How Long Can Cheese Be Left Out of the Refrigerator?

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  • November 21, 2016

Cheese is not only a household favorite, but it is almost always invited to the party, too!

As you prepare your cheese board, you may be wondering how long can cheese be left out on your buffet table at room temperature and still be safe to eat.

You may be familiar with the two-hour guideline for leaving perishable food out. Does that apply to unrefrigerated cheese and how long can cheese sit out? The answer is yes, but how long a particular cheese remains safe to eat depends on its moisture content and whether it is fresh or aged, among other factors. And, it’s best to let your cheese come to room temperature before serving to bring out the best flavors — this generally takes about 20-30 minutes, so factor this into your overall time.

Cheesemaking has been around for thousands of years and was a way to preserve milk before refrigeration became available. To fully understand the principles of cheese safety, it’s important to know how cheese is made. In fact, research has revealed most hard cheeses slow the growth of bacteria, so the chance of foodborne illness caused by cheese is extremely low.

Cheeses made in the U.S. from pasteurized milk that have less moisture and a lower pH (acidic), such as Cheddar, Parmesan, Gouda, Swiss and other hard, aged cheeses, are less likely to encourage bacterial growth. Pasteurized processed cheeses, such as American, are also in this category because of their blend of ingredients and heat treatment.   

On the other hand, cheeses that contain more moisture and/or are not ripened (aged) are more perishable. These include soft unripened cheeses, such as cottage and cream cheese as well as fresh soft cheeses (Queso Fresco), and soft ripened cheeses like Brie, Camembert and fresh mozzarella.

According to Sarah Hill, Manager of Cheese Education and Training for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, cheese can be left at room temperature for up to two hours, as can all perishable foods. However, leftover unrefrigerated cheese should be handled differently, depending on the type. For example, she says, “If the cheese tray is out for two hours, soft, fresh cheeses (such as Queso Fresco, Brie, Camembert) should be discarded, but hard cheeses (such as Cheddar, Swiss, Gouda, Parmesan) can be wrapped well and refrigerated to use again. If the cheese has dried out, it can be wrapped in foil and put in the freezer to be used later in a cheesy recipe.”

No buffet table is complete without a cheese board of carefully selected cheese varieties garnished perhaps with fresh or dried fruits, nuts and/or chutney. Check out these tips for cheese-lovers for more suggestions on buying, storing, serving and pairing cheese.