The full "Soft Spot: Soft Cheese Nirvana" cover story appears in the Dec. 15, 2020, issue of Wine Spectator.
We've sliced, sniffed, tasted and compared notes: In this package, we discuss six categories of soft cheese, organized by character, with our recommendations for top options among European classics and rising stars here at home. For side-by-side comparisons, see:
Gooey, stinky, delightful. Let us now explore the wonderful and delicious realm of soft cheeses.
As with other types, their historical origins are somewhat obscure. Columella, the great Roman chronicler of agronomy, described recipes for cheeses resembling modern soft ones in the 1st century A.D.; they emerged in earnest, mostly in France, from the early Middle Ages. Today we group them into three major categories: fresh, so-called lactic types (think Loire Valley goat cheeses like Crottin de Chavignol and Sainte-Maure); bloomy rinds (Brie and Camembert); and washed rinds (Époisses and Munster).
Typically made in wheels, weighing a pound or less, they’re the ultimate farmstead artifacts. The fresh and bloomy types were originally made by the farmer’s wife in her kitchen, often from the milk of the family’s single cow, and were intended to be eaten within a week. In the monasteries, additional manpower and economies of scale allowed for more industrious treatments, giving birth to the method of rinsing the ripening rinds to create the style called “washed rind.”
Cheesemakers harness the ripening powers of various surface-dwelling micro-flora, which break down the milk’s fats and proteins, initiating the “creamline” just beneath the rind as the cheese’s paste softens from the outside in. These enzymatic reactions yield the unctuous, creamy consistencies and complex, multi-faceted flavor profiles we love.
These include a remarkable range of tastes, from the refreshing lemony citrus and sweet lactic tang of a young goat cheese to the subtle earthy, grassy and vegetal notes of a well-made bloomy rind to the deeper meaty, nutty and yeasty tones of a washed-rind stinker. If you relish flavors of bacon-and-eggs or mushrooms-and-cream in your cheeses, you’ve come to the right place.
The great European soft cheeses are traditionally made from raw milk, and genuine articles like Camembert de Normandie PDO still require it. However, raw milk cheese under 60 days of age is illegal in the U.S., one factor contributing to their scarcity here. In fact, about 90% of Camembert is now produced from pasteurized milk, and aficionados enjoy them nonetheless.
Less constrained by the ancient traditions and strict laws prevalent in Europe, some U.S. producers who choose to work with raw milk have come up with clever workarounds for the 60-day requirement. And, generally speaking, they’ve created not so much imitations of the European greats, but rather flattering hybrids or “in the style of” originals.
Mastery of these quirky, volatile varieties doesn’t come overnight. Americans began to make strides in the late 1990s, launching soft-ripened goat cheeses similar to Chevrot and Selles-sur-Cher; washed rinds comparable to Munster and Époisses; and even bark-wrapped options reminiscent of Vacherin Mont d’Or. Almost all the cheesemakers made pilgrimages to Europe for apprenticeships.
Successful artisanal cheesemakers on both sides of the Atlantic have adopted a back-to-the-future approach, combining traditional lore with modern know-how.
“In the history of Époisses, there are many oral legends—slow curds, spontaneous draining, dry-salting, slow-drying, maturing with marc de Bourgogne,” says Jean Berthaut, who runs the family business founded by his parents in the mid-1950s to revive that historic cheese.
“We inherited all of these technological pillars through word-of-mouth from farmers. My approach has been to understand why they work and be able to modernize without betraying traditional precepts.”
Baptiste Carrouché, general manager of Ferme de la Tremblaye, producer of one of France’s finest farmstead Bries, echoes those sentiments: “People often tell us that our cheeses remind them of childhood taste memories. We must maintain the savoir faire in animal husbandry and cheesemaking to preserve these qualities. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a touch of modernity in our practices—quite the contrary.”
To hit their marks, the finest soft-ripened cheeses are handmade via minimal manipulation and judicious orchestration. They highlight the rich, seasonal qualities of farmstead milk—bright, vegetal and tangy in the warmer months when the animals feast on fresh forage; richer, creamier and more savory after they convert to their dry winter fodder. The keys to success are farm management to produce top-quality milk; controlling curd development—not too fast, not too little, not too much; and precise execution of affinage protocols.
