For the average home cheesemaker, the toughest part of making cheese is aging it. Some people are fortunate enough to live in old homes with a damp, cool basement or cellar, and some families have a member who is handy enough to dig out a cold storage shed and line it with shelves for cheese.
Many of us, however, are not so lucky.
Aging and storing your cheese does not have to be complicated, expensive or time-consuming, however. With a little knowledge and some basic equipment, you can create your own tiny cheese cave, right in your kitchen.
The first (and best) option for storing cheese is a wine refrigerator. You can often find these second-hand for less than $100 and they are just about perfect for aging cheese. Try to find one with a temperature control feature.
Once you have your wine refrigerator, the next thing you'll need is a thermometer. A cheese or meat thermometer will not work in this scenario; you need one that measures ambient temperature. A basic room or porch thermometer will work just fine, and some wine refrigerators come with one.
Next, you need to think about humidity. Cheese likes to be aged at about 55° to 65F, with about 70% humidity. You can put a bowl or glass of cool water, about half full, inside your wine refrigerator and keep it there. If it needs filling, fill it. Make sure to toss it out if it gets moldy or gross; you don't want any stray bacteria contaminating your cheese.
Keep the shelves of your wine fridge clean; wipe with white vinegar occasionally and try to keep various types of cheeses together, to avoid as much cross contamination as possible. Also, remember to check on your aging cheeses every other day or so. Rub them with olive or coconut oil if they start to feel too dry, and rub off any unwanted mold with a clean rag dipped in white vinegar.
If you don't have access to a wine refrigerator, or if buying one is outside your budget, there is another option: the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. It is small, and you will only be able to age 1 to 3 cheeses at a time. It also can be tough to control the temperature and humidity. But it will work if you are careful.
The first step is to get that crisper drawer thoroughly emptied and cleaned out. Use a bleach solution for this; there are just too many opportunities for contamination in a refrigerator. Line the bottom of the drawer with a clean rag or paper towels.
Next, get a small jar or glass and fill halfway with water. This will help keep your drawer more humid. If you have humidity and temperature control on your drawer, turn it to the most warm and humid setting.
If you possibly can, keep your refrigerator on its warmest setting as well. Don't sacrifice the rest of your food for the sake of your cheese, of course, but warmer is better where cheese is concerned. Cheese will take longer to age with this method because the temperature in a refrigerator, even on its warmest setting, is significantly colder than the temperature in a wine fridge or basement. You may want to consider adding lipase to your recipes to help it along. Remember that when using lipase, the curd will be softer and you may need to use a few extra drops of rennet to compensate.
When using your crisper drawer as a cheese cave, you will need to keep an especially close eye on humidity and look daily for signs of cross contamination. Wax can also help if you find that your cheese is getting too dry.
Now comes the hard part... waiting for your cheeses to be done!
Aging cheese can be a complicated process, but it's worth it when you bite into that first slice of homemade cheddar. Whatever method you choose for aging, just remember to check your cheese often. Like any fermented product, it thrives on attention.