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Food and Drink

Plastic, not fantastic

Cheese is a living food, and how you wrap it will affect its flavor and its lifespan

BRATTLEBORO—It would be stupid of me to claim plastic is horrible, as a general rule. You’d have to be the Unabomber to get up on your high horse and profess that you have no use for plastic. These days, nobody is that much of a neo-Luddite (except the Unabomber, and he’s in prison, so you really don’t want to be like him).

But there’s one place where plastic is not the miracle substance its creators purport it to be, and that’s in the world of cheese.

Oh, but pity the poor polymer, for it’s not plastic’s fault it ruins so many nice cheeses. It’s the people who abuse it by choosing the wrong plastic.

Go into any cheese shop in the United States — even the nicest, fanciest cheese shop — and you will see gorgeous cheeses from around the world wrapped in stretchy cling-film.

Look over there at that big, beautiful display of Parmigiano-Reggiano! The King of Italian cheese is broken down into handy half-pound pieces, wrapped so tightly in plastic wrap that the material is almost invisible, giving you an almost 360-degree view of the deep straw-yellow cheese.

You take the piece home, so excited to unwrap it and taste the nuanced, explosive flavor of your favorite cheese. But that plastic is making it hard to get into.

Once you’ve mangled your way into the cheese, you slice a nice, thin sliver and put it on your tongue, anticipating the glorious combination of sweetness, fruitiness, and gentle saltiness.

But all you taste is plastic. And you just paid 20 bucks a pound for it.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

* * *

Before we get into the reason why your cheese tastes like plastic, let’s talk about something that most people either don’t know or don’t want to know: Cheese is alive.

Cheese is a fermented food, just like wine or sauerkraut or yogurt. One of the reasons fermented foods are good for us is because they have living organisms that help us better digest all our food. Fermentation also makes many of the nutrients in the food more available to our bodies.

As time progresses, just like any other living thing, cheese will change. Whether it changes for the better, or turns into something disgusting and inedible, depends on what we do to it, even after we’ve bought and paid for it.

Yes, all of us can affect our cheese.

If you think of cheese as a living thing, it’s easier to understand why tightly wrapping it in plastic is bad for it. You’re suffocating the poor thing! Cheese needs to breathe.

In addition, we love plastic wrap so well because it’s airtight, stretchy, almost invisible, and sticks so well to itself or the big bowl of leftovers.

But that same plastic wrap also has those magical qualities because of substances called “plasticizers.”

These plasticizers make plastic wrap stretchy. The bad thing about plasticizers is that they off-gas: they emit a smell and a flavor that’s “plasticky.” (Go take a big whiff of your box of Saran Wrap.)

And cheese loves to absorb odors and flavors.

So, even a strong cheese, when wrapped with nearly any brand of cling film on the market, will taste like plastic on the surfaces that touch the plastic.

When you go to a nice cheese counter that allows you to try cheeses, you must pay close attention to the cheesemonger. When she unwraps the cheese that she’s about to sample, make sure she trims off the thin layer of cheese that’s right on the surface.

If she doesn’t, tell her that you don’t want the cheese that’s been touching the plastic, that you want the next layer down. (If she gives you lip, speak to the manager.)

Otherwise, the cheese you’re tasting will be but a pathetic, faint echo of the intended result.

If you don’t believe me, taste that sliver of cheese that’s been next to the plastic. Now taste some cheese from the piece after it’s been trimmed of its outer layer. I told you!

(There is one commercial brand of plastic wrap that has no plasticizers: Glad Wrap. Your cheese won’t breathe, but it also won’t taste like plastic.)

* * *

Here’s the other finicky thing about cheese: it also needs an environment with high humidity and a temperature that’s not too cold; otherwise, the cheese will dry out.

Plastic happens to be really good for housing cheese, as long as it’s the right kind of plastic and it’s used the right way.

That means using resealable food bags or seal-tight containers. If even the most delicate cheese is placed in a sealed bag or bowl, that environment basically makes its own little cheese cave: the cheese itself will emit its own ideal humidity level. Just make sure the seal is tight.

If you’re worried about Bisphenol A (BPA), which is known to mimic estrogen in humans, or you’re concerned about the potential for the plastic bag to off-gas, you can wrap the cheese in a piece of foil, butcher paper, parchment paper, or heavy-duty freezer paper.

Wax paper is iffy because it likes to shred when wet, so if you have only wax paper in the house, use it only for very hard cheeses, which have little moisture.

Another option is to use glass containers to store your cheese, but if you do so, make sure the lids provide an airtight seal. You could also compromise and put the cheese in a glass bowl and wrap the bowl with cling film, as long as the film doesn’t touch the cheese.

You can also wrap your cheese in cheese paper; pretty much all of it originates in France, which is why it’s often referred to as “French cheese paper.”

Such paper is usually dual-layered: the outside is paper and the inside is plastic, but plastic that not only has no plasticizers so there’s no off-gassing, but also has microscopic holes, rendering it semi-permeable. This structure allows the cheese to breathe, and also creates a miniature cheese cave. Your cheese will be very happy!

The better cheese shops will have cheese paper behind the counter, and if you’re nice to the cheesemonger, he might throw you a few extra sheets to take home. Some shops sell cheese paper in little rolled-up bundles. Others sell retail packs of cheese paper from Formaticum, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company.

If you’re really obsessed, you can seek out cellophane sheets to wrap your cheese. Cellophane is made of plant fiber and does not off-gas. It is also biodegradable.

To properly wrap your cheese in cellophane, you must make sure you fold over all of the ends so no cold air sneaks in, and it will. Either get your cheesemonger to teach you “the French pleat” or search on YouTube for “wrap cheese French pleat” and see the expert hands work their magic. It’s not hard to do at all, and it will ensure your cheese is wrapped the right way.

* * *

So if plastic cling film is so horrible for cheese, why does nearly every single retail cheese shop in the country use so much of it?

A few very important reasons: customers want to see the cheese, cling film is easy to use, and cling film is much cheaper than all of the other disposable materials out there.

Some retailers minimize their use of the material, and they develop other creative solutions. It means their jobs are more labor-intensive and their cheese might be a bit more expensive, but just like organic farming, they, and their customers, would rather do what’s best for the cheese (and for the environment).

They feel the extra labor and costs are worth it in order to give the cheese the respect it deserves.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #159 (Wednesday, July 4, 2012).

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