I do not consider myself to be a master cheesemaker quite yet, but I have spent a bit of time now using beeswax on some of my Farmstead Raw Milk Goat Cheeses, and I also have a good amount of training in fine arts and traditional farm arts. Beeswaxing is a traditional method in Europe, but is difficult to find information about it in America. Therefore, what I am about to share with you is from my trial and error.
Beeswax is not cheap, but it is something that can be produced locally, and I’ve never heard or read of anyone having allergies to it. I briefly worked with petroleum-derived paraffin wax in candle making, but it didn’t take long for "head and throat aches" to put me off. Now I use only beeswax for candles and wax coatings for my cheese. It is as natural a package as you can get! I have bought it for $5 a pound in bulk from Walter Kelley. That is an excellent price for high-quality, clean beeswax. I think the extra cost of beeswax for the small-scale cheesemaker is negligible, as you will only use a few ounces on each cheese, if you do it correctly.
The scent is wonderful while you are working, and there is enough honey left in the beeswax for flavoring the cheese slightly, and possibly even imparting some of honey’s healing properties to the cheese. I also believe that a beeswaxed rind breathes more than in the petroleum-derived cheese waxes available on the market. Breathing is good for a living cheese! If it is more difficult to use, it’s certainly worth it to me. My customers love the way it looks, but I will caution you; if your cheeses in wax are pretty, and they should be, you do have to watch people closely or put up a sign to tell them not to squeeze it! They will want to pick it up. Each one is a little piece of art.
The drier your cheeses, the easier they will be to wax, but I do have a cheese that I like to wax when it is only a couple of weeks old in order to be spreadable still at 60 days aged. I still make sure this cheese is dry enough to wax. You do want to be careful about young cheeses that would seep whey, as they could begin to deteriorate. I work only with raw milk cheeses, so it has to be held 60 days in order to sell it in Virginia. Waxing it early means that I can have a cheese that is similar to what others call Chevre, but must pasteurize to sell it at two weeks. Make sure you check with the Department of Agriculture in your state in order to be in compliance with regulations.
Beeswax melts at about 147-150ºF, which is a higher melting point than paraffin wax. Make sure you are buying clean wax, or that you are straining it if you are using wax from your own hives. You have to get your own "feel" for it, but for me, it works best to have the wax very hot but not boiling, and the cheese very cold but not frozen. I used to put the wax in a double boiler since beeswax is very flammable and can "flash up," but I found that the boiling water put too much humidity in the air, causing bubbles in the wax. Now I cover my whole stove with two layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil, and place a dedicated "waxing roasting pan" full of beeswax on two of the burners that are covered with the foil. I keep the burners as low as I can, so as to heat the wax slowly to about 200ºF. I don’t really use a thermometer, as each time it needs to be adjusted according to the type of cheese that I’m waxing. I do not want the wax to boil.
Your cheeses to be waxed should be very smooth. You will find that wax will leave a hole anywhere that you have a pit or a crack, causing your cheeses to spoil and leak. No amount of extra wax will fix it-I know-I’ve tried!
I take one cheese out of the cooler at a time, dipping each of its sides in quickly. If you were counting the cooling after each dip it would be something like this: dip-two-three-four, next side-two three-four, next side-two-three-four, until I have the perimeter covered. Next, I would do the top-two-three-four, bottom-two-three-four, and repeat. If the cheese seems to get too warm, I put it back in the cooler and begin on the perimeter of another one while the first cools off. You will not want your cheese to get warm and begin to change shape. It’s best if the cheese looks evenly coated all over, and is only thick enough not to depress when picked up; usually about four quick coats. I place each of the cheeses on foil to cool, and start on the next one. I go back and check them for holes.
In a recent class I was teaching, I watched the students wax Shannon’s baby Gouda’s with great care. Jane North, who has waxed many more cheeses than me, rolled her cheese gracefully instead of dipping the way I do. You will find the best method for you, after a few experiments. For my softer cheeses, I find I have to dip each edge, as the cheeses want to begin to melt. Little brown bits of cooked cheese want to gather in the bottom of the wax pan, so I like to keep the wax level high, and not dip in too deep.
To avoid drips, angle the cheese after each dip so that the drip gathers on an edge, then let it travel down that edge until it disappears. I’ve seen sloppily waxed cheeses at market, and I can’t help but wonder if the cheesemaker is sloppy in cheesemaking!
I like to decorate the top of a whole waxed wheel with a leaf or flower that I’ve pressed in a telephone directory. Make sure the item to apply is very flat. You can do this one of two ways; either place the dry item on top of the cheese and use a fan brush to put the wax on quickly, or dip the item in the wax and place it directly on the waxed wheel. The operative word here is "quickly," as beeswax has a higher melting point, it also cools more quickly than paraffin wax. If you get a lump on your appliquéd item, it will only become more noticeable the more wax you apply. Since beeswax is not clear, too many layers will obscure your appliquéd item. When using the fan brush, it takes me about four quick dips and brush strokes to apply one item. That means one stroke per one dip at a time. Remember, you’re getting that brush to the item to be appliquéd before the wax can cool and harden on the brush! For labels, I dip them quickly in the wax, and place them on the bottom of the wheel. These are paper labels with colored ink that we print on our own laser printer. Since the label is fully waxed and on the bottom, don’t fret if some of the edges do not adhere completely. Labels usually have to have specific information to be legal in your state, which can make them a little large to adhere as nicely as your appliqué.
It is easy to slice through the wax with a knife that I have heated on a hot burner for a few moments. I remove only the top, since I usually wax semi-soft spreadable cheeses. Once the top is off, all wax sides can be peeled off easily. I sometimes use cotton candle wicking as a pull-tab. I place clean wicking directly on the bottom cheese edge, winding it all around the perimeter with a one-half inch "tab." This is by far the best option for removing the wax, if you can master the application of the wicking.
As far as how long you can leave the cheeses in the wax, I have gotten up to six months with great results, at which time all the cheese was eaten up!