Affinage is the term for the art of rind treatments and care utilized in the aging of cheese. When I began making cheese, I knew that I only wanted to make raw milk cheese, and that by law I would have to age the cheese for at least 60 days. The problem was that I also wanted to try to make what could be termed "American frontier cheese." Besides wanting to preserve traditional, healthy methods of food production, I knew that I could be more sustainable making cheese with what is readily available at home or locally.
The problem was that I just couldn’t find anything in writing about how to age lactic curd; although I did find occasional references that it had been done. (These methods can be used even when making cheese with rennet, starters, cooking, etc.) I hope to help other beginning cheesemakers by sharing some of my own personal findings on molding/pressing, and drying. These are some of the steps that come after milking, straining, clabbering, draining, and salting. I occasionally re-visit some steps in the "make" process: like tasting, molding and salting, as these are important components of goat cheesemaking, and eventually, the aging process.
Aging before electric refrigerators
Since electric and natural refrigeration was not always available in early days of cheesemaking, cheese was eaten fresh or innovatively aged. It could be kept in spring houses, ice houses, buried in ashes, covered in grass, put in underground clay containers, floated in oil or whey, or put up on household rafters in winter imparting a smoked flavor from wood heat. Some cheeses were even buried in dung, and everybody has heard the story of letting milk curdle in dried animal stomachs! Natural or man-made caves as well as cellars, are still used effectively, and are very desirable for their favorable aging conditions. Cheese and wine like very similar aging conditions which caves can offer: 55ºF year-round, with at least 80% humidity.
However one decides to age their cheese, the goal is to find a treatment that will preserve or improve certain positive traits of the fresh milk, the season, and the terrain or terroir.
Look at pictures of cheese!
I might sound like a broken record, but it is so important to look at lots and lots of pictures of cheese, particularly those one is wishing to emulate. For those considering a commercial operation, it is simply imperative to study the history of cheesemaking, dairy traditions in the local area or country, as well as cheeses from other countries.
Here are some cheesemaking resources
(If you cannot afford to purchase books, or don’t have the Internet for searching online, make use of your local library.)
Vicki Dunaway’s website www.smalldairy.com is a place to find new or used books, upcoming cheesemaking courses, as well as her newsletters: "The Home Dairy News," "Creamline," and "The Small Dairy Resource Book."
My favorite cheese-related books
- American Farmstead Cheese by Paul Kinstedt
- Cheese and Fermented Milk Food by Frank V. Kosikowski
- Scott’s Cheesemaking Practice by R. Scott (Out of print.)
- Practical Cheesemaking by Kathy Biss
- The Fabrication of Farmstead Goat Cheese by Jean-Claude Le Jaouen
- French Cheeses (Photographic Encyclopedia Approach) co-written by Kazuko Masui/Tomoko Yamada.
- The World Encyclopedia of Cheese, and Cheese both by Juliet Harbutt.
- The Cheese Primer by Steven Jenkins
- Completely Cheese by Pearl, Cuttle and Deskins (Out of print.)
- The New American Cheese, and The All-American Cheese and Wine Book, by Laura Werlin.
- Cheesemaking Made Easy and Home Cheesemaking by Rikki Carroll (Home Cheesemaking is available from the Dairy Goat Journal Bookstore, 800-551-5691, $19.45 U.S. postage paid.)
Before getting started, figure in personal resources to determine a realistic direction to take for the manufacture of any aged cheese product. The simple "time/energy/money" equation, can save frustration in the long run.
Proper draining and drying
There is a learning curve here that cannot be skipped. Experimentation is the only way to perfect a process that works for each individual situation. As I mentioned earlier, cheese that dries too fast and too much, is bad. However, cheese that stays too full of whey will begin to deteriorate, as well as have the propensity to gather undesirable mold and fungus. These conditions are not only unsightly, but impart unfavorable tastes. Some can be dangerous. Listeria can be a problem with conditions that are too wet. Listeria is not killed by cold temperatures, but loves moisture and even anaerobic conditions.
Figure out how to allow the cheese to breathe while it drains and dries, but maintain the balance to get the desired final product. I like to dry my cheese in a fridge or cooler at 45ºF. That’s 10 degrees cooler than I age it. The cooler temperature dries it quickly for this strategic stage. Usually, the drying stage takes about two to seven days, but that’s determined by the size of each cheese and the amount of cheese in the cooler at a time. More cheese results in slower drying as well as driving up the cooler’s temperature. Watch the temperature when the cooler is full, in case the cheese creates too much heat. My inspectors require that I keep records of the daily temperature. In Virginia I am not allowed to count aging days if the cooler goes below 34ºF, as it would freeze and not be legally aged. However, I also don’t want the temp to go above 60ºF which encourages faster deterioration. Flies and their larvae can also live above 55ºF, and proliferate.
