To me, most of the good stuff with cheese happens during aging. Flavors are enhanced and deliciousness ensues. The problem for the home cheesemaker, however, is that instructions are usually far more detailed for the actual cheesemaking part of the recipe. It’s harder to come by in-depth instructions for aging your cheese. I’ve been making cheese for a few years now, and I want to share with you some things I’ve learned. Specifically, here are three things I wish I had known about aging cheese when I first started out.
1. Mold doesn’t need to be scary.
There are some cheeses in which you add mold powders purposefully (such as blue cheeses, which require penicillium roqueforti; or mold-ripened cheeses, which require penicillium candidum). These have never been frightening to me, because I know these molds are intentional and important for the specific characteristic of the cheese. But when I started making gouda or butterkäse or tomme, for example, I had a harder time with the molds.
The thing is, cheese attracts mold. If it has access to oxygen, it’s going to mold, even if you never add a mold powder. When I started, I would try my hardest to keep my cheeses mold-free by rubbing them with salt water/vinegar, by waxing, and by worrying about them far too much. I’d see a little speck of mold and wonder–is that black mold? Black?! Black is never supposed to be good for your cheeses. The molds that wouldn’t wash off easily, I would end up cutting off (while it was still aging). I was always afraid of the black mold, though in retrospect, it’s kind of hard to tell colors from just tiny specs–it was probably just blue mold, a leftover vestige from a previous cashel blue project, and perfectly harmless.
Anyway, it was kind of ridiculous. I’m much more lax about my natural rinds now. And you know what? It’s just easier to let the cheeses do their natural thing. They might look scary, but they’re perfectly healthy. If you’re doing things the right way, most molds on your cheese will be fine to eat.
I haven’t yet bandaged a cheese, but I want to. In case you’re unfamiliar, this is a method of affinage that involves buttering the cheese and then laying strips of cheesecloth over the melted butter. Mold will still grow all over this bundle, but when you take off the cheesecloth, the cheese is pristine underneath. For those of you who want to experiment with letting molds take over but are still a little hesitant, this might be the way for you to go.
(As a side note, I’m so over waxing cheeses. Maybe that’s a post for another day, but natural rinds are the way to go for me from now on . . .)
2. Temperature and humidity WILL affect your cheeses.
There’s a reason why cheese recipes specify both temperature AND humidity requirements. Too low of humidity and your cheese will dry out. Too high of humidity and your cheese may inadvertently turn into a “stinky cheese” (why yes, this has happened to me before). Wrong temperature and your cheese will age too slowly or too fast.
I remember a time when I started making a cheese, and was ready to age it, but then because of poor planning and circumstances, I was unable to use our Cave for the first week of aging. I thought, I’ll just put it in a plastic box in our garage and hope we don’t suddenly attract mice. I had gone to the effort of making this cheese, so I figured I might as well try to see it out. Well, it didn’t work. Just at the time that I put the cheese in the garage to age, our weather started to warm up. And the box trapped too much humidity, but I was afraid to keep it open for fear of mice or flies. . . I didn’t eat that cheese. (Sorry, no pictures for this one) Getting the right temperatures and humidity levels are important.
3. Even a poorly aged cheese is delicious.
Barring the example given above, most cheeses will turn out just fine, even if you don’t do everything perfectly. As long as you’re keeping temperature and humidity within the intended range, your cheese will make it through to the other side. I am going to share a tomme cheese with you that I completely ignored for several months. I didn’t brush it to tame its wild mass of mold, I didn’t flip it to re-distribute moisture, and it sat idle for probably five months before I decided it was time to do something with it.
It looked scary. It had an eighth of an inch of mold encasing it. I thought for sure it was a goner. James was shocked I even tried it. But you know what? Best tomme I ever made. Usually I eat mine fairly young (after a month or two or aging), but the extra time (and inattention, apparently) made this one the best.
Of course, the better you can get at making and aging cheeses, the better they’re going to taste, and the more consistent they’re going to be. I’m just letting you know, you don’t have to do it perfectly to have a worthy effort.
Do it right: Learn to age your homemade cheeses the right way
So. That’s it. I’ve been thinking about these things a lot, and I hope they’re helpful to some of you cheesemakers out there. If you want to make cheeses that are consistently delicious, you can go a step further and order the Swiss Hills’ Guide to Cheesemaking eBook. You can’t go wrong with it! This eBook has everything you need to know to start making and aging your own delicious homemade cheeses. Check it out!
Making cheese has been a great experience for me, and I hope you find great success in your own cheesemaking journey. Happy cheesemaking!