Does Cheese Need to Be Refrigerated? | It Depends


Soft Medium and Hard Cheese on a Table

Cheese has long been one of my favorite foods as a quick and simple snack or as elegant party food. Although I am careful about keeping all types of cheese refrigerated most of the time, there are occasions when I like to keep a variety of hard cheeses for snacks during a family gathering or even for lunch during a hike or other outing. But, just how long can I expect these cheeses to stay good unrefrigerated? This required a little research, but here is what I found.

Generally, the harder the cheese the longer it will last. Softer cheese, like cream cheese, or processed cheeses, like American slices, can be left out for no more than two hours after opening. Hard cheeses, like cheddar, swiss, or gouda, can last for a long time, even several weeks, unrefrigerated.

Now let’s explore the subject in greater detail.

How Long Does Cheese Last Once Opened?

How long cheese lasts depends on a number of things including the temperature, how it is packaged, whether it has been aged and for how long, and the type of cheese.

Here are recommendations for how long the three main types of cheese last after opening with refrigeration and without:

Soft Cheese

  • Soft unripened cheeses which include cottage cheese, cream cheese, and ricotta cheese contain more moisture and are more fragile and perishable. Soft cheese must not be left unrefrigerated for more than two hours at the time. They must be kept refrigerated at all times to maintain their texture and quality and most of them only keep in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 weeks.
  • Fresh soft cheeses like Queso Fresco also only last approximately 2 weeks in the refrigerator and 2 hours unrefrigerated.
  • Soft ripened cheeses like Brie, fresh mozzarella, and Camembert also fall into the more perishable category and last about 2 weeks in the refrigerator and 2 hours at room temperature.

Processed Cheese

  • Processed cheeses in cans, jars, and loaves do not have to be refrigerated until opened and last one month past the printed expiration date. After opening, the processed cheese will last 2 weeks in the refrigerator.
  • Processed cheese is considered to be semi-hard but has been pasteurized so it doesn’t age. The processed cheese that you purchase in cans, jars, and sealed loaves do not require refrigeration until they have been opened. However, processed American sliced cheese which is made from cheddar and colby does require refrigeration both before and after opening.
  • Processed American sliced cheese, even though made from cheddar and colby which are hard cheeses, require refrigeration before and after opening and last 1 to 2 months in the refrigerator.

Hard Cheese

  • Hard or block cheeses like cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack, parmesan, and Swiss last 6 months in the refrigerator in unopened packages and 3 to 4 weeks after opening. However, authentic hard cheeses are known to last for several weeks unrefrigerated.
  • Shredded hard cheeses last 1 month after opening with refrigeration.
  • There is a larger variety of hard cheeses including cheddar, gouda, parmesan, Swiss, and gruyere. These hard cheeses have been aged and the recipes for making them were developed at a time in the past when there was no refrigeration which means they can be left unrefrigerated for a very long time. The only reason to refrigerate them now is to increase their shelf life and to maintain their quality for a much longer period of time. Most can be stored in the refrigerator for at least 6 months before opening and 3 to 4 weeks after opening.

How to Store Opened Cheese

In order to maximize how long your cheese will last, I recommend either storing it in an airtight container or using specially designed cheese storage bags, like these found on Amazon.

Can Cheese be Frozen?

Not all cheese can be frozen.

  • Cottage cheese, ricotta, and cream cheese do not freeze well, but a casserole containing these soft cheeses freezes well and will remain good in the freezer for up to 6 months.
  • Processed cheese can be frozen but the texture is changed by freezing so that the previously frozen processed cheese can only be used as an ingredient in other dishes such as casseroles.
  • Hard cheese can be frozen for up to 6 months if wrapped well or placed in an airtight container.

How to Tell If Cheese Has Gone Bad

Here are the primary ways to tell whether each type of cheese has gone bad:

Soft Cheese

  • Cottage and ricotta cheese will become watery and mold will begin to form.
  • Cream cheese is one of those foods that are easy to determine whether they have gone bad. Here are the primary signs that the package of cream cheese in your refrigerator should be discarded:
  • If your cream cheese has discolored in any way by turning a yellow or greenish color.
  • If your cream cheese contains mold, this would render the entire container unsafe to eat.
  • If the cream cheese becomes slimy or too soft, then it is likely that it contains mold or bacteria.
  • If the cream cheese develops an odd or sour smell, that is a sure sign that it has gone bad.
  • If the cream cheese has been in your refrigerator for longer than a month and it looks alright, a taste test will immediately let you know whether it is still good to use. If it has gone bad, it will taste sourer than it should.

Processed Cheese

  • Changes in the texture, odor, and taste will be easy to detect when processed cheese has gone bad.
  • If mold forms on processed cheese, it should be discarded immediately.

Hard Cheese

Hard cheeses are also easy to determine whether they have gone bad. Here are some things to look for:

  • If the package the cheese is wrapped in becomes loose or torn, the cheese will dry out and become hard.
  • If mold forms on the surface of the cheese, this mold can simply be cut off and the rest of the block of cheese should be good to eat, unlike soft cheese which should be immediately discarded if mold forms.
  • If the cheese develops a strong, unpleasant odor, it is better to just discard it.
  • If the hard cheese has been left unrefrigerated in temperatures above 90 degrees, it may become limp and unappetizing.

What Makes Certain Types of Cheese Go Bad Faster?

Soft cheese goes bad much faster than hard cheese because the amount of moisture in the soft cheese allows bacteria to grow and mold to form.

Things That Help Cheese Last Longer

There are a variety of things you can do to increase the shelf life of cheese.

