Aging Your Homemade Cheese
Once a budding goat cheese maker masters simple unripened cheeses like chèvre spread, ricotta and feta, there’s a high hurdle to jump to reach the next level. That hurdle is finding a way to keep cheese at the proper temperature for aging.
Room temperature is not really an option unless one lives in a cave—undesirable molds and bacteria take over and the cheese ages too quickly. Refrigeration is too cold—most of the desirable helpers for ripening cheese—the lactic acid bacteria, white molds for soft-ripened cheese and B. linens for stinky surface-ripened cheeses—are inhibited at low temperatures, while opportunistic pathogens like Listeria thrive in such low-competition, lowtemperature environments.
The ideal temperature for most cheese ripening is in the 50-55°F range.
(There are some major exceptions, but those are beyond the scope of this article.) As a commercial cheesemaker I had only one aging room, a converted walk-in cooler, where I aged a wide variety of cheeses by providing microclimates suitable to different types, all at about 53°F. Home cheesemakers must be even more creative, though the job has gotten easier for us over time.
Back in the 1970s, when back-to-the-land flower children were reviving the old domestic arts that had nearly succumbed to the lure of modern convenience, they pretty much had to have a root cellar, spring house or cool basement for aging cheeses. My first cheeses were aged in a root cellar, which worked fairly well for maybe six months out of the year (March-May, October-December), but the root cellar door unfortunately faced south and temperatures inside fluctuated more than desirable.
The biggest issue with turning an old building into a cheese cave is keeping critters out. From tiny mites to cheese flies to big ol’ rats, your cheese is vulnerable to attack. The aging area needs to be clean and tight. Rodents will eat their way into a wooden building and can even chomp through plastic and all sorts of other stuff. So far there doesn’t seem to be a metaleating mouse, but mice can squeeze through amazingly tiny holes! Somehow, cheese flies found the cheese in our root cellar, though there is probably not another cheesemaker around for miles.
In the north, it might be possible to turn an outbuilding into a cheese cave during the milder months, then bring the cheese indoors for the winter. In the south it could work the other way around, though a lot more insects, fungi, rodents and others compete for cheese down there. A number of books offer information on building root cellars, including Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel (available from the Dairy Goat Journal Bookstore) and Stocking Up, an old Rodale book edited by Carol Stoner. How and Why to Build a Wine Cellar (Richard M. Gold, Ph.D.) is a good resource for building a cheese-aging cave; a wine cellar requires nearly the same conditions as a cheese cave! An unusual twist on the root cellar option is the straw bale aging room, as described in CreamLine issue #11 (this issue is out of print but individual articles will be available for download by Spring). For about $3,000 in materials, Linda and Larry Fallaice (and family) at Ag-Innovations in central Vermont built an 18′ x 24′ building for aging their sheep milk cheeses. It took a lot of labor, they said, and there was a serious learning curve, but this might be a neat option for a family serious about aging cheeses. Certainly a smaller building would be an option, and perhaps the space could be divided between root cellar, pantry, wine cellar and aging room.
For those not ready to make the leap to constructing a whole building, there are other options. A basement that is at least partially underground, might be partitioned off for aging cheese. Use a minimum-maximum thermometer to keep track of the temperatures in the coolest spot in the basement during the summer— not too close to the furnace. If it goes much over 60°F, find a way to cool it down. Unfortunately standard air conditioners don’t work too well at cheese aging temps—some of them will freeze up at low temperatures. In some areas of the country, the ground naturally stays around 55°F, so if the basement is completely underground, it might be an ideal spot. There are air conditioning units that run on ice packs rather than Freon—one of these may be just the ticket in a small space, though I suspect it would require daily maintenance. For $300 an air conditioner can be turned into a thermostatically controlled cooler (check out storeitcold.com). Cold is less of a problem, but if the area is consistently under 45°F there won’t be much aging going on because the lactic bacteria will be slowed way down.
Partitioning off a section of a basement for a cheese room should be no big deal for someone with basic carpentry skills. One might build a frame for those nifty prefabricated panels with foam insulation sandwiched between two sheets of metal or fiberglass – making sure that the interior walls are washable and will not rust from all the salt and moisture. In a northern climate it’s also possible to age cheese in an unheated (or rarely heated) room or closet if most cheesemaking takes place during the cooler months.
Cover windows to keep direct sunlight out, and protect carpets and floors from the corrosive and messy effects of cheese droppings. If the temperature fluctuates dramatically, provide a heating or cooling backup.
Ricki Carroll and other 1970s cheese pioneers developed ways to age cheese in old refrigerators, overriding the refrigerator’s thermostat with an external adjustable thermostat (still sold at Ricki’s New England Cheesemaking Supply). Old, nonself-defrosting refrigerators work best, and many are still out there humming away. It is possible to defeat the selfdefrost mechanism from a self-defrosting refrigerator; Google “adjust defrost timer” on ehow.com for instructions.
This is important because the self-defrost cycle makes it difficult to control humidity and condensation.
These days the easiest way to make a home cheese cave is to purchase a manufactured wine cooler. These refrigerator-like appliances maintain a temperature nearly perfect for cheese aging and come in a wide variety of prices and sizes. The humidity must be increased, but that’s fairly simple.
In a future issue I’ll discuss how to maintain the proper microclimates for different types of cheeses.
Vicki Dunaway was formerly a commercial artisan cheesemaker and editor of CreamLine and Home Dairy News. She still maintains the web site www. smalldairy.info. To celebrate the New Year, she invites DGJ readers to visit the site store and insert the following code on checkout to receive a 25% discount on any purchase over $50: DGJ0114YU