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Aging Like Fine Cheese.

Nothing is quite so wonderful, so luxurious, and so palate-pleasing as a well-aged cheese. As with wine, it takes time and proper care to mature a young cheese into the ultimate epicurean experience--but you don't have to be a skilled affineur (the French term for a professional cheese ager) or have access to a high-tech aging room or traditional cheese cave to create superior aged cheeses at home!

The French call the process of aging cheese affinage, which at its core is simply the preservation of milk. Our forebears lacked both refrigeration and a year-round supply of fresh milk. Aged cheeses concentrate and preserve the nutrients in milk in a longer-lasting form. Different styles of aged cheeses evolved depending on the natural conditions--weather, microbes, and more--of the place the cheese was being made. We modern cheesemakers have the luxury of recreating the conditions fit to make the types of cheese we most enjoy, no matter what the outside climate is like.

My, How You've Changed

Aging changes a cheese. Fresh cheeses retain much of the character of the milk that made them--aged cheeses, on the other hand, have new depths of flavor and a wider range of textures.

There are three basic approaches to making cheese: adding acid when the milk is hot, as for ricotta and paneer; adding bacteria that produce acid, as for fromage blanc and chevre; and adding bacteria and coagulant, as for cheddar and gouda. The last category produces the most-complex cheese, and the only type with the potential to age. These cheeses have a low moisture content and a varied supply of enzymes provided by the culture bacteria; the milk; and rennet, the coagulant.

Making a cheese for aging starts with bacteria that ferment lactose (milk sugar) into lactic acid and a few other products. Next, rennet (an enzyme traditionally derived from calves' stomachs, but now available in vegetarian and synthetic forms) is added to coagulate the cheese. The cheese is then drained and pressed to remove excess water. After these relatively quick stages, the enzymatic process really kicks in. During aging, enzymes from the bacteria, the milk, and the rennet work their magic on milk proteins and, to a lesser degree, milk fat. Slowly, they break down these compounds, creating flavor and changing the texture of the cheese.

An Affinity for Affinage

You'll need to provide your cheese with the proper environment and care for it to thrive during the aging process. The aging environment requires a delicate balance--one that encourages beneficial microbes and enzymes to continue breaking down the proteins and fats, but also discourages spoilage microbes from rotting or disfiguring the cheese. The first step in setting up this scenario is to create a low-moisture cheese with just the right amount of salt. The second step is to create an affinage environment that provides the right temperature, humidity, airflow, and air exchange for desirable processes to occur. I know that sounds complex, but it can be done with relative ease and simplicity at home. Lets go over the elements that produce fantastic fromage.

My first "cheese cave" was a small wine cooler. (We actually still have it, although now it holds wine.) Wine and beverage coolers are basically small, stand-alone refrigerators designed to hold temperatures from about 40 degrees Fahrenheit to about 60 degrees. Most cheeses do best at 55 degrees, so this range works quite well. The slide-out racks designed for bottles that come with wine coolers don't work well for cheese, but you can easily remove them and fit hardwood boards into the same slots, creating an ideal (and traditional-looking) surface for aging cheese.

The second option is to buy a refrigerator without a freezer compartment, and an external thermostat (see photo, left) into which you'll plug the refrigerator. (The integrated refrigerator thermostat can't be set high enough for aging cheese.) External thermostats include a probe you'll insert into the fridge. The thermostat will turn the fridge on and off as necessary to maintain your cheese-aging temperature. Why avoid fridges with freezer compartments? When a freezer compartment is present, the unit blows freezer air into the fridge to cool it. Not only does this use more power than needed, but it also dries out the cheeses--and dehydration is fatal to aging cheeses. If you can't find an appropriate fridge, a chest freezer with an external thermostat will also work, though cheeses will be hard to stack for easy access. Avoid upright freezers. Most have cooling coils in the shelves; when these units are set at warmer-than-freezing temperatures, moisture will condense on the shelves and drip onto the cheeses below. Another death sentence for your beautiful cheese!

