Cheese—in seemingly endless varieties and adored in all its forms—appears to be one of our most beloved foods. Instagram is loaded with photos of buttery triple-creams slathered on crusty bread, goat cheese rounds artfully dotting the top of salads, and delectable swiss oozing out of grilled Reubens. But we don’t just like to look at it. In fact, the average American ate 38.5 pounds of the stuff in 2016 according to the USDA. New cheese, old cheese, stinky, runny, pungent, and mild, we seem to love it all. So, does it matter how long it’s allowed to mature? Is there really a difference between fresh and aged cheese?
Of course! But there’s more to this legendary dairy product than whether it’s old enough to vote. If you dive deeper into the process of aging cheese, you’ll find its complexities can yield surprising and mouth-watering results.
The Funky Science of Cheese
The obvious difference between fresh versus aged curds is the level of moisture. The former tends to be wetter than the latter, so it needs to be consumed more quickly. Take mozzarella, ricotta, and chèvre; these three cheeses are often enjoyed when they’re young, soft, and mild-tasting. As a cheese matures, it tends to dry out, harden, and become more flavorful—think manchego, cheddar, and parmesan. But there’s more than one reason this happens.
You may not realize it, but every cheese is its own ecosystem, rife with living organisms that, to our benefit, make it taste a certain way. According to food scientist Pat Polowsky, there are three main reactions that contribute to the cheese-aging process. Glycolysis, the breakdown of the milk sugar lactose into lactic acid, is a form of fermentation. In many fresh cheeses, such as queso fresco and queso blanco, this barely even occurs (if at all). Lipolysis, the breakdown of fat, results in unique flavors, such as the tangy funk of goat cheese and the mushroom scent of brie.
But proteolysis, caused by naturally-occurring microbes or enzymes added by the cheesemaker, is perhaps the most interesting reaction of all, since cheese is primarily made of protein. It’s what gives a well-aged Vermont cheddar a slightly bitter taste and the aroma of sulfur, Polowsky explains. Another byproduct of proteolysis is granular crystals formed by amino acids, like those you might find in an older gouda. Wine and cheese educator and author Adam Centamore enthusiastically likens them to Pop Rocks, since biting into one is “like a white-hot sun of cheese flavor.”
The cheesemaking process contributes a great deal to how a cheese will turn out. From the type of milk used—goat, sheep, cow, or some combination of the three—to how the curds are cut, salted, molded, wrapped, and stored. And, believe it or not, size matters, since a small wheel loses its moisture and ages more quickly than a large one.
Tasting the Timeline
Aging “allows a cheese to develop nuance, complexity, intensity, and personality,” says Centamore. “It takes time for those things to happen.” But he stresses that there are wonderful cheeses worth trying at every stage of development. “An alpine cheese like Comté from France is fruity when it’s young,” he explains, “but as it ages, it becomes nuttier, savorier, with more serious notes, like chicken broth and roasted cauliflower.”
Julia Hallman, general manager of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Mass., says that based on her experience as a cheesemonger, the American palate seems to tend toward extremes. She has the most fun helping her customers explore products throughout the aging cycle. For example, a French Valençay made from goat’s milk, dusted with ash and formed into a small pyramid, will taste clean and bright if eaten within a few weeks of being made. Taste it again a month or two later, and it will have developed a thin rind, heavier texture, and much more piquant flavor.
You might be wondering just how long cheese can mature and remain edible. Are we talking months? Years? Decades? Well, it depends on what kind you’re talking about. Cow cheeses tend to age longer because of the milk’s higher fat content, more so if they’re sealed in wax rather than clothbound. “A 40-month-old gouda is on the high end of the spectrum,” says Hallman. Meanwhile, a rare 40-year-old cheddar from Wisconsin made quite the stink a few years ago, with cheese lovers across the country scrambling to try a sample. It was reportedly still edible, but not very pretty to look at.
Of course, cheese doesn’t have to be historic to make an impact. But it helps to know what you like before making a purchase. “If you’re the kind of person who likes bright, tangy food, you might prefer younger cheeses, because they’re peppier,” Centamore suggests. If bigger, bolder flavors are more your style, he adds, you might choose to go with something older. Or try something out of your comfort zone, which could lead to a pleasant discovery. After all, even when it comes to something as beloved as cheese, age isn’t everything.
Now that you know the difference between fresh and aged cheese, here are some of the ways you can prepare it.
If you’re looking for something light and fresh, try making this New Orleans classic treat. The recipe is simple (just four ingredients!) and the resulting spread keeps for up to two weeks in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator. Slather it on a bagel or whip it up into cream cheese frosting to top your favorite cupcakes. Get our Creole Cream Cheese recipe.
Why limit yourself to one cheese when you can use three? This easy version of a classic comfort food combines cheddar, gouda, and parmesan for an added depth of flavor, and gets topped with panko breadcrumbs to create an exceptional golden baked crust. Eager to dish it out? Get our Easy Baked Macaroni and Cheese recipe.
Get your deli fix with this grilled sandwich favorite, loaded with corned beef or pastrami, sauerkraut ,and your choice of gruyère (for a nuttier taste) or swiss (the original choice). Once it’s assembled, spend a few minutes cooking it on each side in a frying pan so the cheese gets nice and melty. Get our Reuben Sandwich recipe.
This classic dish creates a fun experience for a small gathering, whether you’re dunking in pieces of French bread, hard salami, veggies, or fruit. Use a combination of Emmentaler, Jarlsberg, Comté or gruyère, and don’t be surprised if your guests fight over the crust of cheese remaining in the pot once it’s finished. Get our Cheese Fondue recipe.
Instead of a traditional ganache made with cream, this truffle recipe combines chocolate with goat cheese for a tangy twist. Sweetened with maple syrup, dipped in chocolate, and sprinkled with coarse salt, this candy makes for sweet and savory finger food. Get our Chèvre Truffles recipe.
Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Pixabay.