When and How to Cut

How do you know when and how to cut cheese, especially for company? Is it wise to cut lots of small pieces, or better to leave the wedges mostly whole? What are the guidelines for cutting different shapes of cheeses?

First, cheese is best if cut just before it is eaten. This way, no additional moisture has a chance to leach out, and the flavor profile is at its fullest. This would imply you should leave fairly large pieces of cheese on each platter, with few if any precut slices, and many hosts go this route. The problem is that many guests are shy about cutting into a large wedge of cheese, and often these large pieces end as big as they began, with just a few timid slices missing.

You are the best judge of your guests, but if you think the crowd will be shy, slice enough of each wedge so that each person can have one or two pieces before having to cut into the wedge. This will also show them how the cheese is meant to be cut, and they will be bolder when they have to cut the cheese themselves.

Many people are startled when they taste a cheese that's cold, and then taste the same cheese when it's come to room temperature. Cold cheese simply doesn't have the fullness of aromas and flavors that a cheese at room temperature does. So, don't forget to bring cheese to room temperature before cutting and serving. This ensures everyone's maximum enjoyment.

Small cheeses are often served whole, and several larger cheeses are often served as rounds like this: Brillat Savarin, a triple-cream, bloomy-rind cheese, is served whole. The top layer of bloomy rind is removed to reveal the buttery paste, and butter knives are provided for each guest. Large, round slices of Stilton are often served this way, with the middle broken up into chunks for easy nibbling. Brie is often wrapped and baked in phyllo dough, then opened from the top to reveal the creamy, warm center.

Here's a quick guide to how to cut different cheeses:

  • Rectangular blocks of cheese should be cut and sliced along the narrower and shorter side.

  • Triangular blocks of cheese should be cut along the long side, as they most likely were cut this way to begin with.

  • Square blocks of cheese should be cut on one side, or cut into two large rectangles or triangles and then cut according to the previous rules.

  • Wedges of cheese can be cut as you would a piece of pie.

  • Small crottins or Chevrots, or small wheels of cheese, should be cut as you would a piece of cake. Cut a small wedge into one part, then continue cutting along those same lines. Pyramid-shaped cheeses should also be cut this way, with tall wedges notched from each corner.

  • When in doubt, follow the shape of the cheese and be sure that each slice represents all the cheese has to offer.

An exception to these rules is Humboldt Fog, a goat's-milk cheese from Cypress Groves in California. This cheese is made as an eight-inch cake, with morning milk on the bottom layer, a vegetable ash layer as the filling, and evening milk on the top. Then the entire wheel is coated in vegetable ash and aged from the outside in as it develops a bloomy rind.

The entire wheel looks like a velvety, white birthday cake, and when cut open, you see a thin layer of aged cheese just underneath the rind. A wedge of this type of cheese is best cut like a cake, so that everyone can enjoy the full complexity of morning and evening milk, along with the vegetable ash and bloomy rind.

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