When we talk about keeping kosher, we think about things that can never be kosher, meat that is kosher, and the prohibition of mixing meat with dairy. But what about dairy products themselves? Specifically, what makes cheese kosher? And which rules are still relevant?
The rules for kosher cheese are almost more complicated than those that define kosher slaughter and meat, in the same way that rules for grapes and wine are more complicated than rules for other produce. To simplify the discussion, I’ll broadly discuss three issues.
Milk: Of course, kosher milk can only come from a kosher animal. So, cow, goat, and sheep’s milk can be kosher. Pig and camel milk cannot. Simple, except before federal regulation, farmers might sometimes mix milk from two different types of animals, like goat and sheep, to come up with a large enough quantity to sell. Jews worried that milk from an unkosher animal might also be mixed with kosher-animal milk. Personally, I never heard of a farmer who milks pigs, but camel milk is routinely available in the Middle East, so the concern might have been legitimate at that time in that place. But modern regulations on food production, certainly in the U.S. and Europe, prohibit selling milk that isn’t exactly what the farmer says it is. Cow milk is cow milk and goat milk is goat milk. Nevertheless, people who follow the most traditional kashrut will eat only cheese designated as chalav Yisroel, made from milk that has been supervised by a rabbi from the animal to the packaging.
Soft vs. hard cheese: The process to make soft cheese, such as cream or cottage, uses acid, like citrus, vinegar, or lactic acid to create curds. This process requires less supervision than hard cheese, which uses rennet, an enzyme often sourced from the lining of an animal’s stomach. Rennet raises two questions. Does it come from a kosher animal? But the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy is more problematic. Does adding rennet, sourced from an animal, amount to mixing? To the first question, the rabbis have said, yes, rennet must come from a kosher animal. But to the second question, they conveniently equivocated, ruling that rennet is so far removed from its source that it is no longer meat or even food, being “like a piece of wood.” So “kosher” rennet can be added to milk if it’s supervised by a rabbi. This reasoning was cited by the Conservative rabbinic authority, when it ruled that non-food doesn’t require supervision. So, if the rennet doesn’t need supervision AND we can trust that the milk is from a single type of animal, then uncertified, single-animal cheese can be considered kosher, unless there are other reasons to question it.
Constant supervision: Traditional kashrut requires a rabbi to supervise every step of the cheese-making process. Again, trusting modern federal regulations about food labeling, the Conservative movement takes the position that cheese is cheese. As long as a facility makes only cheese, without inclusions that could introduce non-kosher ingredients, it does not require constant supervision, in the same way that produce doesn’t.
I realize that some of you do not accept this conclusion. For you, I reported about meeting Brent Delman, The Cheese Guy, at Kosherfest in November. Brent became kosher as an adult, so he knew and loved non-kosher cheese. He realized that the available kosher cheese was not of the same quality he was used to, so he learned how to make his own. He invests in small, artisanal and family owned farms who make excellent cheese, installing his own kosher equipment on their premises, providing kosher enzymes, and paying for rabbinic supervision. Once the cheeses are made, he brings them to his own place in upstate New York for aging. He is producing some amazing cheeses, OU certified, of a quality matching any other cheeses I’ve tasted.
Build a cheese plate. With that discussion out of the way, let’s talk about assembling a cheese plate. Locally, Jungle Jim’s amazing cheese department offers nearly one and a half thousand choices. The Murray Cheese Shop at Kroger and the selection of Sartori cheeses at Remke Markets are also excellent. So how do you choose?
Pick what you like. Trust yourself. Don’t be intimidated by the huge selection. You know what you like; use your favorites as a starting point. Then, if you’re feeling adventurous, choose something new that’s close to something you already know. Like cheddar cheese? Try an aged Irish Cheddar. Like Swiss? Try Emmenthaler or Comte.
Consider your event. Are you bringing a cheese plate to book club, where it will be the main attraction? Are you including a cheese plate on a buffet for a party or holiday dinner? Or maybe, you’re making a cheese plate for dessert, in the European style. The purpose of your plate and the number of people you’re serving, will determine how many cheeses you select and what you pick to go with them.
Offer variety. Generally, you want three to five different types of cheeses. Include one or two hard cheeses and a couple of softer choices. Include cheeses that are familiar to many people, like cheddar, gouda, parmesan, brie, and a mild blue cheese. Add something with some inclusions, like chives, mustard or dried cranberries. And think about using cheeses made from different milk, like a sheep’s milk or goat.
Make it easy to eat. Don’t make your guests struggle to cut their own cheese. It can be awkward, especially if they have a glass of wine in one hand. Do your guests a favor and pre-cut harder cheese into cubes, slices, and wedges. Softer cheeses can sit right on the plate, but very soft cheese should be in a little dish.
Fill up the plate. What else goes on the plate? Anything you want, really. Classic accompaniments include fresh and dried fruit – grapes, strawberries, dried or fresh figs, apricots, and dates. Fruit preserves work beautifully with cheese. It’s also nice to include a small dish of honey, which is great paired with salty cheese, like parmesan or pungent cheese, like blue. Also include nuts. Marcona almonds from Spain are awesome, but use any nuts that you like – pecans, walnuts or cashews are beautiful additions.
Serve bread and crackers. Offer a variety of bread and crackers on the side. Be sure to include some plain crackers to go with the more flavorful cheeses. But don’t shy away from fancier crackers that are flavored with herbs or include nuts and dried fruit. Again, the rule of thumb is this: enjoy a more flavorful cheese with a plainer cracker and a milder cheese with a more flavorful cracker.
Use an interesting platter. Any large platter will work, but wood or slate boards are in fashion right now and available at most grocery stores. But here’s another tip. Buy one large ceramic or marble tile at a big box hardware store. Wash it well when you get home and don’t forget to put some little felt or rubber feet on the bottom, so the tile doesn’t scratch your table. Arrange all your ingredients, pour yourself a glass of wine, and enjoy.