Food

Rescue the Dried Out Cheese in Your Fridge With This Classic Spanish Preservation Trick

By Benjamin Kemper - March 20, 2019
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Queso en aceite—literally "cheese in oil," takes all of two minutes to make and lasts for months.

Matt Taylor-Gross

When Pedro, my host father, offered me some cheese, I didn’t expect him to reach into the kitchen cupboard. The previous weeks as an American teenager in Castilla-La Mancha had felt like Spanish culinary hazing: I’d survived blood sausage, octopus, even pig ears a la plancha—but unrefrigerated cheese on a 100-degree day? That sounded downright hazardous.

Then Pedro handed me a jar. Filled with glistening white cubes suspended in yellow-green olive oil, it didn’t resemble any cheese I’d ever seen. “This is my mother’s queso en aceite,” he said with a wink, “and I think you’ll like it.” He twisted the jar open, handed me a toothpick, and motioned for me to fish out a hunk of cheese. It was rich, nutty, and thrillingly salty—nothing like the bland manchego I’d tried in the States. I felt the urge to scamper off to my room with the whole container.

Queso en aceite (literally, “cheese in oil”) is what happens when manchego and olive oil get cozy. Left to intermingle for weeks or months in a jar (traditionally an earthenware orza jug), the oil gradually permeates the creamy sheep’s milk cheese, softening it and imparting a compelling, throat-catching piquancy. Little did I know that a few months prior, that very cheese would’ve been too dry to eat out of hand. The oil, in essence, had resuscitated it.

“Cheese has been oil-cured as a means of preservation for centuries in Spain,” says Clara Díez, co-owner of Quesería Cultivo, a boutique cheese shop in Madrid. She explains that the fat acts as a barrier to undesirable yeasts and bacteria, keeping the cheese fresh and safe to eat, even when temperatures soar. The preserve is such hardy stuff, in fact, that Christopher Columbus packed it alongside salt cod and hardtack on his transatlantic voyages.

“It really sings on a cheese plate,” says Alex Raij, chef and owner of three Spanish restaurants in New York.

Matt Taylor-Gross