The last option is to utilize space in a basement or cellar. A few lucky folks will have access to a mostly or partially underground space. If you're one of these, you'll need to determine if the space will keep your cheeses at or near the goal temperature throughout the year. If not, can you build a more insulated space that will remain steady in temperature? I've found that the biggest drawback to having cheeses aging in a basement, however, is remembering that they're there! Affinage is a daily task, and, often, out of sight is out of mind.

Not Too Dry, Not Too Damp

Once you have your space and temperature control figured out, you'll have to address humidity--often the most difficult requirement for home cheesemakers. Most naturally aged cheeses require 85 to 95 percent relative humidity (RH). Relative humidity is the amount of moisture the air can hold at any given room temperature. At 100 percent RH, moisture condenses into precipitation or mist. There's no one-size-fits-all solution, thanks to the huge variability in weather and ambient room conditions encountered by each cheesemaker.

Before you worry about altering the humidity, find a reliable humidity gauge. I like to have two and place them in different locations in the cheese cave so I can compare numbers. It's good to have a backup in case one breaks or you're concerned about its reliability. Digital gauges are great; metal dial gauges tend to rust in high humidity.

In areas with naturally high humidity, it's relatively easy to provide enough moisture for aged cheese, but for most people, it's a big challenge. I start by draping a moist, but not dripping wet, terry towel over the bottom wire rack of my cheese-aging unit. You'll have to check the cloth daily, but you should be checking your cheese and opening the door daily anyway! The towel shouldn't dry between checks; if it does, try putting a small pan of water under it and extending one end of the towel into the water to wick up. This method works well for me.

Instead of a damp towel, you could run a small, portable humidifier at the bottom of the unit. This can sometimes cause condensation wherever it's blowing, so you'll have to play around until you find the best solution for your cheese cave. Bottom line, though, keep the humidity at the ideal level or you'll kill your cheese.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Cheese almost literally breathes. The microbes on the surface of naturally aged cheese produce gases, such as ammonia and sulfur, that need to be removed from the environment. This is an easy one: Simply open and close your cheese-aging unit daily. This will allow old air to flow out and new air to flow in. If you're using a chest freezer, you might need to leave the lid open a bit for enough air exchange to occur.

You must turn the cheese over to help it age evenly. Turn newly made cheese every day for 4 to 6 weeks, and then every few days for the rest of its aging time. Vacuum-sealed cheeses don't require such assiduous care, but turning them won't hurt the process at all.

As your creations sit in the humid, cool environment of your home cheese cave, many different microbes will want to join the party. The surface of the cheese will slowly become more and more mottled, possibly fuzzy, and, in general, look quite a mess. These molds aren't to be feared. Don't try scrubbing them off or restoring the rind to its former pristine self--simply keep them under control. Use a cloth, paper towel, or soft brush to gently and lightly work the surface of the cheese. This will limit the extent to which the molds will grow in height, and therefore the depth they'll reach inside the cheese. As time passes, most of these fungi will die off or at least slow down. Eventually, they'll have helped you create a beautiful rind with a rich patina. Think of the moldy stage as the cheese's gawky teenage years; it'll mature into a delicious wheel in time.

Wearing Protection

There's no sense trying to age a cheese with a natural rind if you can't guarantee the right humidity. The best you can hope for is a hard lump of dull, waxy grating cheese or, at worst, some sort of deadly projectile. To avoid this tragic loss of cheese, apply a coat of food-grade cheese wax or paracoat (cream wax), or vacuum-seal the cheese in plastic--then you won't have to worry about managing humidity in your cheese cave, or air exchange inside it, because your cheese will have an impervious, artificial "rind." Of these, I prefer vacuum sealing for its ease; the visibility of the cheese during aging (wax is usually opaque); and the fact that you can easily open the bag, check the cheese, and reseal it.

