Your Cheese Ain’t The Rage If It Ain’t Got That Age

Cheese Cave


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.

Cheap-Mini-FridgeWine Cooler
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!


Dipping a Toe in the Cheesemaking Waters

So, you’ve decided that you want to start making your own cheese. However, the thought of spending lots of money on cultures, molds, a press, etc. is making you pause and wonder if it’s really worth pursuing this.

Cheese Culture Cheese Molds Cheese Press
Let me ask a question. Do you work out on a regular basis? If so, how did you start? Did you right away spend money on a pricey health club membership and sign up to compete in your local triathlon? Did you spend big bucks on expensive workout clothing? My guess, is that your answer to my questions is no. You probably first visited your doctor to make sure that you were physically capable of starting a workout program. Then you started out slowly — perhaps with a few simple exercises at home. running a mile or two, purchasing a workout CD, etc. As time went on, and you got yourself in better shape, then maybe you found a health club whose membership fee fit your budget and began regular workouts there. Then as you continued to get healthier and stronger, then and only then did you start thinking about triathlons and 5K runs, etc.

Cheesemaking or any other hobby works the same way. If you want to begin making your own cheese, you don’t have to start by purchasing expensive equipment, cultures, and chemicals. There are some very simple cheeses you can make that won’t cost more than a few dollars for material that you can purchase at your nearby grocery store. Queso blanco, for example, is made by heating milk to 185-190oF, adding 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar, and straining the coagulated liquid through fine cheesecloth. No fancy equipment required there. If your first batch of queso blanco is successful, then you can start trying some other simple cheeses that perhaps require cultures or molds. If these work out well, then perhaps you’ll want to attempt making a hard cheese like cheddar or manchego. Then you can justify purchasing more advanced equipment or more delicate cultures.

The whole key is moderation and starting slowly. Just as you wouldn’t jump into the deep end of the pool if you’ve never learned to swim, you wouldn’t start making Jarlsberg if you’ve never made cheese before. Start simply. Decide whether or not you’re enjoying this new hobby. Are you gaining in skill and knowledge? Are your efforts to make cheese successfully rewarded? If so, then you can justifiably spend whatever is necessary (within your budget of course) to advance to the next level.

And if you need some assistance, there are plenty of resources available — books, websites, classes. In fact, classes are an excellent way to learn — and I just happen to know of some that will be starting soon, and there just may be room left for a few more students. Yes, I know, this is a shameless plug. But then again, I never claimed to have any shame.

No Cow? No Problem!

Up until now, I have written countless blog posts on gardening and music. However, I have yet to post anything having to do with my other favorite pastime — home cheese making. So now, I’m going to fill that hole. Here comes my very first Garden Troubadour blog post referencing this wonderful dairy delight — and please don’t tell me that this is cheesy or an udder failure!

When most of us think about milk for making cheese, our first thought is of cows. And why not? The vast majority of the fluid milk in the US dairy industry comes from high-yielding dairy cows. But when it comes to milk, cows are not the be all and end all. Here in the United States, cheese is also made from the milk of goats and sheep, but throughout history, man has obtained milk from a wide variety of mammalian species. Can you imagine making cheese from the milk of a mare? How about from a camel? A zebu? A yak? An ass? (Okay, get your minds out of the gutter)!

The truth is that all of these animals and many more have been used throughout the history of mankind to produce milk for drinking and cheesemaking. Mozzarella cheese was traditionally made from the milk of the water buffalo. The Laplanders of Finland used the milk of the reindeer. (And you thought they were only useful for pulling Santa’s sleigh!)

On one occasion, in one of my classes, I had a student ask me if human milk could be used to make cheese. In my opinion, that would be a waste, since human infants need the milk more than we need cheese. It could be done, I’m sure, but why?

Here in the US, we are pretty much limited to the milk of cows, goats, and sheep. Here are some tips on using all three.

Cow’s Milk: Cow’s milk will produce a firm curd when properly renneted. Since it’s the most prominent dairy species in the industry, cow’s milk is abundant and relatively inexpensive.If you plan to buy a cow to produce your own milk, Jerseys or Brown Swiss are the best species to purchase. Both produce milk with a high butterfat content and both animals have a sweet temperament that makes them easy to manage.

Jersey CowBrown Swiss Cow

Goat’s Milk: Goat’s milk has smaller butterfat globules than cow’s milk, so it tends to be naturally homogenized (as opposed to cow’s milk which must be heat-treated and pressurized to homogenize it). As a result goat’s milk tends to produce a slightly softer curd when renneted, so they must be treated a bit more gently during th cheesemaking process. Goat’s milk also contains no carotene, so it produces a much whiter cheese. Because goat milk contains naturally occurring lipase enzymes, it produces cheese that has more of a pepper hot pungency to it. If you wish to purchase your own goat, recommended breeds include the Nubian, Alpine, Saanen, and Toggenburg.


Sheep’s Milk: Sheep’s milk tends to have a higher vitamin and mineral content than goat’s or cow’s milk, making it a more nutritionally dense liquid. Sheep’s milk contains about ten percent less water than either cow’s or goat’s milk. Because of this, it nearly twice as high in solids and tends to produce two and a half times the cheese yield of the milk from the other two species. Sheep’s milk can also be frozen until you obtain enough to make cheese; freezing will not adversely affect the quality of the milk or the cheese. When making cheese with sheep’s milk, use three to five times less rennet; make larger cubes when cutting the curd; use half the amount of salt called for; and exert light pressure when pressing your cheese. The most common breed of sheep for milking is the East Friesian.

East Friesian Sheep

So if you find that you do not have access to the right kind of milk, don’t have a cow! Wipe that sheepish grin off your face, and don’t let it get your goat!