Soft-Ripened Cheese 101

A crash course on our very favorite type of cheese

MFC_Website_Blog_Aging Brie

All cheese, from the crumbliest Parmigiano-Reggiano to the silkiest brie, is made from the same ingredients: Milk, cultures, salt, and time. The entire spectrum of cheese starts with the same four fundamental ingredients—how beautiful is that?

But if it all starts out the same, how are there so many different kinds? What makes a brie a brie and not a camembert? Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about soft-ripened cheese (and then some).

What is soft-ripened cheese?

In this case, the name is kind of a tipoff: Soft-ripened refers to the cheesemaking process and is the category for any cheese that’s ripened in a way that makes it soft and gooey rather than hard and crumbly. Certain cultures are added to milk so that a “skin” or “rind” is formed as the cheese ages. (More on this later.) Brie and camembert are the two classic examples here, but many other cheesemaking traditions around the world use similar methods to produce a wide variety of delicious soft-ripened cheeses.

How is soft-ripened cheese made?

Like all of its many cousins, soft-ripened cheese starts its life as a clump of cheese curds pressed into a specific shape, usually a wheel or cylinder, and drained of all excess moisture (whey) over the course of a couple of days. From here, a wheel of pressed curds ages into cheese and will soon develop a rind. The myriad types and styles of cheese rinds come from the different cultures that cheesemakers use and when they introduce those cultures in the cheesemaking process. Some cheeses are cultured right off the bat—before the milk even separates into curds & whey—and some only get their cultures after the curds have been pressed into shape.

The rind is instrumental in the development of soft-ripened cheese. During the ripening process, it acts like a skin, minimizing airflow and keeping the curds inside nice and moist. This barrier causes the cheese to ripen “from the outside in:” The curds nearest to the rind ripen the fastest and the curds near the center ripen the slowest—which is why so many soft-ripened cheeses have a noticeably gooey outer layer (often referred to as a “cream line”) with a firmer, fudgier center. These cheeses are also known as “bloomy rind” cheeses because their rind, well, blooms with mold.

As the cheese ages, cheesemakers can either leave the rind alone to do its thing or interrupt its formation by “washing” it. This technique involves rinsing or brushing the rind with salt water or other flavorful liquid (sometimes beer, wine, or liquor), which changes the final appearance of the rind and the final flavor profile of the cheese. Washed-rind cheeses like our Golden Gate have a distinct reddish-orange rind, a more pungent aroma, and a stronger flavor than brie, camembert, and other non-washed rind cheeses.

The Difference Between Bloomy Rind & Washed-Rind Cheeses

As a general rule, bloomy rind cheeses like brie and camembert are milder than washed-rind cheeses like our signature Golden Gate. The washing process introduces additional cultures and bacteria into the cheese, which translates to additional flavor as it ages. Golden Gate is definitely the funkiest and most pungent cheese we make, but in the grand scheme of stinky cheeses, it’s actually on the milder side—making it the perfect introduction to the wonderful world of washed-rind cheese. (If Golden Gate’s funk really works for you, you might explore stronger washed-rind cheeses like Époisses and Taleggio.)

There are also differences between brie and camembert, but they’re a little more subtle. Both cheeses use similar production methods: They’re both soft-ripened cow’s milk cheeses made with similar techniques, and yet they’re totally distinct. Brie has a buttery, mild flavor; camembert is stronger, with a more pronounced tang and a little more earthy funk. Brie is soft, of course, but its texture is firmer than camembert, which can get downright oozy as it ripens.

Even within a certain style of cheese, there can be subtle variations. Take our Traditional and Triple Crème Brie for example: Both are brie, but the higher butterfat in the Triple Crème makes its texture especially soft, silky, and gooey for a brie. This makes our Triple Crème Brie excellent for spreading on a baguette as-is, while our Traditional Brie shines in pairings or as a recipe ingredient.

Storing Soft-Ripened Cheese

All of our cheeses come with a “best by” date, which is intended as a guideline to help you get the most out of your cheese. As a cheese gets closer to its best by date, its texture gets softer and its flavor gets stronger because it’s literally still ripening.

Label found on the back of Brie Cheese

But a “best by” date isn’t an “expiration date” – it’s a suggestion. A whole, uncut wheel of soft-ripened cheese is generally safe to eat after its best by date—it’ll just be riper, with a stronger flavor, a more pronounced aroma, and a softer, gooier texture. There’s no wrong way to eat soft-ripened cheese; some people prefer the fresher, milkier taste of younger cheese, while others love the complexity of a stronger, more aged one. It’s all down to personal preference and experimenting to see what you like is part of the fun! Just keep in mind that once you cut into a wheel of soft-ripened cheese, it’s best to eat it within a couple of days.

Skip the Plastic (and the freezer)

Plastic wrap is okay in a pinch, but it traps too much moisture, which can accelerate spoilage. For short term storage, we prefer cheese paper, wax paper, or reusable wax wraps. Freezing and thawing changes the texture of soft ripened cheese too much, so we don’t recommend it. Your best bet: Stick to the fridge and use wrapping material that breathes.

Cooking with Soft-Ripened Cheese

If you don’t finish your cheese in time, you can cook with it. Soft-ripened cheese makes an incredible grilled cheese, especially when combined with something a little harder and sharper for contrast. (As you’d expect, it’s also an excellent addition to mac and cheese—rind and all!) If you have some frozen puff pastry kicking around, a single-serving brie en croûte is a fun, easy way to use soft cheese that’s a little past its prime.

How to Serve Soft-Ripened Cheese

Whether you’re hosting a party or just having cheese for dinner, the single most important thing to know about soft-ripened cheese is to never, ever serve it cold straight from the fridge. This is true for basically all cheeses, but it’s especially important for soft-ripened cheese, which only reaches its full potential at room temperature. As it warms up, its texture gets a little looser and its more subtle flavor notes come out to play—so always give it plenty of time to come to the right temperature. Thirty minutes will do in a pinch, but an hour or more is better.

Once your cheese is at the right temperature, it’s ready to serve. Honestly, good cheese can be a snack (or even meal) unto itself, but pairing it with other ingredients takes cheese to a whole new level of deliciousness. A cheeseboard is our favorite way to experiment with flavor pairings because there are no wrong answers and the possibilities are endless. If you’re looking for ideas for your next cheeseboard, we have an authoritative blog post to get you started.

How to Tell If Your Cheese Has Gone Bad

When you’re dealing with fermented foods like soft-ripened cheese, it’s important to know the difference between “aged to perfection” and “past its prime.” If you notice any of these warning signs when unwrapping a bit of leftover soft cheese, do yourself a favor and toss it in the compost instead:

  • A strong ammonia odor: A hint of ammonia is normal for bloomy-rind cheeses like brie and camembert, but this note gets stronger and stronger with age; if the ammonia odor is noticeable from a distance, your cheese is done for
  • Brightly-colored mold, either on the rind or the interior of the cheese
  • A gray, flaky rind
  • A rind that has separated from the rest of the cheese

If you’re anything like us, you won’t have any trouble finishing your cheese well before it hits the point of no return. (It’s cheese!) But on the off chance you find an abandoned scrap of soft-ripened cheese in the back of the drawer and have no idea if it’s gone off, we hope these tips are helpful.