Once you’ve mastered making soft and fresh cheeses, you may want to progress to pressed and aged cheeses. What kind of cheese aging equipment will you need? With just a few more pieces of equipment and an extra ingredient or two, you can easily master these more complex and delicious cheeses.
In several past articles I’ve given you tips on how to make cheese curds as well as a DIY cheese press plan. This article will focus on setting up your home cheese cave (or aging space) and other cheese aging equipment you might need. While many a home cheesemaker likes to boast about their “cheese cave,” few of us actually have a cave. Most likely, we’re affectionately referring to our mini refrigerators.
The key to aging most cheeses is temperature and humidity. Most cheeses like a temperature of around 50-55 degrees while aging — much warmer than a regular refrigerator but much cooler than your average room temperature. There are several ways you can achieve this without digging into the hillside:
- One of the most effective pieces of cheese aging equipment is a dorm, mini, or wine refrigerator. Some expensive models of mini fridges may have an actual temperature control, but for those that don’t, usually the warmest temperature setting will help you achieve this 50-55 degree goal.
- For a more precise temperature, you can pair a mini fridge (or even a full-sized refrigerator) with a temperature controller. These little gizmos include a probe on a wire that you put into the refrigerator, and then you plug the fridge into the controller and plug the controller into the wall. The unit has a temperature control that can be set to your desired temperature (I keep mine at 52 degrees) and the controller will then cycle the refrigerator on and off to maintain this fairly precise temperature. You can find these controllers online for as little as $40-$50.
- Some home cheesemakers have a space in a basement, garage, root cellar, or spare bedroom (during the winter) that maintains a temperature of approximately 50 degrees. By using containers to keep your cheese clean and safe from pests, you may be able to convert these spaces into aging “caves” as well.
Once you’ve got the temperature under control, make allowances and adjustments for humidity. Depending on the type of cheese you’re making, you will need more or less humidity. For instance, a Parmesan-style cheese will need a fairly low humidity level, a bloomy rind cheese like Brie or Camembert will need a fairly high humidity level, and a waxed or vacuum sealed cheese won’t care about the humidity level in your aging space since they are pretty well contained. If your aging space has a humidity controller, that’s great, but most don’t. And if you’re making several different types of cheese but aging them all in the same space, you may need to build separate micro-climates within that space. You won’t need a bunch of fancy cheese aging equipment to accomplish this — it’s relatively simple with items you already have on hand.
Here are several tips for controlling and manipulating humidity levels in your aging space:
- First, if your unit doesn’t have a humidistat, purchase an inexpensive temperature and humidity reader at your local hardware store or online. This can help you get a feel for your humidity level.
- If you want to increase the humidity level in your entire aging space (this works for refrigerator spaces) add tubs of water to the space, often in the doors or on the bottom shelf. You can also put a clean towel into one of these water tubs, get it good and wet, and then pull the towel up along the door of the fridge and fasten to the top with clips or clothes pins so the towel wicks water from the tub up the door. In both of these cases, check and refill the water tubs often. This will increase your humidity level some, but probably not quite enough for those high-humidity-need cheeses.
- When you need higher humidity for certain cheeses like bloomy rinds or other moist cheeses, you can build micro-climates. These aren’t complex pieces of cheese aging equipment but rather just simple containers known as cheese ripening boxes that act like a terrarium. The simplest containers might just be a plate and a plastic bag. Slip the cheese on the plate into the bag and close the bag, and the moisture from the cheese itself will produce plenty of humidity. You can also convert plastic food storage containers into ripening boxes to accomplish similar results.
Humidity is an ever-changing dynamic affected not only by the humidity level of the aging space itself but also by the number and types of cheeses that you are aging in your space. Having lots of moist cheeses in your space will increase the humidity level; lots of drier, harder, or waxed cheeses may decrease the humidity level.
Not sure if you have too much or not enough humidity? You don’t need fancy cheese aging equipment to figure this out — your cheeses will tell you! If your wheel of cheddar or Parmesan is cracking, you likely don’t have enough humidity. You might try putting this cheese in a closed container, or wax, or vacuum seal it to help conserve moisture as it ages. If your Brie or Camembert container has water on the lid that is dripping onto the cheese itself, you have too much humidity. You can fix this by cracking the lid a bit or even taking it completely off the container until the humidity level in the cheese itself goes down. If your natural-rind hard cheese is growing mold at an alarmingly fast rate, this is another indication of too much humidity. You can remedy this by either reducing the humidity level itself or simply knocking down that excess mold growth with a dry cloth or dry brush. (Never add moisture with a wet cloth to a rind you are trying to reduce mold growth on. Mold loves moisture!)
The final piece of cheese aging equipment is some wood. Yes, wood! Why? Because you want to encourage helpful microbial growth to make your cheese more interesting and complex. Wood also absorbs moisture and may help to maintain some humidity in your aging space. Many artisan cheesemakers like to age their cheeses right on wooden planks, but even if you don’t feel comfortable doing this (from a sanitation standpoint), having the planks in your aging space will still promote a more “rustic” environment which, over time, will make your cheeses more flavorful and delicious. Pine, cedar, or oak planks work well.
Ready to tackle some aged cheeses? It takes a little practice and experimentation to get it right, but the best way to learn is to just do it. Even if your aged cheese doesn’t turn out perfect the first time, it will still probably taste good enough to enjoy and you will have learned something in the process.
Equipment Needed to Make a Cheese Cave:
- Mini or full-sized dedicated refrigerator or wine cooler
- Cheese ripening boxes (storage containers, plastic tubs, plate with plastic bag)
- Temperature controller (optional)
- Thermometer/Humidistat (optional)
- Wood planks (optional)
Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.