Cheese Twins Blog
Soft-washed rind cheese is the Everest of cheese styles. You can’t take it without wanting it, without being driven by a deep feeling of curiosity and adventure. Many people find their limits and will experience discomfort, but tasting these cheeses can be immensely rewarding, and for some, a religious experience.
The best guide to soft-washed rind cheese will always be your local cheesemonger. This week, I sat down with Driver’s Market’s Jonathan Alexander (Left), to get his take on pairing soft-washed rind cheese.
THE CHEESE BOARD
When I arrived, four raw, soft-washed rind cheeses were neatly arranged on a rustic, wood cheese board. The cheeses (from mildest to strongest, pictured below) were: Kinsman Ridge (Landaff Creamery, aged by Cellars of Jasper Hill - Back left), Rush Creek Reserve (Uplands Cheese Company, WI - Middle), Oma (Von Trapp Farmstead, aged by Cellars of Jasper Hill, VT - Far Right), and Ameribella (Jacobs & Brichford Farmstead, IN - Far Left).
Michael: A customer comes in and you say, “You have to try Kinsman Ridge.” Why?
JONATHAN: Kinsman has a mild, entry-level character blended with really complex, deep flavors. It can trick you into thinking you are eating a delicious, mild cheese, but what you are really doing is trying an homage to great, classic French cheeses.” This customer is someone who has been eating lots of sharp cheddar and havarti, and I think they are ready to take the next step in the cheese world. I like to start them off with gateway cheeses that give one a sense of place, of terroir, what great milk can produce.
Michael: Is Rush Creek Reserve the next step?
JONATHAN: I would recommend the Rush Creek to someone who is a little more adventurous or wants to draw attention to a cheese plate at a party. It allows people to interact with the cheese in a special way. It also presents a whole diversity of flavors and textures. You have the bark on the outside that is holding it together. You have a different flavor and texture closer to the rind and a gooey, unctuous paste you are scooping from the inside. You can buy this cheese whole and devour it from start to finish.
MICHAEL: This Oma appears to be much stronger. Should I brace myself?
JONATHAN: Oma is the best example of how the character of the washed rind cheese develops. When young, it has a flavor and texture of cultured butter and fresh cream - surprisingly mild given its strong aroma. But as it ages, Oma the rind becomes less soft and the flavors turn meaty and savory. It’s raw, so it has to be aged at least 60 days, but it is not uncommon to serve over 3 months old.
Michael: I noticed that you did not eat the Oma with bread. Why?
JONATHAN: With cheese, I typically don’t eat it with bread or crackers - like really good sashimi without the sushi rice. I am so used to eating things critically, I like to just get the purist sense of how it feels in my hand and the evolution of the product as I eat it.
MICHAEL: Where do you go from Oma?
JONATHAN: If you love Oma and you want to level-up, find some Grayson by Meadow Creek Dairy in Virginia.
MICHAEL: I love the texture of Ameribella. I’m guessing this is the strongest, since it is the last cheese.
JONATHAN: This is a great American representation of soft, washed rind cheese.
MICHAEL: Just in case I can’t take it, what is the best way to clean my palate?
JONATHAN: Anything bubbly will help dissolve the fats and clean the palate - I like sparkling water.
MICHAEL: What do you recommend pairing with a soft, washed-rind cheese?
JONATHAN: I would recommend a really crisp Chardonnay or a dry Riesling or something that has a heavy malty character, like a Belgian Triple, that is going to stand up to a funky cheese.
MICHAEL: Would you say that stinky cheese are the bully of the class or the one who just hasn’t learned to use deodorant yet?
JONATHAN: Definitely the latter. He is not forcing you to hang out with him, but he is there for you.
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Stink, like spice, attracts some and deters others, but there is a middle ground, where a little knowledge may tip the scales. Check out our FAQ below!
What is a soft washed-rind cheese
A soft washed-rind cheese is “soft” thanks to its high moisture content. “Washed-rind” refers to practice of washing the rind as the cheese ages.
What is the wash solution made of?
The wash solution can be brine, beer, spirits, wine or grape must. Brines can be lightly salted or fully saturated; alcoholic solutions can be diluted or used straight.
How often is the cheese washed
The frequency of washing varies according to how quickly the rind dries out, which normally slows down as the cheese ages. The goal is to maintain a supple, thin rind that is slightly tacky and homogenous in color and texture.
What makes the rind so stinky?
Waves of yeast and bacteria colonize the rind and give the cheese its characteristic color and pungency.
Can I wash it after I buy it?
Yes, you can. But get ready for some extra funk. Finding the right amount of ventilation without drying out the cheese will be your biggest challenge. Better to buy it ripe and eat it immediately.
What should the rind look like when I buy it?
The texture of the rind ought to be dry, but can be slightly tacky. The French like to finish their soft washed-rind cheeses in cold storage; refrigeration has a drying effect, which, along with the cold, slows down the maturation of the cheese.
What should the paste look like?
The texture of the paste ought to be creamy, but it can range from tender and elastic to spreadable, resembling soft butter.
What are the most common defects?
Bitterness and spicy-ness are the most common defects. These are often accompanied by a strong odor of ammonia. Grainy rind is another one. If this is the case, tell your cheesemonger and exchange it for one slightly more fresh.
When is the best time of year to eat soft washed rind cheeses?
Unlike firm alpine cheeses (which are also washed), the high moisture content predisposes these cheeses to ripen quickly. The best way to slow them down is to keep them cool. That’s why they were originally made in the Fall and Winter, when cool ambient temperatures allow for slow, even ripening. But with the advent of refrigeration, these stinkers can be enjoyed anytime. In the summertime, they are my favorite for topping burgers or grilled cheese sandwiches. In the Winter time, I melt them over potatoes. or eat them fresh with a slice of apple.
What flavors are typical of a soft-washed rind cheese?
These cheeses can be rich, heavy, meaty, and brothy. They can easily be balanced by a rustic baguette, a slice of apple, or even a late harvest wine, in some cases.
Michael & Charlie Kalish are international cheese experts and winners of Season 7 of Food Network's Great Food Truck Race.