Cheese is perishable, but most people are far too precious with it. Yes, it contains dairy—or rather, it is dairy—and is prone to bacterial growth and spoilage if left out of the refrigerator for too long. But, depending on the cheese, that window is wide big enough to allow a little cheese-fueled jaunt, trek, or hike into the wilderness. (I don’t know about you, but I’d rather enjoy nature with a crystal-flecked, aged cheddar and an apple than a dry, soulless protein bar.)
Of course, not all cheeses are well-suited to the role of hiking snack. Taking a weepy wheel of camembert into the forest, for example, would be ill-advised. Not only is soft, gooey cheese impractical, it’s less safe.
As Adam Brock, director of food safety, quality, and regulatory compliance at Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin explained to Bon Appetit, cheese is safest when consumed within four hours of being taken out of the refrigerator, but not all cheese has the same moisture content, and moisture plays a big role in both bacterial growth and spoilage.
If you’ve ever been to a grocery store, you’ve probably noticed blocks of Parmesan sitting out, free from temperature control. “Parm, Romano, or harder cheeses will likely not have microbacterium growth, or very insignificant amounts throughout the duration of a party,” Brock explained. (Brock was talking to Bon App about party cheese, which is adjacent to hiking cheese, if not exactly the same.) “Those cheeses you’ll often see hanging in Italian markets or cut into pieces on display at the grocery store because they don’t require constant refrigeration,” he added.
The USDA also draws a safety distinction between hard and soft cheeses, stating that “Soft cheeses such as cream cheese, cottage cheese, shredded cheeses, and goat cheese must be refrigerated for safety. As a general rule, hard cheeses such as cheddar, processed cheeses (American), and both block and grated Parmesan do not require refrigeration for safety, but they will last longer if kept refrigerated.”
It’s safe to take cheese on a hike, is what I’m saying, provided you choose the right cheese. Low-moisture, processed, lunchbox cheeses such as wax-wrapped Babybel and string cheese might seem like your best options, but harder, older cheddars and goudas have even less moisture, and they taste fantastic at warmer temperatures. Chilled, fridge-cold cheese is much harder to feel and taste properly than room-temp (or backpack-temp) fromage. The fat needs that warmth to get moving and grooving—cold fat is just not texturally pleasant, and frigid temperatures make it harder for your tongue to access the more nuanced flavors your cheese has to offer.
If you don’t feel like bringing a knife and cutting board, just cut your cheese into cubes and toss it in a zipper-topped bag or some other sealable container, along with a toothpick or three (just in case your hands get dirty and you don’t want to touch the cheese). Toss an apple or some dried fruit in your bag, along with a little bag of nuts, and you have a delicious and nutritious hiking snack that will bring much more joy than any flavor of Clif Bar.