To prepare a cheese for vacuum sealing, you must first stabilize its moisture content; otherwise, liquid will leak from the cheese and pool in the bag. Most cheeses will need to sit for several days of "air drying" while their moisture content stabilizes. I recommend using a lidded tub large enough to comfortably hold the cheese without touching it. Set the cheese on a mat on top of a rack at the bottom of the tub, close the lid, and set the tub in a cool place (between 40 and 50 degrees). Flip the cheese daily, and use a clean towel to wipe away any humidity that collects on the tub's lid or sides. If a lot of moisture is on the lid, place a second mat over the cheese and a towel over that; change the towel under the mat if it feels moist. After about 5 to 10 days, the cheese should be ready to vacuum-seal.

Place the sealed cheese in your aging space and check it daily. Flipping the cheese every few days is also a good idea, but not as critical as it is for a cheese aged without sealing. If any moisture does collect, open the bag, dry the cheese with a towel, and reseal.

The recipes in this article are from my book Mastering Basic Cheesemaking. The recipes are written for folks who are new to making cheese, but you'll still need to buy some supplies from a cheese-making supply company. For more recipes, you can refer to that book or to my more advanced, scientific book Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.

Gianaclis Caldwell is the author of four books on cheese and small dairying, including the award-winning Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking. Along with her husband, she milks goats and makes cheese at Pholia Farm Creamery in southern Oregon. For more on Gianaclis, check out www.MotherEarthNewsFair.com.
Farmhouse Wheel Cheese Recipe

Ingredients

* 2 gallons whole milk
* 1/4 teaspoon Flora Danica or
  1/4 cup cultured buttermilk
* 1/4 teaspoon calcium chloride,
  diluted in 1/4 cup cool water
  (optional)

* 1/8 teaspoon double-strength
  vegetarian rennet, diluted
  just before use in 1/4 cup cool,
  nonchlorinated water

* 2 tablespoons sea salt,
  Divided

Equipment

* 2-gallon pot, and a pot that
  will hold it
* Thermometer
* Ladle
* Cheesecloth
* Tray
* Cheese form
* Water jug or other weight for
  pressing
* Tub with lid

This is a great first cheese; it's simple to make and doesn't need
long to age. It won't be as complex as cheeses that age for much
longer, but it will be rewarding to make and eat! Time: 3 hours,
plus 4 to 6 hours and 3 days inactive, and 4 to 8 weeks aging.
Yield: about 2 pounds.

[1] Pour the milk into the pot, and place that pot over another pot
of water on the stovetop. Heat until milk reaches 88 to 90 degrees
Fahrenheit. Then, sprinkle the culture on top of the milk and let
it set for 3 to 5 minutes. Stir gently for 2 to 5 minutes.

[2] Keep the milk at 88 to 90 degrees, stirring occasionally, and
let ripen for 30 minutes.

[3] Stir in the diluted calcium chloride, if using, and let set for
5 minutes.

[4] Stir milk using an up-and-down motion with the ladle. Stop
stirring briefly and pour the diluted rennet over the top of the
ladle, and then continue stirring for 1 minute. Hold the ladle to
the top of the milk's surface in several spots to help still it.

[5] Keep the milk at 88 to 90 degrees, and let the curd set until
it breaks cleanly, about 45 minutes. Then, cut the curd mass into
%-inch cubes with a knife, and let rest for 5 minutes.

[6] Heat curds very gradually, stirring gently, to 100 degrees over
30 minutes; increase temperature more slowly in the beginning,
especially during the first 15 minutes. Cut any large curds into
smaller pieces during stirring.

[7] Keep curds at 100 degrees for 20 minutes, stirring constantly
and gently, until curds are uniform in size and feel tender but
springy, similar to the texture of a hard-boiled egg white, about
15 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let the curds set for
5 minutes.

[8] Scoop out the whey to the level of the curds; reserve some
whey. Using your hands, work curds gently into a solid mass about
the size of the form you're using.

[9] Place the form on a tray or drain board. Dampen cheesecloth
with the reserved whey, and line the form with it. Using your
hands, lift the curd mass out of the pot and press it gently into
the form. When it fills the form evenly, fold the excess cloth over
the curd, set the follower on top, and press down gently. Add about
1 pound of weight. Press for 15 minutes at room temperature, 68 to
72 degrees.

