Before I start I want to let you know these are my opinions and you could take them with a grain of cheese salt or not. If you have suggestions then please post in the comments because Knowledge is Power! Now let’s do some Cheese Cave Spelunking!
I am often asked where I store all the cheese that I make, in my “cave“is the usual answer. After they are done with the funny looks, they ask me what I mean. In some places there are cheese makers that still use caves to age their cheese. By caves I mean actual caves. In the Roquefort region of France, Roquefort Cheese (the supposed mother of all Blue Cheeses) is still aged in caves in the surrounding mountain sides, as is some Gorgonzola and Taleggio in Italy. The reason is twofold, first they have a specific temperature that is perfect for ripening cheese year round and secondly they have the right humidity for ripening cheese (anywhere from 80 to 95% RH). These locations have a micro climate that help to develop the specific moulds and flavors that give us the specific taste, smell and texture of these cheeses. As a Home Cheese Maker we do realize that we cannot truly duplicate these conditions in our homes, but we can try to get it close. You need to try to duplicate a temperature and humidity level, which is easier said than done.
First and foremost is temperature, too cold and your cheese will take forever to ripen, too warm and your cheese could ripen too fast or worse, spoil. The optimum temperature for most cheese ripening is around 8 to 14 degrees Celsius or 46 to 57 degrees Fahrenheit. You may need some higher temperatures if you are making Emmental or Jarlsberg but that is another post.
Do you use your refrigerator in your kitchen?
Your common kitchen refrigerator will be on the cooler side and can be used if necessary, but I would use it for short-term storage or if you want to slow down aging (this is done sometimes with Brie and Camembert), just put your cheese in the warmest part of your refrigerator.
What do you use for long-term aging if at normal refrigerator is not the best?
I started out with a bar/dorm fridge and put it on the warmest setting; I used a clip to keep the thermostat pinned to this setting. I then read about how you can take the thermostat out and adjust the temperature screw, UNLESS YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING DON’T DO THIS, I did not know and ended up breaking my thermostat for my fridge. I now place a frozen 2 litre water bottle in the “freezer” section and switch it out every morning before work. I can purchase a new thermostat from the manufacturer, but this fridge is now my “over-flow” fridge. You can get various external controls that will regulate the temperature for you; I wish I had purchased one of these rather than trying to jiggery-pokery it. I guess I should have paid more attention in hullabaloo class.
I have a small wine fridge that I use that use now, it has a digital thermostat and I have it set at a constant 10 degrees Celsius. It seems to be roomy enough for what I am working on right now. I have two Cheddar (one of which is in a ripening/mini cave-more later), a Havarti, two Irish Danes, my special project cheese, a container of water and the scotch wash. I have had this for almost a year and it seems to work great.
Why do you have a container of water in there?
Humidity my friends, his is key. If the air is too dry then your cheeses can dry out, crack or become little hockey pucks. I try to have a small container of water with a cloth sticking out of it to wick the water up and help to add moisture the air. Usually I can get the humidity up to about 80-85%, most of the time it is fine for the cheese. Some times you may need to increase the humidity for mould ripened or smear ripened cheese, this includes Camembert, Blues, certain washed rind cheeses. I find that the more cheese I have in the cave the easier it is to control the humidity. I tend to do natural or washed rind cheeses, mainly because I suck at waxing cheese, and this helps as they give off moisture as they dry/age.
You mentioned “Mini Caves/Ripening Boxes”, what are those?
I live in a very dry climate, especially in the winter, and sometimes it is hard to maintain humidity levels required for ageing certain cheeses. In order to achieve the right humidity levels sometimes I employ “Mini Caves/Ripening Boxes” to help with this. In short they are any non-reactive container that has a lid that you could put a cheese into and then put into your “Cave”. It can be something as simple as a Zip-lock container, a Rubbermaid Container, a Tupperware Container (I have one that is supposed to be used to keep lettuce fresh that I have a cheese in). Some times you can use the moisture that a cheese will produce to keep the humidity level right, other times you may have to place a wet paper towel in the box. You will need to keep the lid slightly open to help with air flow, otherwise you might discover that you have created a new “Blue Cheese” rather than a Caephilly or Gouda. If you are making a mould ripened cheese then you should be able to tell if there is a funky smell (ammonia like), it also helps to keep your mouldies separate from the rest of your cheeses.
Are there any other options?
Yes you could vacuum seal your cheese. I have a Food-saver unit and I use for my cheese. As I mentioned before I suck at waxing cheese, I have had nothing but problems with them. I have 4 cheeses in vacuum bags right now, 2 of my Irish Danes (their rinds were getting too tough for my liking), a Cheddar and a Havarti. Some may consider this sacrilegious, as cheese and especially Raw Milk Cheese, is “alive” and need to breathe. I know that it has saved my bacon or cheese if you will, from drying out and cracking, I use it but only for long-term ageing or to control the rind. If you vacuum seal the cheese then you do not have to worry about humidity, but you do have to look for whey in the bags. When you check your cheeses look for whey pooling around the cheese, if you have it take it out let it air dry and re-bag. Again this is from personal experience.
Again I am going to say that these are my opinions about cheese caves. They are from my personal experiences, and I may in fact be off my nut when it comes to cheese caves. I did not write about cold rooms, actual caves, or ripening rooms because I have had no experience with them. If you would like to add to this please let me know, send me something and I will try to post it. That concludes my spelunking trip through my home’s Cheese Caves.
Have a great day, go make some cheese or at least eat some you enjoy.