Make sure you have the room for aging
When planning to age cheese, keep in mind that pasteurized and unpasteurized cheeses need separate facilities for this process. Some options to consider include types of refrigerators (college dorm size, or walk-ins?) and/or a home-dug or farm found cave. Another important point to remember is that Blue cheeses generally need separate aging facilities so as not to contaminate all aging cheese with blue.
As I have mentioned previously, I almost always use only light salt, at the rate of 1 tsp. per quart. I only make two salty cheeses. Most of today’s customers are looking for lower salt, or at least no more than is necessary to precipitate good drainage and preservation. Too much salt overwhelms the taste of the cheese, and sometimes is used to "mask" low quality. Some cheeses can even be made without salt. I found this out by mistake, though I had told customers who asked that it couldn’t be done. If the cheese is to be sold by 60 days, and consumed relatively young, then no-salt is possible. I keep the salt low, but add more at different stages if necessary.
I know which shape each of my cheeses will take as I’ve spent a lot of time researching traditional methods. Shape affects how cheeses age, but shape is also as important in identifying cheese as age, size, color, texture, taste and rind. For example, keep in mind that larger cheeses will not dry out as quickly, but may be too heavy to transport and turn frequently.
Small ones dry and age more quickly, which means they could run the risk of being so dry that they are unusable. (Early on I had a hard-grating cheese wheel in two weeks. That is not good.) On the positive side small cheeses may be sold without slicing. This is something to consider as packaging and labeling is labor-intensive, as well as possibly expensive.
Shape also helps a customer recognize a particular cheese that they have purchased before, and it can also help them to identify cheeses from around the world of traditional high quality.
Some basic shapes of cheese include: orb or ball, disc, bell, pyramid, brick or rectangular loaf, square loaf, cheesecake shape, pear or fig, small and large rounds, mounds, and cheese hanging in rope-tied bags.
Containers for pressing and/or molding
Do try to stick to glass, stainless steel, cottons/muslins, or the safest paper available. That way there will be less possibility of anything harmful leaching into the cheese from the plastics and metals other than stainless. Even paper has chemicals. Just trust me, as this subject is large enough for another article. There are plenty of glass and stainless steel items that can be used as molds from flea markets, and thrift stores, or items already in the typical kitchen.
Cheese molds can also be purchased from supply houses. I never have, although I did purchase a stainless screw-down cheese press from Hoegger Supply that I’m really happy with. There are plenty of sources for cheesemaking supplies available, just make sure it is made of food grade material. Of course they will all need to be larger at the top for easy removal, or straight-sided.
Some easy-to-find containers
Stainless steel or glass bowls of many shapes and sizes, stainless steel colanders of all shapes and sizes, glasses with interesting "negative space" for the final cheese (like a bell), or the interior plastic baskets from old salad spinners (these are very cheap, but look a lot like expensive cheese molds from France!). Again, if using something without drainage holes, line them with cheesecloth, and keep turning the container and changing the cloths if they get soaked, to facilitate good drainage and drying.
Molding and pressing in bulk
I won’t write a lot about screw down cheese presses, even though I use them for some of my cheeses, since that is information you can find readily.
Because I am required by law to age cheese sometimes longer than the type of cheese that I want to make requires, I have found molding and pressing in bulk very helpful in slowing down the aging, or excessive drying of curd.
For aging in bulk, I like to use three to four gallon stainless steel warming/steam pans, like restaurant and grocery store deli departments use. These are not going to be heated, but are becoming large cooler containers for the initial pressing stage. The pressing is the kind where each container will rest on other containers, thereby pressing the cheese with its own weight. Some drying will still take place, but not at a fast pace. I first line the pans with cotton terry cloth, if they have no drainage holes. Then, I line with large flour sack-type cloths into which I scoop the lightly salted curd. At this stage the curd is usually of a cream cheese texture, but is sometimes like a dry-ish crumbly Feta. It’s really okay to put different textures and flavors of curd together. I stack these containers in the cooler for the drying stage, changing the towels and cloths if saturated, and re-stack the containers at least every other day. I also have some curd in the small screw-down cheese presses, so that I can have some two-pound hard wheels aging.
Well, these are just some thoughts to get aging enthusiasts started.
Happy aging to all! I am. I just celebrated my 50th birthday.