Don't feel guilty, we know that this isn't the first time you've seen a hunk of moldy cheese. It happens to the best of us. Just how old is too old, and what is the difference between moldy mold that can keep and grody mold that should be pitched?
Here, some key guidelines on shelf life and storage to help you become the best cheese mommy or daddy you can be.
Remember, above all, to purchase cheese in quantities that you can comfortably consume within a week. If you're buying cheese from a reputable cheesemonger, their storage facilities will be better than what you can recreate at home. Cheese is a living, breathing organism, and its habitat influences its quality.
The top ten rules of storage and shelf life:
1. There's good bad-smelling cheese and bad bad-smelling cheese. Smell your cheese when you purchase it (which is actually a key factor in enjoying the taste of your cheese, as well) and evaluate whether the current scent is just slightly more offensive or if it sends shivers of disgust down your spine. Trust your sensory instincts.
2. Taste it. If you can't figure it out by the smell, try a bite. If it doesn't taste bad, it hasn't gone bad.
3. Fresh, soft cheeses have a shorter shelf life than aged, hard cheeses. Young cheeses like ricotta, mozzarella, and fresh goat normally have a shelf life of 7-10 days, depending on when you purchased them. Generally speaking, the viability of this family of cheese is the easiest to decipher. If the specimen has a taste or scent reminiscent of that milk in the back of your fridge, your best bet is to toss it. Along with the milk.
4. Bloomy rinded cheeses like brie and camembert will last longer than a fresh cheese but still have a high enough moisture content to spoil. Again, depending on the age of the cheese at date of purchase, this cheese style will generally last from three to six weeks. If the rind starts to develop a slimy, pinkish-reddish mold, consider it toast. Don't necessarily be afraid of ammonia-like smells. Ammonia is a natural by-product of cheese aging. Try taste testing in this case.
5. Washed rind cheeses like taleggio, limburger, and epoisses are best eaten straight from the cheese shop. These are the smelly cheeses, and the stink will only proliferate in the small confines of your refrigerator. Their rinds (and, in turn, the inner paste) will dry out and crack, which is nothing short of a death sentence for the bacteria living on the rind that makes this style of cheese distinctive. Washed-rinds will last two to four weeks, but try not to see them past their first week home.
6. Lightly aged, natural rinded goat cheeses, often individual in format and French in origin like aged crottin, chevrot, or chabichou du poitou are virtually indestructible. The nature of the cheese will change: it'll dry out and harden with age and the flavor will become assertive, but they won't turn. Try shaving an old dried up drum over a salad for an alternative to the ubiquitous sheet of parm or pecorino.
7. Aged cheeses like cheddar, gruyere, gouda, Parmigiano Reggiano, and fontina have been aged to an extent that ensures their durability. With such low moisture content, there's not much need to worry about these guys. In some cases, age can actually heighten the experience of these cheeses; more often the flavor will wan with exposure to air. If greenish-blue mold develops like in the picture at the beginning of this post, not to worry, just scrape it off.
8. Blue cheeses become more and more biting with age. You'll know by tasting whether or not it's become too strong for your taste. An old blue cheese will never hurt your health, only your taste buds. Blues with an especially high moisture content will go downhill more quickly. Wrap blues in tin foil to lock in their moisture.
9. The best way to store cheese is with cheese paper, which has an outer paper layer and an inner waxy layer. The next best thing is to wrap your cheese in parchment with a layer of plastic wrap over that. This way the cheese won't dry out and you'll create a protective layer of humidity in the area between the plastic wrap and parchment. NEVER wrap your cheese in plastic wrap alone! Plastic wrap has a definite flavor and your cheese will taste of it.
10. Store your cheese in the warmest part of your refrigerator. In most cases, this would be the vegetable, cheese, or butter compartment. Even better, store all of your cheese together in a sizable Tupperware container. As mentioned before, cheese is alive, and cold temperatures limit important bacterial activity.