Soft Cheeses

  • Refrigerate as quickly after purchasing as possible.
  • When purchasing, choose your cream cheese, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, and Brie when you have finished your other shopping and are ready for the checkout.
  • Keep packaging closed to avoid airborne contamination.
  • Store it in foil or an airtight container in the refrigerator.
  • Use a clean utensil when serving soft cheeses to avoid cross-contamination with other food.
  • Do not allow soft cheeses to be left out of the refrigerator for up to 2 hours at a time.

Processed Cheeses

Processed cheeses that are purchased in cans, jars, and loaves do not require refrigeration prior to opening, but should be kept in a cool, dry area away from heat sources and direct sunlight and refrigerated as soon as the container is opened.

Hard Cheeses

  • Refrigerate after purchasing.
  • Do not allow cheese to be subjected to high temperatures.
  • Keep packaging closed to avoid airborne contamination.
  • Store in a closed container in the refrigerator to avoid drying out and cross contamination with other foods in the refrigerator..
  • Avoid cross contamination with other food when serving by using a clean serving utensil.

What to do if You Have too Many Opened Packages of Cheese

If you recently had a party and find yourself the proud owner of a variety of different packages of cheese, all of them opened, here are a few things you can do to keep from having to throw a lot of cheese into the trash. Start by sorting them into the different types, soft cheese, processed cheese, and hard cheese.

Soft Cheese

  • If you have cottage cheese, ricotta, cream cheese, and Brie, use these first as they have a very short shelf life, especially after opening.
  • Make up a couple of casseroles such as lasagne or penne with meatballs to use the cottage cheese and ricotta. Soft cheeses do not freeze well, but the casseroles you use them in will last in the freezer for at least 6 months.
  • Spread the cream cheese and Brie on bagels and English muffins for a delicious breakfast treat.

Processed Cheese

  • Processed cheese should go quickly by serving nachos and other Mexican food.
  • Processed cheese can be used to make macaroni and cheese which, in turn, can be frozen for up to 6 months.

Hard Cheese

  • Most hard cheeses such as cheddar, gouda, gruyere, parmesan, and Swiss will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator if you use cheese on a regular basis.
  • These cheeses can be sliced and added to your favorite lunch meats in sandwiches for a quick lunch or dinner.
  • Hard cheeses also make delicious casseroles which can be stored for at least 6 months in the freezer.
  • Any leftover cheddar will be perfect for a homemade macaroni and cheese dish.
  • Grate the cheddar to use on tacos and other Mexican dishes.
  • If cheese is not used on a regular basis at your house, these hard cheeses freeze well and can be frozen for up to 6 months.

Types of Cheese That Would Not Be Safe to Ever Leave Unrefrigerated

Types of cheese that would never be safe to leave unrefrigerated are the soft cheeses such as cottage cheese, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, soft ripened cheeses like Brie, fresh mozzarella, Camembert and Brie, because the softer cheeses contain high amounts of moisture which are a magnet for mold-causing bacteria which would render the cheese unsafe to eat.

Interesting Facts About and a Brief History of Cheese and Cheesemaking

According to the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe, Wisconsin, the exact origins of cheese and cheesemaking are unknown, but there is historical evidence that the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians were making some versions of cheese 4000 years ago.

This could possibly have occurred by accident because of their use of cow stomachs for storing many things, including milk, which would have mixed the milk with the enzyme Rennet, or by their adding the juice of some fruits or salt to preserve the milk, all of which would have caused the milk to curdle and form curds and whey. Because our early ancestors had no refrigeration, cheese was one of the first methods developed for the preservation of milk.

However it happened, by the era of Julius Caesar (100 B.C. to 44 B.C.), cheesemaking was an important activity and cheese was a valuable trade commodity which had spread throughout Europe and the Middle East through the early trade routes.

Cheese was brought to America by the Puritans who also brought their skills in cheesemaking with them from England. With the westward movement of the early immigrants to this country, the art of cheesemaking made its way to Wisconsin where in 1741, Wisconsin’s first cottage industry cheese factory was established by Mrs. Anne Pickett.

Wisconsin now produces over 25% of the domestic cheese in the United States and is the only state to offer a cheesemaker the opportunity to become a “master cheesemaker!”

Final Thoughts

After all, cheese was developed approximately 4000 years ago as a method of preserving milk at a time when there was no refrigeration.”

I’ve always been a lover of all kinds of cheeses and had the good fortune a few years back to spend some time in France where I was treated to some of the best cheeses I’ve ever had that were produced in the local fromageries (cheese factories).

My friends would arrange them on a cheese board after dinner each evening so that I could eat them beginning with the mildest and ending with the very strong. They said that once you eat the stronger cheeses, you cannot immediately taste the mild ones. I was so vocal about how good the cheeses were that I was sent home with a variety, and the fact that it remained unrefrigerated for about 3 days did not detract from the taste nor the texture of those fine cheeses. After all, cheese was developed approximately 4000 years ago as a method of preserving milk at a time when there was no refrigeration.

So, does cheese have to be refrigerated? The answer is a resounding no, as long as you are talking about a variety of hard cheeses. But, you may certainly refrigerate those cheeses at a temperature between 35 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit if you wish to significantly extend its shelf life and preserve the texture and taste.

When serving soft and processed cheeses, it is safer to discard them if they have been sitting out for more than 2 hours, and hard cheeses should be wrapped well and put back in the refrigerator if they have been unrefrigerated for 4 hours or longer.

Helpful Related Products

For your convenience, here is a summary of the products mentioned in this article or items you may find appealing.

Also, if you happen to be looking to store food for the long term I recommend My Patriot Supply.

Anne James

Hi, I'm Anne but my grandchildren call me Jelly Grandma. I hope your visit here has been a sweet one.

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