This post is Part 8 of the continued basic home cheese making instructions. See the Curd Nerd Beginner Page for previous parts.
It’s not always true what they say, that age doesn’t matter.
For cheese, it most certainly does.
Aging (also known as ripening or maturing) is an important part of developing the signature of the particular cheese you are making. It allows time for millions of microbes and enzymes to do their thing, breaking down the proteins and fats into a complex combination of acids that influences how texture, taste and aroma are expressed in your chosen cheese. A longer aging time causes a firmer, more intense cheese, whereas short aging times result in a more mild taste and a softer ‘paste’.
It is also during this evolution that mold rind bloom, ‘eyes’ open to create holes and blue veins branch out.
Cheese is aged after it has been formed in the mold (with a press if required) and in many cases, salted or brined.
Ideal aging times differ depending on the profile of the cheese you are creating.
Fresh cheeses often have little to no aging time, soft cheeses are usually aged for between 2 weeks and 2 months and hard cheeses have longer aging periods starting at a few months and spanning out to 2 years, or more.
How your cheese ages will also differ based on whether you are making a surface ripened cheese like Blue cheese which ripens from the surface in towards the middle of the cheese, or an interior ripened cheese such as Cheddar which does the reverse, ripening from the middle of the cheese outwards to the surface.
Combined with time, and cheese type, your aging environment is the most essential factor for the success of your final cheese and should be carefully controlled to provide the right conditions for your homemade cheeses.
While most of us don’t have access to a cave or cellar, as traditionally used to age cheese, you can still provide a suitable alternative environment and get great results.
Whether using an adapted fridge, a wine fridge or containers and a cool space in the house, as long as you have the fundamentals of a good cheese aging/storage environment in place, you can still enjoy plenty of success with your cheese making:
Maintaining correct and consistent temperatures when aging your cheese can mean the difference between failure and fabulous. Most cheeses are aged somewhere between 7° – 14° Celsius. A home fridge is usually set below this range, which is why they’re not suitable for aging cheese. Follow the recipe guidelines for the temperatures required for the type of cheese you are making but also perform checks with a thermometer to make sure your equipment is achieving the right levels and make allowances for any variables unique to your environment.
If your cheese aging environment is too dry your cheese will dry out. Too humid and you might attract unwanted molds or end up with other undesirable effects like the dreaded Slip Skin. Depending on the cheese you are making, you will need humidity levels of between 75% and 95%. Getting humidity levels exactly right can be difficult but you should certainly attempt to get them as close as possible if you want a good end product. Similar to a thermometer, a hydrometer will determine if you have a suitably humid environment for your cheeses. To provide different humidity levels for specific cheeses, you can use enclosed containers to create diverse micro-environments. Laying down a clean, wet cloth in the container will add more moisture if required, and closing the container off from the moisture provided in the main part of the environment will reduce it.
Constant, low flow air circulation in your aging environment supports the exchange of gases (oxygen, carbon dioxide and gases emitted from the cheeses) necessary for the proper development of your cheese. Too much air movement will draw moisture from the cheese causing the surface to crack and the cheese to dry out. Appropriate air flow is easy enough to achieve simply by making sure your cheeses are well spaced and your aging environment isn’t overcrowded. If you have a cheese fridge, regularly leave the door open for a short period to let in new, fresh air and crack the lids on any containers as well.
Constant surveillance and maintenance of your aging environment is crucial if you plan to get the best possible results with your home made cheese. Not only do you need to keep an eye on the temperature, humidity and ventilation but you also need to check your cheese regularly for undesirable molds. While some cheeses require the right molds to age true to their ‘design’, unwanted molds can take your cheese from promising to potentially dangerous and spread to your other cheeses if left untamed.
As well as checking for unwanted guests there are also cheeses you will need to turn and flip, cheeses you need to pat and wipe, and cheeses that get carefully washed.
Aging your cheese is not a set and forget step.
But all your love and attention will be well rewarded with delicious, true to type, home made cheese if you are willing to be a little fussy and spend the time.
If you have questions about aging your cheese then please comment below and I, or the Curd-Nerd community, will do our best to help you.