Cheesemaking Basics, Part III
Preparation for Aging
Brining or Salt Rubs
After you have pulled the cheese out of the press, if you didn’t salt the warm curds after the milling process, you may need to either brine it or dry salt it. If your directions stipulate brining of the pressed wheel, you will need to prepare the salt brine according to the strength specified. For light brine, 13 ounces of salt thoroughly dissolved into 1 gallon of cool water will produce a 10% salinity. Medium brine is usually made using around 26 ounces of salt to one gallon of water, producing 20% salinity. Thoroughly saturated brine is about 25% salinity, achieved by mixing 32 ounces of salt in a gallon of water. Some salt in a saturated brine will remain undissolved. The brine should be kept at about 55°F until you need it, and the cheese should be about the same temperature when you are ready to brine it. Some recipes brine cheese wheels while they are still warm, though, so make sure to check your directions. In the brining process you will be asked to either rub the cheese with the brine using a small piece of cheesecloth, or stick your wheel directly into the (non-reactive) bowl or other receptacle of brine. After you are done using the brine, it can be kept in the refrigerator for later use or discarded. Brine will keep for about a month if kept under 60°F, but if it does exceed this temperature, make a new batch for greatest effectiveness. Dry salt rubs can be done very simply, by just sprinkling the needed amount of salt on the cheese wheel, and rubbing it gently over the entire surface of the cheese.
Bandaging or Wrapping
Bandaging a cheese is accomplished by first laying out a four-layer thick square of cheesecloth. Set the cheese to be bandaged on top of these layers, and using sharp kitchen shears, cut a circle around the cheese through all four layers of cloth, leaving a 2-inch border around the sides of the cheese. Cut a few more long strips from the cloth, their width being about equal to the height of your wheel. Now, rub the cheese with a fat of some sort, such as butter or lard, in a thin, even layer across the entire surface of the cheese. Lay one of the cheesecloth circles on one end of the cheese, rubbing it gently to press the cloth into the layer of fat. Lay a second layer of cheesecloth on top of the first, repeating the rubbing and pressing steps. Do the same on the other side of the cheese, carefully folding the edges of the circles down to the sides of the wheel. Wrap the strips you made earlier over these edges and across the sides of the cheese, folding and pressing as you go.
Aging your cheese will be perhaps the trickiest and most challenging step in producing your own homemade cheese, but it is also one of the most important. Your cheese will age, certainly, notwithstanding mistakes or missteps, but the pace of aging and the end product will not always be exactly what you expected. Aging cheese can be problematic even for the most advanced cheesemaker, but unexpected results will not always be inedible. Taste it! You may discover you like the final product whether it is what you thought it would be or not. Experience will begin to teach you the signs of low humidity, high humidity, excessive heat or chill, and what to look for while ripening your cheese. You will learn over time how to react to these changes according to what you are trying to accomplish.
During the aging process, mold will grow over the surface of your cheese. Don’t despair! This is perfectly normal. In fact, if you are making a blue cheese or some other type of mold-cured cheese, you have achieved your goal if there is a fuzzy quality to the surface of your cheese. But mold will occur on just about any cheese being aged in a properly humid environment. To remove any unwanted mold, make a 1-to-1 ratio vinegar-and-water solution, and use a small rag made of cheesecloth to gently wipe the mold from the surface of your cheese.
Specific directions for aging different types of cheese will vary. Humidity, darkness, heat, cold, and air quality will all come into account as your cheese is ripening. You can purchase (or make) special racks, boxes, trays, and bags for help in aging your cheese. Cheese can be smoked, rubbed in spirits, wrapped in leaves and herbs, or rolled in spices. All of these techniques lend special qualities to your cheeses to make them unique. Keeping close tabs on how and what your cheese is doing is key during this stage in the process, because little tweaks in the environment will go a long way toward a delicious final product.
When you have aged your cheese, tasted it, and fallen in love with it, you will want to keep the cheese at that stage for as long as it takes for you to consume it. Your cheese is a living, breathing, and changing organism, and so to keep fantastic cheese fantastic, you will need to stop or slow down any more chemical changes within the cheese to hold it right at the final stage. But your cheese may also get better with time; you never know!
Waxing is a very popular method of cheese storage (and sometimes used during the aging process as well), and your recipe will tell you whether your style of cheese will need waxing. Hard, aged, unwaxed, and waxed cheeses should generally be kept at around 55° to 60°F, with about 80% humidity. If you have problems attaining the proper humidity necessary for your cheese to keep well, dampening a large sponge and keeping it in the container with your cheese (but not touching the cheese!) will generally do the trick. Cheese paper can be bought and used to wrap cheese while still allowing the cheese to breathe.
Cheesemaking may seem like a large undertaking at the beginning; a process requiring many steps and your undivided attention. Don’t be daunted by the thought, or discouraged by mistakes or small failures. And, failure to follow your recipe to the dot is not always a disaster. You may find you like your own variation on the recipe, and if you do, you have created something all your own. Remember, cheesemaking is a science subject to safety rules and basic attentiveness. But cheesemaking is also an art, therefore subject to your resources and to your imagination. Happy cheesemaking!
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