Acidification and coagulation—by which milk is separated into gel-like curds and liquid whey—of goat cheeses typically takes around 18 hours; for bloomy and washed rinds, between 12 and 24 hours. Where they diverge is in the treatments they receive once the curds are gently transferred to formation molds to take shape as cheese: For the bloomies, it’s inoculation with species of Pencillium or Geotrichum candidum; for the washed rinds, it’s regular “sponge baths” to encourage the growth of diverse colonies of orange-, pink- and red-hued bacteria, the best-known of which is Brevibacterium linens.
Old World cheeses benefit from centuries of know-how; many are icons of their style. Because of their fragile and evolving nature, soft-ripened cheeses are a moving target. They present unique challenges in bringing them to market at peak ripeness. Even a perfect cheese may suffer en route. It’s here that creative producers, Old World and New, vie for a competitive edge. As with wine, it really comes down to personal preference, in a face-off so delicious that we cheese lovers are the ultimate winners.
How to Get It
Cheeses require careful storage and handling, so it’s best to buy them from a trusted, local retailer, especially in the case of Mozzarella. If you prefer to have them shipped we have found that the following sources handle and ship them properly, and have most of the cheeses in this story:
How to Store Soft Cheeses
Cheese needs to breathe: Ammonia is a byproduct of rind development, so air circulation is key to preventing the gas from building up to offensive levels.
Countertop cheese “caves” are a good option. But if you do store cheese in the refrigerator, avoid plastic wrap. Instead, use cheese paper, which prevents cheese from drying out while permitting oxygen exchange.
Cheese Grotto ($85–$350; cheesegrotto.com)
Cheese Paper ($9 for 15 sheets; formaticum.com)
Three primary components of most soft cheeses are the rind, the paste and the creamline. Not all soft cheeses have rinds, or creamlines, and these aspects are not indicators of quality, but they do offer different experiences.
Rind: There are three key rind types: bloomy, washed and natural. All are edible, but not all are pleasing to eat. Washed rinds are notoriously pungent, with funky or ammonia aromas.
Creamline: The layer between the rind and the paste is the most flavorful part, a result of proteins and amino acids breaking down and releasing flavors and aromas.
Paste: This is the “heart” of the cheese. Descriptions of flavor, texture and color typically refer to the paste.
Choose Your Weapon
Soft cheeses, especially the runny and fatty types, require special handling and the proper serving tools. These are the most important points to consider when selecting a cheese knife.
Grip: An offset handle like this one (and below) helps to get a clean cut against the board in order to fully sever each slice.
Slice: Select a thin blade with minimal surface area to reduce sticking. Blades with voids, or “skeleton knives,” deliver improved performance.
Stick: A forked tip is a tidy way to get a cut piece from the board to your plate, though we are not averse to using fingers.
Top Off: For scoopable cheeses, simply slice off the top rind and use a spoon or spreader to serve. Typically, half the rind is removed to better preserve any leftovers. If you plan on eating the entire thing in one sitting, take the whole top off.
The Perfect Bite: The key to proper slicing is to make sure each piece offers a taste of every part of the cheese, from rind to center. For round cheeses, this results in a wedge; simply start in the center and slice outward, as you would a pie.
Set an Example: When setting out whole cheeses for guests, cut the first slice from each piece to indicate how the cheese should be cut. And be sure to provide a separate knife or spreader for each cheese.
Don’t Fear the Fat
Before you run screaming to your cardiologist, it’s important to make the distinction that when we say that triple-creams are 75% butterfat, that figure applies only to the cheese’s dry matter, excluding moisture—and these cheeses are very moist, at approximately 50% water. According to Cambridge, Mass.–based retailer Formaggio Kitchen, their 75% butterfat Brillat-Savarin is actually 39% total fat.
By comparison, a hard cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano is about 30% total fat. On the bright side, some of that fat is the “good” kind (mono- and polyunsaturated fats, including heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids) and recent studies have found no link between full-fat dairy and cardiovascular risk, and in fact, associated it with a lower risk of stroke.
Brillat-Savarin: 39% total fat
Brie: 32% total fat
Mozzarella di Bufala: 24% total fat
Kraft American Singles: 21% total fat
Cold Cheese Is Not Cool
Ideal serving temperature for cheese is 70° to 75° F
Wine lovers know that optimal serving temperature is key to experiencing a wine at its best. Likewise, cheese’s flavors and aromas are muted when served too cold. Let it warm up for a bit and you get more enjoyable texture and fuller aromas and flavors. In short, you’re missing out on a lot when you eat cold cheese. Proper serving temperature for nearly all cheeses is room temp (although some experts suggest even warmer, closer to body temp). For ideal cheese prep, take your cheese out of the fridge about an hour before you plan to serve it.