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Affinage Part II: Passive factors

Affinage Part II: Passive factors

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The two most important passive factors in ripening, or aging cheese, are temperature and humidity. Any good recipe should specify the ideal aging conditions for the cheese you are making but, the general range in temperature is 50-55F and 80-90% humidity. Air circulation is also an important part of managing mold growth. A good cheese cave setup can maintain these conditions with minimal effort.

 

Your regular home refrigerator is not recommended for affinage, as it is too cold and dry. However, if you look around the internet you can find some creative solutions for fridge aging, and there are recipes specifically designed for cave-less cheese makers. Many home cheese makers use or modify an old dorm style fridge for their cave. This is probably the cheapest, perhaps even free, option; however it does have some pitfalls. In addition to the problems mentioned above, dorm fridges usually have a mini freezer in the top that, if you just plug it in, will exacerbate the temperature and humidity issues. If you have a cool and stable temperature environment like an insulated garage or basement, you may be able to use a fridge by simply leaving it unplugged. It will act as further insulation to protect your cheese from temperature fluctuations while helping maintain the correct temperature. If your cave needs to live in your home, you can purchase an external temperature regulator to keep the fridge warm enough. There are a number of options in regulators: digital vs analog, F vs C, plug in vs hard wired.

 

Another option is to use a wine fridge. Unlike ordinary fridges, wine fridges are designed to hold temperatures much closer to our ideal 50-55F. If you’re willing to spend the money, or time searching Craigslist, a higher end wine fridge is the overall best option. One that has an actual thermostat regulator instead of a single digit numbered dial is preferred – that is, you can adjust the fridge’s actual temperature in degrees instead of only turning the dial up or down (like your regular fridge). I purchased a cheaper wine fridge and after some testing, realized the numbers on the dial correlated to a pre-set on/off cycle of the compressor not a temperature or even range of temperatures. So the number seven only means warmer than six. This is a huge problem depending on the ambient temperature. If the room is cold the fridge with not be able to maintain a temperature warm enough and if the room is warm you will constantly be fiddling with the dial trying to keep it cool enough. To correct this you can, again, buy an external temperature regulator. These regulators come analog a digital gage you can set to whatever the desired temperature is and a probe that stays in the fridge which tells the unit when to turn on/cut off the power to the compressor based on the actual internal temperature. Brew supply stores sell ones you can simply plug into the wall then plug the fridge into, though they are more expensive. If you are handy and/or adventurous you can buy a cheaper unit on Amazon and do the wiring yourself. I bought an external regulator for $20 and had a friend help with the wiring. My cave is now always within 2C of what I want without me having to check it or fiddle with it. Not too bad for less than $200 total!

 

As I mentioned earlier, air circulation plays is an important part of preventing mold growth. Mold has a harder time establishing itself and flourishing when there is some air movement. Unfortunately, unless you have a very spacious cave, setting up a fan can be problematic because the breeze will be too strong and will dry the cheese out. However, you may be able to find a set-up with a very small fan that works in your cave. Higher end wine fridges have built in fans and some even come with replaceable air filters (another reason to scour Craigslist).

 

One last word about fridges and wine fridges… Before you buy one check out what kind of shelves it has and think about how they might affect your cheese. For example, many wine fridges have wire shelves shaped to hold wine bottles which will require some alteration to safely hold your cheese, and fridges with solid glass or plastic shelves will reduce air circulation thus encouraging mold growth. Having shelves that are easily removable is plus. It will be easier to clean and sanitize them and also allows for more flexibility with your use of space. I love the wood slat shelves in my cave because they look great and slide in an out easily when I’m taking care of my cheese.

 

Regulating the humidity is a slightly trickier. Remember, we want the humidity at 80-90% which is quite a bit higher than the average home’s ambient level. First, it is important to have a hygrometer to be able to accurately check the humidity. You may already own or be familiar with a hygrometer used to check the weather by reading the outdoor humidity levels. Your cheese cave hygrometer is exactly the same, and measures humidity in a percentage out of 100. A weather style thermometer and hygrometer will work great for this purpose. Hygrometers can also easily be found out cigar stores and suppliers.