[10] Remove weight and follower. Then, remove the wrapped cheese
from the form, unwrap it, and flip it over. Rearrange the
cheesecloth in the form, and then replace the cheese, pressing the
cloth Into the form along with it; the cheese should still look a
bit wrinkled and the rind not yet smooth. Press with 1 pound of
weight for 30 minutes more.

[11] Repeat the steps above, flipping the cheese and rearranging it
in the form; this time, the rind should be smoother, but still not
evenly closed. Increase the weight to 2 pounds and press for 1 hour
more.

[12] Repeat the steps again; now, the rind should be very even,
perhaps with a few small openings. If not, you may add up to 2
pounds more weight. Press for 4 hours.

[13] Remove the cheese from the form, cut off a tiny piece, and
taste it. It should have a very mild tang and taste milky with a
hint of buttermilk flavor. If it isn't slightly tangy, press it for
1 hour more and taste It again.

[14] When you've achieved the desired tang, take the cheese from
the form, unwrap it, and rub 1 tablespoon of salt all over the
cheese. Replace the cheese In the form, without the cheesecloth,
and let It set for 30 minutes. Remove the cheese, and rub It with
the remaining 1 tablespoon of salt.

[15] Place the cheese in the tub, cover It, and let it set in the
refrigerator for 8 to 12 hours. After setting, a bit of salty whey
may be at the bottom of the tub. If so, rub the whey all over the
cheese and flip it over. Repeat this process 2 to 3 times daily for
the next 3 days. During this time, the cheese will change In
texture and flavor as the salt moves through the wheel and the
cheese mellows.

[16] Age, vacuum-sealed or with a natural rind, for 4 to 8 weeks.

Mild Colby Cheese Recipe

Ingredients

* 2 gallons whole milk
* 1/4 teaspoon MA 4000 or 1/4 cup
  cultured buttermilk
* 1/4 teaspoon calcium chloride,
  diluted in 1/8 cup cool water
  (optional)
* 1/8 teaspoon double-strength
  vegetarian rennet, diluted
  just before use in Vi cup cool,
  nonchlorinated water
* 2 teaspoons sea salt, divided

Equipment

* 2-gallon pot, and a pot that will
  hold it
* Thermometer
* Ladle
* Colander
* Pot with lid
* Cheesecloth
* Tray or drain board
* Cheese press and form
* 1-gallon vacuum-sealable bag and
  vacuum sealer (optional)

Colby is a mild, friendly cheese that doesn't need to age for long
to be good. It involves a step called "washing the curd" that will
add to your toolkit of cheesemaker skills. Time: 3 1/2 hours, plus
12 hours Inactive, and 2 to 4 months aging. Yield: about 2 pounds.

[1] Pour the milk into the 2-gallon pot, and place the pot over
another pot of water on the stovetop. Heat the milk until the
temperature reaches 88 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, sprinkle the
culture on top of milk and let set for 3 to 5 minutes. Using the
ladle, stir gently for 2 to 5 minutes.

[2] Keep the milk at 88 to 90 degrees, stirring occasionally, for
40 minutes.

[3] Stir in the calcium chloride, if using, and let set for 5
minutes.

[4] Stir the milk using an up-and-down motion with the ladle. Stop
stirring briefly and pour the diluted rennet over the top of the
ladle, and then continue stirring for 1 minute. Hold the ladle to
the top of the milk's surface in several spots to help still it.

[5] Keep the milk at 88 to 90 degrees, and let the curd set until
it breaks cleanly, about 45 minutes. Then, cut the curd mass into
3/s-inch cubes with a knife, and let rest for 5 minutes.

[6] Heat the curds very gradually, stirring gently, to 102 degrees
over 45 minutes. Keep the curds at 102 degrees and stir for 15
minutes. Let the curds settle for 15 to 30 minutes, and then scoop
out the whey to 1 inch above the curds.

