By altering an old fridge to meet the temperature and humidity requirements to successfully age cheese, you can have a low-cost, reliable way to make hard cheeses at home.
Aging cheese requires specific conditions that are difficult to meet for the home cheesemaker if you don’t have a proper aging cellar. Most cheeses require a temperature somewhere between 45 to 55 degrees F and humidity of 85 to 95 percent. This varies based on what cheese you are making.
Both the temperature and humidity are critical, in general:
Temperature too low and the cheese will ripen more slowly, which is not a bad thing for hard, aged cheeses but can be with softer, aged or bloomy rind cheeses.
Temperature too high and the cheese will ripen too quickly and can go rancid.
Humidity too low and the cheese will dry out and potential crack from uneven quick drying.
Humidity too high and unwanted mold can quickly take root, often on the cheese surfaces.
Luckily, there is a relatively cost-effective way to create these conditions simply by retrofitting an old refrigerator (you can usually get these used for around $100 to $200). If you only want to age a small amount of cheese you can use a mini “dorm fridge.” Since refrigerators are made to run at around 40°F, you are going to have to “trick” your fridge to run at a warmer temp by installing an external thermostat. You can usually find these devices online or at homebrew supply stores. We like the Johnson Digital Temperature Control from Midwest Supply Co. (retails at $79.99). To counteract the drying conditions of a fridge, simply keep a small bowl of clean water at the bottom of your aging fridge. Placing a thermometer/hygrometer in your cave with allow you to keep tabs on the aging conditions. If you have having problems keep up your humidity, try using a low moisture humidifier.
In my cave, I removed the shelving in the fridge and replaced them with pine boards to directly age the cheese on (spruce boards are another good option). Wood harbors coryneforms that will naturally out-compete unwanted bacteria and keep your risk of pathogens down. Wood also maintains a moisture balance on your cheese rind, holding moisture when the cheese has excess and returning it to the cheese when the moisture is low. It is important to get “rough cut” boards to allow air to circulate under the cheese. Food producers in the US is becoming increasingly wary of wood and are abandoning these old techniques of food production in favor of methods that use more food-grade plastic. However, plastic is much harder to clean and does not contain the natural “self-defense” properties found in wood.
Check pack for Part II of this series where I will show you how to make Tomme – a simple, aged mountain cheese from France.