Ask the Cheesemonger
Juliana Uruburu is the cheese program director at the Pasta Shop markets, with locations in Berkeley and Oakland, California
Q: I’m pregnant and wondering what the deal is with eating cheese—some people say to avoid it altogether, others say it depends on the cheese. Can you please clarify?
A: Cheese is an excellent source of vitamins, nutrients, calcium, and protein—all things that a pregnant woman needs in her diet. It’s a megafood that feeds growing bodies, inside and outside the womb. That said, most doc-tors and midwives recommend that pregnant women avoid eating any raw-milk cheeses because of the risk of listeriosis, a type of food poisoning that is very rare but can be seriously harmful to a fetus. Soft, high- moisture cheeses made from raw milk are particularly off-limits since the offending bacteria, Listeria, and particularly Listeria monocytogenes, will multiply faster in a moist environment. The high heat of pasteurization kills the bacteria, which is why pasteurized cheeses—soft or hard—are the most prudent option for pregnant women.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website, “Listeria is a type of bacteria found in soil, water, and sometimes on plants. [It] is all around our environ-ment...most infections in people are from eating contaminated foods.” I’d like to emphasize that the risk of con-tracting listeriosis from cheese is extremely low, thanks to the care that regulated cheesemakers must take to keep their creameries extremely hygienic. It’s worth noting that statistically, the food that, carries the greatest risk of listeriosis is not cheese but deli meats. Studies by the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) cite deli meats (and uncooked hot dogs) as the most common source of Listeria food poisoning. So go ahead and enjoy the multitude of amazing cheeses made from pasteurized milk (check the label to be sure or ask your cheesemonger). But I’d watch out for those wieners!
Q: Sometimes, when I cut into a piece of Gouda or other hard cheese, some clear liquid seeps out. What is this, and is it safe to eat?
A: Ah, yes; “liquid gold” is what I call that. The first time I saw this liquid, early in my career with aged Gouda, I assumed that the cheese was poorly handled. But I soon learned that the only thing wrong was my assumption. This bit of cheese nectar is actually whey that has been trapped in the small eyes of the cheese. Sometimes when a cheese leaves the aging room, with its perfectly controlled temperature and humidity, the cheese can become unstable. The liquids will expand more quickly than the solids as the cheese warms up to its new environment. The liquid will push through the paste and either escape through the rind or, in this case, land in the eyelet of the cheese. It is perfectly natural and is not harmful in any way. In fact, don’t pass up the chance to dip your finger in that little eye and give it a taste. You might be pleasantly surprised by its sweet-salty quality and a nice fattiness on the palate. Its flavor is the result of the whey absorbing some of the salt from the brining process and some of the milk fat. It is better that this little droplet of moisture has been trapped in this tiny pocket rather than too much moisture being held within the paste of the cheese