Once you have made your cheese and prepared it for aging per your recipe’s instructions, you will need a good place to put it for the duration of its aging period. Leaving it on the counter or putting it in a cupboard is usually not a good option. Aging your cheese in the refrigerator is not the best choice because your cheese needs relative warmth and moisture to allow for proper bacterial action and sometimes mold growth. So, where can you put a cheese where it will not spoil, where the air is sufficiently warm but not too much so, where light is limited and where your cheese will stay alive and active enough to transform and develop to its full potential?
Factors that Affect Cheese Ripening
Cheese requires a warm, dark, and moist environment with sufficient air circulation and oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange to continue to develop and change into what you want it to taste like. How fast your cheese ages is dependent upon the proper ripening situation and your attention and observation, so that adjustments can be made to achieve a happy, changing cheese. The factors within the cheese that determine how fast it ages include:
- The variety of cheese
- Whether or not you have added a mold powder
- Acidity levels (pH)
- Moisture content
- Salt content
- The size and shape of your particular cheese
A Formula for Aging Cheese?
There is not a set procedure, temperature, humidity level, or time period that is magic in the proper aging and developing of all or most cheeses.
Every variety and shape of cheese has its own set of needs, so be sure to do some research before attempting to make a certain style of cheese to make sure you are ready to accommodate its aging needs. The larger the cheese, the longer it needs to age. The moister the cheese, the faster it ages. Outside humidity and temperature will affect not only the aging of the cheese within the rind, but also rind development. Poor attention to the environment of your cheese ripening area can cause the rind to crack, or kill the mold that is supposed to be developing atop it. No one is perfect at aging cheese. In fact, aging cheese is probably the hardest step in the whole cheesemaking process. As you keep making the same type of cheese again and again, you will begin to get a feel for what aging conditions that cheese needs and what makes the best cheese in the end.
Caves vs. Boxes
Cheese caves are great! They are a good option for hard, brined, or bandaged cheeses. The humidity levels in a cave are enough to keep a cheese’s rind from cracking but not so much that mold takes over the surface. You can also raise the humidity in a large cave by placing a humidifier or merely a bowl of water near the cheese. A spray bottle works, too, if your cave cannot maintain a good moisture level.
A cheese cave can be any number of things. A hole in the ground, a hole in the wall, a climate-controlled room, or a climate controlled cellar, to name a few. A cheese cave is usually the term used for a large-scale space used to age cheese, be it underground, in rock, or in the side of a hill. Most cheese caves have shelves and environment control equipment, a humidifier and air temperature control apparatus. This is usually a high-end operation, but an easy cheese cave can be found in a closet in the basement, or a corner of an old-fashioned root cellar. Even an old, broken fridge with some ice and a dish of water placed inside can become a viable cheese cave, or a wine refrigerator. All you have to do is begin to measure and possibly regulate the temperature and humidity of a certain space, and you can easily create your own cheese cave.
Ripening boxes would be a good option for mold-ripened cheeses such as Blues, Brie, Camembert and other soft, moldy cheeses. Boxes provide the humidity needed to keep good mold alive and well to change and flavor your cheese. A ripening box can be kept in plain sight on your counter and this is a good thing for mold-ripened cheeses, as they require more attention than other cheeses.
Ripening boxes come in so many shapes and sizes, and can easily be fashioned from something you have at home. A ripening box is a small, climate controlled enclosure that can sit on a counter, on a shelf in your pantry, or in the cellar. Ripening boxes can be made or bought in disposable or reusable forms. Sometimes you can use brand-new cigar humidifying gels, such as the kind that can be recharged by soaking them in water, to humidify the ripening boxes. It is also a neat idea to use a cigar hygrometer to measure the humidity in the box.
Whatever method of ripening and aging of your cheese you choose, be sure to pay close attention to the surface, smell, and color of your cheese throughout the aging process. These signs will tell you what your cheese needs to develop and grow during this very important step in the cheesemaking process.