By Jon Jernigan – I’ve been making Parmesan cheese for two years and loving it. With my husband, Adam, working as a herdsman at Round Mountain Creamery in North Carolina, we have access to a lot of wonderful goat milk. While my Parmesan was turning out fantastic, my biggest challenge was figuring out how to make a DIY cheese cave that wasn’t a mold machine. Through a ton of research and my own ignoramus ingenuity, I finally achieved this goal. The beauty of what I have created is that I get a 100 percent reliable 85-90 percent humidity and temperature of 55°F.
My cave pushes in fresh air from my humidifier and keeps the cave mold free. The fridge is a freezer where I have a device that allows me to choose the temperature and I can easily adjust from room temperature to freezing. The total cost of this project was $180. I did have to make my own wooden racks, but that too, was fun.
It’s been five years since I made my own DIY cheese cave and it is still holding strong with a consistent temperature at 55°F and humidity at 85 percent. I would encourage those who try this plan to add another line from their pump to get more pressure into the humidifier and not tax the pump. I also found it helpful to have the pump higher than the Tropic Aire (see below), if possible.
Items Needed for Your DIY Cheese Cave:
1. Find a used small fridge. Best if it is no more than six cubic feet. A larger fridge will not work with the temp and humidity controls, due to drawing too much power. I am using a full fridge type by U-Line (Model 75R) that I found on Craigslist for $75. Note: This purchase may change the cost dramatically. This U-Line originally sold for $800 since it was designed for under the counter. Also, the humidifier is limited to a cave area — no larger.
2. Zoo Med’s Hygrotherm humidity and temperature controller, which is designed for a reptile terrarium, is $60. It needs to be the model that can work with up to 1000 watts.
3. Top Fin Air 8000 Aquarium Pump (for 170-gallon tank) for $30.
4. Silicone ¼ inch airline tubing (cheaper at $7 for 25 feet). You most likely need more than the 10-foot option. I use the silicone tubing due to longevity, strength, and sterile quality.
Air Lines For The Humidifier:
5. Six T connectors and one 90-degree elbow for the airline tubing at about $5. If you have three shelves in the fridge, you only need five connectors.
6. Tropic Aire reptile humidifier and air exchanger for $20. This is a simple humidifier that operates with the Top Fin Air 8000 Aquarium Pump.
7. Vinyl tubing and a hose clamp for draining of excess water from the evaporator pan area of the fridge. I used about 10 feet of ½ inch tubing for total cost of $3. You also will need a container for this hose to drain into and tends to fill at about a pint to a quart per month.
Creating a Drain Pipe:
8. Depending on the type of fridge, you may need to make racks. My U-Line had glass shelves and I had to make wooden racks. The wood may contribute to the lack of any mold issues for me and I can’t be certain how the metal racks will do. I still have to use sushi mats as part of the curing process till I vacuum seal my cheese. I am a Parmesan fan and this tends to be a less moldy cheese.
At any rate … here is how I did my wooden racks.
I used ¼-inch dowel rods that I bought in 36-inch lengths for about $1.25 each. I had leftover wood for the sides, yet you could simply use a ½-inch dowel rod for the sides. I used small brass nails to put it together and had to pre-drill holes for each nail. This is a labor of love and there may be simpler options for other creative minds. This ends up costing about $7 per shelf (five to six of the dowel rods). For the average cheese maker you will need three shelves and four for the ambitious types. The total cost will be about $20 to $25.
How to Make Your Cheese Cave:
1. Make sure you have an indoor space that will work well. Be certain you will not be irritated by the sound this makes with the pump and humidifier noise. They will be going on and off frequently to maintain the humidity. This cave will not work in a space where the room temperature gets colder than the cave temp needs to be. I must have a room above 55°F for my Parmesan. Take into consideration the height of the fridge for ease of access since you will be flipping cheese regularly and it could get hard on the backbone if it is a long low reach to the cheese. Also, you won’t want to be dropping any wheels on the floor.
2. Read the owner’s manual about your fridge. I found mine online even though it was quite old. Most will have schematics and instructions on how to clean it properly.
3. With the fridge unplugged, clean the fridge well according to instructions. Plug in and test to make sure it works well using the thermometer. I suggest running it for at least a week or so till 100% confident. It would be a shame to lose the hard earned cheese!
4. Unplug the fridge and carefully identify where the water drain goes to the evaporator pan.
5. Connect ½ inch vinyl tube to the drain spout of the fridge for draining excess water. Position the hose properly to drain well. My cave fit good on a table and made for a good drain.
6. Decide the best method for placing the Top Fin Air 8000 Aquarium Pump and the Tropic Aire reptile humidifier and air exchanger. My fridge made it easy for both to ride on top and this may help with the flow of humid air. Once this is settled, connect the Top Fin and Tropic Aire. This will take three T connectors to reduce the four leads of the pump to one single lead to the Tropic Aire. Use remaining T connectors to create the exhaust tube from the Tropicaire. The T connectors will create a spout to be placed in the middle of each of shelves. The lowest shelf will use the 90-degree elbow to end the run. So if you will need two T connectors for three shelves and three Ts for four shelves. Tape the line in place inside the fridge. Once all is set follow the instructions on filling the Tropic Aire with water. Make sure the Top Fin is pumping at maximum pressure.
7. Follow instructions for connecting the Zoo Med’s Hygrotherm humidity and temperature controller. The lead of the sensor may need to be taped to the inside of fridge where it hangs in the center. Set the temperature and humidity for your recipe and have a test drive till confident.
8. Use additional thermometer/hygrometer gauge if available for added assurance. I used our digital remote weather station. It was nice being able to see the history and map if there were any odd fluctuations. I have kept mine there for the purpose of proving this method and so far have extremely consistent readings for 22 months of 55°F and 80 to 85 percent humidity.
9. Once confident then you may need work with the fridge’s door insulation to minimize any cracks caused by the sensor lead of the Zoo Med and the exhaust lead from the Tropic Aire. I cut into mine to make a solid seal around the leads.
10. Make the wooden shelves if needed.
11. You may want a good light source to look inside your cave, since the “once was a fridge light” is now controlled by the Zoo Med and on much less frequently.
12. Congratulations! You are now a cave-man or cave-woman! So have at it with your cheesy self and enjoy!
While you are enjoying your latest cheese creation, visit RoundMountainCreamery.com.
I am happy to answer any questions about DIY cheese cave making! Email Jonathan at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of Dairy Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.