[7] Stir the curds and slowly add cold tap water (about 60 degrees)
until the whey reaches 80 to 86 degrees. Maintain the temperature
and stir for 15 minutes. Next, scoop out the whey to the level of
curds, and stir for 10 minutes. Position the colander over another
pot. Carefully pour the curds into the colander and let drain,
reserving the whey. Set the colander over a pot of hot water and
stir the curd with your hands for 20 minutes, keeping the curds at
80 to 86 degrees. Taste the curds; they should be sweet and mild.

[8] Sprinkle the curds with 1 teaspoon of salt and stir well; the
whey coming from the curds will become milky-white. Cover the
colander with the pot lid and let the curds set for 5 to 10
minutes. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon salt, stir again, and let the
curds mellow for 5 to 10 more minutes.

[9] Place the form on a tray or drain board, dampen the cheesecloth
with the reserved whey, and line the form with it. Fill the form
with the curds, pressing and packing them in by hand. When all the
curds are packed into the form, fold the cloth over the top, and
place the follower on top.

[10] Place the form into the press. If your press has a screw with
a pressure gauge, start with 10 pounds of pressure. If you're using
a strap press, apply pressure just until you see a bit of white
whey coming from the bottom of the form. Press for 15 minutes,
maintaining room temperature (68 to 72 degrees), if possible.

[11] Increase the pressure to 20 pounds or by tightening the strap
until white whey again comes from the bottom of the form. Press for
15 minutes.

[12] Release the pressure and remove the follower. Remove the
cheese from the form, unwrap it, and flip it over. Rearrange the
cheesecloth in the form, and then replace the cheese, pressing the
cloth into the form along with it; the rind should be knobby and
you should still see the outline of all the curds, but the mass
shouldn't fall apart. If the mass starts to fall apart as you
handle it, leave it in the form and increase the pressure for 15
more minutes before turning.

[13] Replace the follower and increase the pressure to 30 pounds or
tighten the strap very firmly; there should be a lot of resistance
from the cheese without a lot of white whey coming out. Press for 1
hour more.

[14] Repeat the steps again; the rind should be closing nicely with
only small outlines of the curd.

[15] Rewrap the cheese and place it in the press. Insert the
follower and increase the pressure to 50 pounds or tighten the
strap about as tight as you can get it and press for 12 hours or
overnight.

[16] Age, vacuum-sealed or with a natural rind, for 2 to 3 months.


Learn the Fundamentals of Making Cheese at Home

Mastering Basic Cheesemaking provides a complete hands-on guide to making cheese and other fermented dairy products from scratch, geared toward helping a novice cheesemaker develop the intuition and abilities needed for success, especially in the real world of the home kitchen. Whether you're a budding cheesemaker, an avid do-it-yourselfer, a foodie, a homesteader, or a cheese professional, this complete course in beginning cheese making from one of North America's foremost instructors is packed with everything you'll need to create delicious, nourishing, and beautiful classic cheeses and other dairy delights. This title is available at www.MotherEarthNews.com/Store or by calling 800-234-3368. Mention promo code MMEPAJZ2. Item #7777.

Caption: Rows of cheeses sealed with paracoat (cream wax) aging at a goat creamery in Oregon.

Caption: A home cheesemaker inspects wheels aging in her large wine cooler.

Caption: You can place digital gauges inside or outside of your cooler.

Caption: Wipe young cheeses gently with a dry cloth, brush, or paper towel to knock down exercise mold growth and create a beautiful, traditional cheese rind, like the pictured-style wheel above. This process will also limit the depth that surface molds will reach in the cheese.

Caption: Plastic food bins can be used to create a more humid environment inside the main aging unit; the author uses Post-it notes to remember what's inside the bin.

Caption: Left: You can age cheese (here, a bourbon-washed Cheddar wheel) inside a vacuum-sealed bag. Right: Use a dedicated slow cooker to wax small cheeses.
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Title Annotation:Affinage
Author:Caldwell, Gianaclis
Publication:Mother Earth News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2018
Words:3863
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