I’ll always remember the day a Paris cheesemonger told me there is actually a right way to cut up each type of cheese. I looked at him, incredulous. “It’s about making sure everyone has the same experience,” he explained as he cut a wheel of cheese into wedges.
Up until that point, I’d been perfectly happy with the uneven slices and misshapen hunks of cheese I normally cut when I make a cheese board. However, right then and there I realized I had been committing a number of sins against cheese.
Even on this side of the Atlantic, experts say standard cutting practices for cheese matter. Lauren Toth, training and curriculum manager at Murray’s Cheese in New York City, says each piece of cheese must have a balanced ratio of rind to paste, which is the technical term for the part of cheese you actually eat. That way, no one gets a bite that’s all rind or all paste.
“Cutting the pieces the proper way will ensure your guests have a consistent experience, and each get to taste the best possible expression of the cheese,” Toth says.
But that’s not all. Along with the rind-to-paste ratio, the texture and shape of a block of cheese also dictate how to properly cut it.
Portions are better than blocks
When setting out cheese, hosts sometimes offer bigger wheels or wedges of cheese for guests to hack into. But unless the cheese is too soft to chop up neatly, Toth says it’s better to serve it pre-cut and portioned out.
Properly cut cheese is more visually appealing, more comfortable to eat, and safe from “random acts of cheese abuse,” Toth says.
“We’ve all seen that chunk of brie with the buttery center gouged out, and the sad, empty rind left behind on the serving board,” she says. “Pre-portioning is a great way to avoid that sort of thing.”
And while presenting guests with a big hunk of cheese requires less work, it slows down serving, and most people prefer grab-and-go access to their food, says Pat Polowsky, food scientist and cheese expert.
“Once the cheese is cut up, the clock is ticking, and you need to consume it pretty soon, versus if you just have a block and people are slicing off from it,” he says.
As pre-cut cheese is left out, light and oxygen causes it to discolor, dry out, and lose flavor, Polowsky says.
How to actually cut different kinds of cheese
If you aren’t sure how to cut and portion your block of cheese, Toth suggests studying it to get a sense of its texture and shape, and think about how to best cut it.
It’s about functionality, Polowsky says: “But then, there’s the more nuanced, romantic side of what’s going to look good.”
Wheels can be evenly divided into wedges, blocks easily sliced into slabs, and triangular-shaped cheeses cut well into smaller triangles, for example. Runny and gooey cheeses, such as brie or Camembert, are difficult to cut into even pieces, so you can serve them in a full block or just cut in half.
“Make sure—however you portion—it includes at least a bit of the rind,” Toth says about cheeses like manchego, brie, comte, or Gruyere.
In most cases, eating the rind is a personal preference, but keep in mind that some rinds—like ones made of wax and cloth—may not be palatable.
Depending on the type of cheese, Toth and Polowsky offer a few guidelines for cutting it up and serving:
Standard block with no rind: Simply cut it into cubes.
Crumbly cheeses: For aged gouda, feta, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, use a dull knife to pry off bite-sized chunks.
Soft, wheel-shaped cheeses: Brie and Camembert may be ripe and runny, which makes them difficult to portion. Cutting these in half will offer an entry point. If it’s firmer, cut it into wedges.
Wedge-shaped cheeses with rind on three sides (top, bottom and back): For wedge-shaped cheeses, like manchego, fontina, and some cheddars, place the cheese flat on one side and thinly slice the rinds off the right and left sides, leaving the rind on the widest part of the wedge. Then, cut lengthwise from the rind to the tip of the wedge to make triangles. To keep pieces even, cut them in half, and then in quarters.
Firm, smooth cheeses with rind on two sides: Cut cheeses like comte or Gruyere, lengthwise so you have two identical pieces, then cut horizontally to create matchsticks, each with a bit of rind.
Blue cheeses: To keep the integrity of a chunk of blue cheese, Toth recommends leaving it in its original shape and letting guests help themselves. Blue cheeses can be quite strong, so this allows guests to moderate how much they take.
Ball of mozzarella: Cut the ball in half, then slice it into half-moon shapes.
Log-shaped cheese: Slice goat cheese and other oblong cheeses into evenly sized medallions.
Find more details in Murray’s online cut guide, and when in doubt, feel free to raise any questions with your local cheesemonger.
Enjoying your cheese matters most
How you cut up cheese is important, but what’s more important, Polowsky says, is preserving its quality. “The only wrong way would be cutting it up way ahead of time,” he says.
Light and oxygen are cheese’s biggest enemies. Oxygen, catalyzed by light, reacts with fat molecules and other compounds, like beta-carotene, in cheese, and can cause it to discolor and take on a plastic or cardboard-like flavor. Once cut, the countdown starts and the cheese will lose its quality with each passing minute.
Cheese is easier to cut when it’s cold, because that’s when it’s less sticky, but you should never serve it straight from the refrigerator because cold temperature can mask the flavor. Instead, and as a general rule, Polowsky recommends leaving it out at room temperature for an hour or so before serving.
How long cheese maintains its optimal flavor after cutting depends on its type. Firmer cheeses, like cheddar, will last up to a week in the fridge, while softer cheeses, like brie, may only last a day or two.
And, unless you’re breaking down massive wheels of cheese, Polowsky says you don’t need a special set of tools to cut up and serve cheese—just a sharp knife, or even unflavored dental floss in place of a cheese wire to slice softer cheese.
Cutting guidelines help you get the most out of your favorite cheeses, but even if you’re not sure, you shouldn’t take things too seriously—eating cheese is all about enjoyment.