 

You have several options on how to maintain the correct humidity level. The cheapest, but more labor intensive, option is to manually mist the cave. To do this, take a clean spray bottle that has a mist setting (oppressed to a stream or jet), fill it with distilled water and thoroughly mist all the flat surfaces in your cave. The water will evaporate and increase the humidity level. To reach 80% you will have to do this several times a day for the first few days. After that, you will need to mist whenever the humidity inside drops – anywhere from several times a day to every several days. Make sure you’re checking your hygrometer every day! In my experience the humidity level is easy to maintain in the winter when the compressor doesn’t need to kick on often, but in the summer when it’s working hard it can be a challenge. Or, you can also purchase an automatic mister and install it into your cave. Pet stores sell misters and mister/temperature control combos for pet lizards and amphibians. This will probably run you $80+ but will cut down on you work substantially and make you cave much more cheese friendly. You can find free instructions on how to install a mister for cheese purposes on the internet.

 

Improper humidity causes several problems in cheese. It will definitely dry your rind out! You may be left with a rock hard cheese or an impossibly hard rind. If the rind is drying out too rapidly relative to the paste it will crack. Not only is this ugly, it also exposes the paste, changing how your cheese will age and creates a mold heaven that will be hard to clean. If you catch cracks immediately, you may be able to heal them by correcting the humidity, flipping the cheese, and letting the cultures work their magic. You don’t have to throw away cheese with surface cracks, but you must keep a close eye on it and prepare yourself for a possibly inferior result.

 

Once your aging cave is ready set up and ready to house your cheeses, the last decision you need to make is how to store your cheese in the cave.

 

Some makers prefer to age their cheese in individual boxes within their cave. Boxes are a great solution for cheeses that require different conditions than the rest of your cave, particularly high humidity as you have more consistency and control. For example I age my Bries and Camberberts in individual boxes. Many cheese supply sites sell boxes specifically for this purpose, but any food safe container with a lid will suffice. You can adjust the humidity level by changing how much of the container is covered by the lid or adding a damp paper towel to the corner. However, on whole, I hear and see a lot of problems with this method. Proper air circulation is an important part of preventing undesirable mold growth, and boxes simply can’t provide it. If you are going to use aging boxes, it’s imperative you choose an appropriately sized one for your cheese. You want to make sure your cheese has plenty of room to breathe, so roomy is good and snug will grow mold. It is also helpful to place a mat in the bottom of your box. I advise against those sushi style wood mats as they’re a lot of work to sterilize and can harbor micro-organisms. Again, cheese supply stores sell specialty plastic mats, but needle point canvases from your local craft store are a cheaper option.

 

Vacuum sealing your cheese is another storage option. It has its own unique issues and benefits. It’s also a great alternative to waxing your wheels. You can buy a table top vacuum sealer – the long thin rectangular kind that you probably first pictured – for $60-$120 (and up). This style with usually have a heat sealer built in. You can buy pre-made bags, but it’s more cost efficient to buy a roll of unsealed bags and make them, using the heat sealer, to the desired size. I purchased a handheld version for less than $20. While it’s not a workhorse in the kitchen, it suites my needs well. It uses premade bags similar to Ziplocs with a special airlock hole.

 

The best thing about vacuum sealing is it prevents mold growth! Mold needs air to breed, so an airless environment equals no mold. However, cheese also needs air to age. Air is particularly important for a cheese’s moisture content and texture. Since the cheese is not exposed to air, the natural process of evaporation does not occur and the cheese will remain the same consistency as when you sealed it. This works better for some cheeses than others. A wetter Havarti is acceptable, but a moist Parm will not impress. If you seal a particularly wet cheese you may see some liquid build up around the cheese. While this harmless, you may want to periodically open, wipe down and reseal the wheel. Even if you are looking for a wetter cheese, make sure you let the rind set up, brining, air drying etc., before sealing

 

Vacuum sealing is a great option for long term aging. For example, I have several wheels I want to age a year or more, but I’d rather not be constantly messing with them. By vacuum sealing them, they are maintenance free! To do this, I age them in my cave for 2-4 months until they have the moisture content I’m looking for, then I vacuum seal them. Just remember to date and label you sealed cheeses so you know what they are.

 

Once you get a handle on affinage you will be well on your way to making artisan cheese at home. If you have tips or tricks on aging you cheese let us know in the comments!

 

See Part I of this article here

 

Emily Klie teaches cheese making classes at in the Philadelphia and Reading areas. She trained as an apprentice at a farmstead goat dairy in the Hudson Valley, and loves cheese both as an artisan product and as a homesteading mainstay. For classes, tips and recipes check out her cheese and fermentation blog at www.fermenton.wordpress.com

 

 

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