What is this thing called cheese? Cheese can be defined as coagulated milk solids that have been drained, pressed and aged. A simple broad definition that barely scratches the surface, because cheese is so much more than that. And what makes it so is that last part of the definition — aged. It is aging that gives the product its flavor and character.
While most of the soft cheeses such as Cottage Cheese, Mascarpone, Neufchȃtel, etc. can be enjoyed immediately after making them and do not need to be aged, hard cheeses such as Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, etc. have to be aged to develop the flavor that makes them what we expect from, Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, and any other hard cheese. If they ain’t aged, then they’re not really cheese. They’re just compressed curd.
So how do we go about turning compressed curd into cheese.
To properly age cheese, it must be placed in a temperature and humidity controlled enclosure for a length of time. The ideal temperature and relative humidity for aging cheese is 45-60ºF and 75-95%, respectively. These conditions allow for optimum exchange of ripening gasses from the cheese (e.g. carbon dioxide and ammonia) with oxygen from the air, all of which is highly important for flavor development.
If your aging chamber is too cold, the cheese will not develop the proper amount of acid for a safe and flavorful product. If the temperature is too warm, then the cheese will develop a sharp and pungent flavor and/or undesirable microbial growth. If the humidity of the aging chamber is too high, then undesirable mold will grow on the cheese and it will have to be checked more frequently. If however, the room is too dry, then the cheese will shrink and crack.
So where do you find a place that meets the aforementioned temperature and humidity requirements? Many home basements will satisfy this requirement. If necessary, you can purchase a small humidifier or hang wet towels in the basement to control the humidity. You can also purchase a second hand refrigerator or a small dorm-sized refrigerator. Your regular kitchen refrigerator is usually too cold and dry for aging cheese, but with a second refrigerator, you can set the temperature where you need it and then place a small bowl of water or damp paper towels inside to raise the humidity. Lastly, you can purchase a wine cooler. These are specially designed for precise adjustment of temperature and humidity.
How long should you age cheese? That depends on the cheese and how strong a flavor you want. Cheese can be aged for as short as a few days to as long as a few years. The longer a cheese is aged, the sharper and stronger is its flavor. The difference between a mild Cheddar and a sharp cheddar is simply the length of time which it is aged. Most hard cheeses should be aged for a minimum of sixty days. Some hard grating cheeses like Parmesan and Romano may be aged for years to develop a very strong flavor.
With an enclosure set at the proper temperature, you too can turn your compressed curd into flavorful, delicious, honest to goodness cheese!