The questions that most often comes in through the web site (see the contact information on the home page joyofcheesemaking.com) have to do with building a cheese cave in which to age cheese at home. I wrote an article on this very topic for Culture Magazine that appeared in their Spring 2011. I used to point people to this article online, but it seems to be no longer available. Sasha Davies and I cover home cheese caves in The Cheesemakers Apprentice, but the information was condensed to fit the format of the book. Therefore it seems to me that it is about time to have a blog entry on the subject.
Fresh cheeses such as cream cheese, quark, fromage blanc, and fresh chèvre are ready to be eaten as soon as they are made. Fresh cheeses are the best place to start as a home cheesemaker since you get results so quickly, and good results are usually a lot easier to achieve. However, if you love cheese you probably love the flavors that develop in cheese when it is aged in the proper environment for an extended period of time. Think of how cheddar curds taste, squeaky and fun to chew, but bland. Then consider the full, complex flavors in aged cheddar cheese. Aging cheese at home requires a lot more time and attention, but it is also pretty rewarding to taste and share one of your aged creations.
During aging bacteria and enzymes (and molds in some cases) break down fats and proteins in the cheese. As aging continues, the bacteria run out of food and die, allowing the enzymes within to escape and cause even more break down. It is a counter intuitive, unappetizing process that makes cheese taste so good.
The proper environment in which to age cheese is always moist and cool. How moist and how cool depends on the style. The ideal temperature and humidity fall between 45°F and 58°F (7°C and 14°C) and 80% and 98%, respectively. Traditionally, this environment was provided by a cave, either natural or dug into the ground, and today we still refer to the environment in which aging takes place as a cheese cave.
Some home cheesemakers successfully age cheese in their basements. This can work if the basement maintains a cool temperature less than 60°F (15°C) without too much variation. To keep humidity high, you can place the cheese in a clean shoe box or in sealable plastic container with the lid cracked slightly. This method can work for cheeses like tome, asiago, gouda and havarti that has been waxed or vacuum packed, and perhaps cheddar, all of which are a bit more forgiving. As you get more and more serious about home cheesemaking, you will probably become disappointed with the results from using a basement.
Refrigerators that are built to store wine maintain a temperature in the perfect range for aging cheese, and can usually be set to any temperature between 45°F and 65°F (7-18C). Unfortunately, they usually also use circulation fans. This won’t be a problem for waxed or vacuum sealed cheese, but the air circulation will dry out cheeses that have natural rinds causing them to crack. The best solution is to keep the cheese protected in a ziplock bag, or in a sealable plastic food container. In either case leave the seal or lid slightly cracked to keep the environment surrounding the cheese from getting too humid.
By far the best solution that I have found is converting a mini-refrigerator (dormitory style) into a cheese cave. Start with a small refrigerator without any circulation fans (to avoid the drying and cracking described above). These are the ones that have a small freezer compartment inside at the top with a drip tray underneath. You will probably be able to find cheap mini-refrigerators by searching Craigslist and garage sales. Get an external thermostatic control for about $70 from a local cheesemaking or homebrew supplier, or search the web for external refrigerator thermostat. Plug the refrigerator power into the thermostat and place the thermostat's sensor bulb inside the refrigerator, being careful not to kink its thin tube. The external thermostat will now start and stop the refrigerator, maintaining the proper temperature.
An external refrigerator thermostat
Use a piece of tape to affix the tube to the edge so it does not kink
To increase the humidity, keep an open container of water or a damp towel inside the cave. You monitor the humidity in the cave using a hygrometer, search for a cigar humidor hygrometer for an inexpensive option. To get really serious, buy a remote digital weather station that measures humidity and place the receiver somewhere you look every day, such as by the TV, so you can check it often. An expert blue cheesemaker once told me that it takes months to age a blue cheese, but only 5 hours of the wrong environment to ruin it. It is very disappointing to discover after months of waiting for you cheese to mature, that it has dried out and cracked because you have not been monitoring it closely enough, and I speak from experience on this one.
Most home cheesemakers find they need to build a second cave for blue mold varieties because all cheeses that age with blue cheese tend to become blue themselves. This is less of a problem with bloomy rinds and washed rinds, though I have had cheeses sharing space with washed rind cheese get the characteristic orange hue of their neighbors on them. This didn't bother me as I love the washed rind flavor, but your consumers may object.