). This story appeared on page E3.

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