While I generally have no trouble consuming cheese before it goes bad, occasionally a piece will get hidden in my refrigerator and remain undiscovered until it is pretty far gone. Wouldn’t it be great if there was some way to revive that hardened chunk of deliciousness, making it even better than it was the first time around? I am happy to tell you, there is!
I was delighted to learn about a preservation technique for cheeses that are well past their prime. It has been used for centuries in Spain where it is called queso en aceite, or cheese in oil. The fat in the oil acts as a barrier to bacteria and keeps the cheese fresh despite not being refrigerated. It is rumored that Christopher Columbus brought oil-cured cheese on his transatlantic voyages.
The cheese must be a hard or semi-hard cheese, such as parmesean, peccorino, aged cheddar, or manchego. When I stumbled across this information, I just happened to have two such specimens in my refrigerator, a parmigiano-reggiano and a manchego. I had to give it a try!
- First, trim off any rind and/or wax.
- Slice the cheese into sticks or slices. Use a heavy duty knife for this and be careful! It may require some effort to slice through very hard or dried out cheese.
- Place the cheese in a jar that has a tightly fitting lid. If desired, you can add additional flavor to the cheese by adding a clove of garlic, a few peppercorns, a spring of rosemary, some dried red pepper flakes, or other spices. Pour in enough olive oil to completely cover the cheese. It is important to use good quality 100% extra virgin olive oil as the flavor of the oil will transfer to the cheese.
- Put the lid on tightly and place the jar in the back of a cabinet or other cool dark place where it will not be disturbed or exposed to light. Let it sit for at least one month and up to four months. The cheese will soften as it absorbs the oil and will become infused with the flavors of the olive oil and seasonings.
I added a sprig of rosemary and some black peppercorns to my manchego, and a clove of garlic and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes to the parmigiano-reggiano. I also put a note on my calendar to remind myself to check them a month after putting them up.After one month in the olive oil, the oil had begun to permeate the cheese, but because my cheeses were quite hard, I decided to let them marinate for a second month. After the second month, the cheese had become softer and creamier. The parmigiano-reggiano had absorbed the garlic flavor and had a bit of heat from the red pepper flakes. The manchego was infused with the flavor of the rosemary and black peppercorns.
Preserving cheese takes only a few minutes and turns a pricey food item that might have been discarded into a delicacy. The next time you are ready to toss out that hardened piece of cheese, I urge you to give this technique a try.