cheese plate san francisco

cheesy and loving it

Grating cheese for cooking

You would think that all you’d have to do is buy and grate a piece of cheese for a recipe. But on closer inspection the call for “1 cup grated cheese” raises a few questions that are never really addressed anywhere. What grate are they calling for – coarse, fine, medium? And how fine is fine? Are we talking about the little holes on a box grater or are we talking about busting out the microplaner that we use for nutmeg? Is a food processor blade too coarse? Do you firmly pack the cheese to get to one cup? Lightly pack? Don’t pack it at all? Not as easy as that recipe made it seem.

For the most part I don’t put too much thought into this as I tend to double the cheese factor on any item I make. But sometimes I have to make a new recipe and sticking to a recipe is generally a good idea. In the good old grandmother days, things like this didn’t require so much thought but with the general loss and then rediscovery of home cooking techniques some minor details got lost in the shuffle. Or for people like me whose grandmothers NEVER cooked with cheese, here are a few things that I have learned over the years…

TASTE

Just like with wine, you should be cooking with a cheese you would want to eat plain. So trying the cheese before plunking down cash is a good idea. I wish I knew this bit of advice before my first time making fondue – turns out I don’t like emmentaler, but that’s another post.

BUY

Recipes usually call for volume measurements like cups. But cheese is generally sold by weight, pounds and ounces. So, here is an IDEAL conversion that I usually use when selling people cheese:

  • 1/4 lb. cheese = 1 cup grated
  • 1/3 lb. cheese = 1 1/2 cups grated
  • 1/2 lb. cheese = 2 cups grated

This is the weight AFTER the cheese is trimmed of its rind and does not include any cheese loss to grating methods, such as the cheese goo that gets stuck to the grater or my hands, the bit that gets trapped in the lid of the processor, or that nub that I can’t seem to grate without out endangering my fingers, or the pieces that I invariably sneak for snacks. So a more realistic buying guide for bulk cheese is:

  • 0.3 lb. cheese = 1 cup grated
  • 0.4 lb. cheese = 1 1/2 cups grated
  • 0.6 lb. cheese = 2 cups grated

It’s also important to take a close look at the cheese before you buy. You want the faces (exposed sides of the interior part of the cheese) to be clean – no mold or obvious signs of oxidation or over drying. If you are buying from a cut to order cheese monger, both sides of the wedge should be the same color. The side that has been next to the plastic will often have discoloration from being exposed to light, drier and often darker in appearance, and may taste of plastic or that weird refrigerator/ freezer burn taste than the side that is cut from the main part of the cheese. Don’t be afraid to ask your cheese monger to trim up the outside edge of the cheese BEFORE they weigh and price out your wedge.

GRATING

Most recipes are developed with good old fashioned tools – so stick with the non-fancy stuff. In this case it means a box grater using the larger holes for coarse grating and the smaller holes for fine grating. If coarse or fine is not specified, I always opt for the coarse grate. I find that coarsely grated cheese melts great and I can get through a chunk of cheese faster that way. I get bummed out on how little cheesy flavor finely grated cheese (especially when done with the microplane) leaves behind – just not enough cheese in those little strands I guess.

A food processor is great if you have one and will make the job much quicker. Or if you have a wonderful cheese monger and you ask nicely during a slow period of business, they will most likely be willing to grate the cheese for you! So you won’t even have to pull out any equipment when you get home.

STORAGE

If you have some grated cheese you want to save, I recommend you put it in the middle of some wax paper, fold it up nice and snuggly and wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap. To be extra cautious, I would then put the entire bundle into a Tupperware container for storage. Grated cheese will not keep for long, so get your favorite grilled cheese sandwich recipe ready!

Now by this time you may be thinking to yourself that you’ll save all of this bother by buying pre-grated cheese in a bag. But I would definitely discourage you from doing this. Most pre-grated cheeses have anti-caking agents to keep the individual strands separated and looking attractive. Sometimes these agents are various types of flours or cellulose – those just don’t sound very yummy to me and flour would leach moisture from the cheese taking away some flavor. Also those bags aren’t airtight and the cheese strands will oxidize in no time. So it’s kind of self defeating to use this cheese in a recipe. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely succumbed to the impulse to buy the bags of grated cheese but I had to live with the not as stellar results as well.

Now if you will excuse me, all of this grated cheese talk has definitely given me the urge to grate up some cheese for a fondue or a casserole or a quick and yummy grilled cheese sandwich! Happy cheese-ing!

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