Look Inside and Out
Once you've narrowed your search to certain types of cheeses, it's time to look them over. Recall how much time and attention the cheese maker paid to creating the curd texture, balancing the moisture content, and giving the cheese a protective rind. These are the very things to look at when choosing a cheese.
First, take a look at the rind. Unless you're looking at a fresh cheese, or a blue cheese without a rind, the rind should be absent of excess moisture or gooeyness. Also, unless it's a washed-rind cheese, avoid rinds with pink mold, as this indicates the cheese has ammoniated, or gone bad. Large cracks in the rind should also be avoided, as they let in air and release moisture. Then inspect rinds according to their classification.
Natural rinds should be buff colored, have a brainy texture, and evenly surround the cheese. Soft natural rinds indicate young cheeses, and hard natural rinds indicate older cheeses. These cheeses often bloom with a light dusting of white or green molds, and this is perfectly natural.
White bloomy-rind cheeses should look like pillowy velvet. Some, especially those with layers of vegetable ash, also develop bluish-green and dark, almost slate gray molds. Don't shy away from them. These molds indicate the cheeses are in their prime. Herbaceous rinds are harder to judge. The herbs or leaves sometimes mask the cheese, but look for freshness and an absence of extra mold.
Soft cheeses packed in wooden boxes swell as they age. A young soft cheese will not touch the edges of its box. An aged soft cheese will touch the edges and be puffy on top. Unless the rind has turned pink, there is a strong ammonia smell, or both, this expansion indicates healthy and delicious ripening.
Washed-rind cheeses take on the colors of sunset. Sometimes they are a dusty orange, or a pinkish orange, or a deep, russet orange. All of these colors indicate healthy, washed-rind cheeses. Avoid cheeses with large areas of discoloration.
A wrapped or dry cheese rind should be consistent in color, relatively unblemished, and uncracked. If the color varies dramatically, that is, if the cheese is much lighter or darker in one area than another, then it's possible the cheese sat too long on one side or somehow developed too much moisture in one spot. Blemishes can also indicate trouble, though not always. Some cheeses naturally develop blemishes, but for the most part they are scattered all over the rind.
If a cheese has one or many blemishes that look out of place, again, it may have been mishandled, and the taste could be off. Cracks will also affect the taste of cheese. They let air in and moisture out, allowing molds to develop quickly and cheese to become dry. Avoid any cheeses with large cracks, or ask for a wedge from another part of the wheel.
Waxed cheeses often show a bit of mold on the outside, and when covered in paper too, the paper can be torn or scrunched up. None of these things indicate the cheese has gone bad. The wax coating is very effective in protecting the cheese, and unless the wax has been significantly damaged, these cheeses should be fine.
Inside the Cheese
The next most important thing to look at is the inside of the cheese. All cheese should be available to view on the inside, and you should never hesitate to ask a cheese monger to cut a cheese open for view. Generally speaking, you are looking for signs of health on the inside of the cheese. Here, you are interested in how the cheese is classified according to moisture and texture.
Colors should be clean and unblemished, textures should be uniform or progress according to the aging cycle of the cheese, the cheese should have the appropriate amount of moisture, and it should look inviting. Think about looking at a road cut into a hillside. The hillside reveals a story of sedimentary layers, or the stresses of temperatures, or turbulent, volcanic energy. A cheese is just the same.
The strong smell of ammonia in cheese indicates the growth of unwanted bacteria. Pungent washed-rind cheeses sometimes smell slightly of ammonia. If you're not sure, unwrap the cheese and let it breathe for about fifteen minutes. Then examine it for excessive puffiness or gooeyness. If the smell has dissipated and the cheese is relatively firm, it is probably okay.
When cut open, its past is revealed and it tells you whether the cheese has endured any significant stresses. Fresh cheeses should be uniform in color and texture and not have a story to tell. After all, they are fresh! Soft cheeses will have different layers of aging, but should always have a creamy heart. Semisoft and semihard cheeses should be relatively uniform in color and texture, and absent the kind of granularity seen in aged cheeses. Hard cheeses should be very firm but not too crumbly, and you will often see pockets of granularity in the eyes.
Blue cheeses should have the intended amount of blue-green mold throughout the cheese, should not be overly weepy, or losing a lot of moisture when cut. It's normal for many blue cheeses to ooze or weep some moisture, but if they weep too much they can become quite salty. Blue cheeses, as a rule, should also be smooth and creamy or crumbly in texture, as opposed to granular or grainy. If they are grainy, something may be wrong with the cheese. Perhaps it's suffered rapid changes in temperature, or has sat too long on one side or another. It still may taste fine, but the texture is not up to par. Often, very granular blue cheeses are also quite salty.