As the weeks drag on, you’re probably feeling a little cooped up at home right now. You’re probably also getting a little sick of sourdough and looking for a fun new DIY kitchen project to try out.
So while we’re all staying home in our own little caves, I thought it would be fun to show you what it’s like in a real cheese cave—the place where cheeses become the flavorful, aromatic wheels they were always meant to be.
Lively Run Dairy Cheese Cave, Photo credit: Chelsea Robinson
What Is a Cheese Cave?
Despite the name, a cheese cave is any cool, humid space used for aging or preserving cheese. A cheese cave can be anything from an actual cave to a refrigerated warehouse to an in-home microclimate like your Cheese Grotto.
While some cheeses, like Roquefort, are still aged in ancient caves the same way they have been for hundreds of years, these days, most cheeses are aged in walk-in coolers or climate-controlled rooms.
These spaces are carefully monitored to simulate the conditions provided by those caves to ancient cheesemakers: they provide a closed environment that is consistently cool year-round, even in hot climates. Some modern cheese aging spaces are built underground or dug into hillsides because the earth helps to provide natural insulation and climate control of its own.
The two primary factors that determine the suitability of a space for aging cheese are temperature and humidity. (There are lots of other factors that the cheesemaker or affineur takes into account or tries to control, but these are the two big ones.)
Old Brooklyn Cheese Caves, Photo credit: Eat Local Ohio
What Is the Humidity in a Cheese Cave?
High humidity is a must when aging most types of cheese. We’re talking anywhere from 75 to 99 percent relative humidity based on the temperature in the space. Humidity can be measured by a hygrometer.
Without the right level of moisture in the air, the moisture in the green (unripe) cheese would evaporate out, cracking and hardening the cheese and basically turning it into an inedible milk rock. Waxing the exterior of a cheese or vacuum-sealing it in plastic are two ways to maintain the moisture inside a cheese regardless of the humidity in a space.
To help maintain high humidity, a cheesemaker may pour water on the floor of the cheese cave or even run humidifiers inside the space. Before the advent of modern refrigeration, rooms for aging or making cheese often had special clay floors that could absorb water, which would then cool and humidify the space as it evaporated throughout the day. The absorbent clay brick at the bottom of the Cheese Grotto works the same way, slowly releasing moisture into the air inside the Grotto to keep your cheeses feeling supple and tasting lively.
What Is the Temperature Inside a Cheese Cave?
Temperature is also super important. A cheese cave or other aging environment can be anywhere between 45 F to 60 F. That’s warm enough to allow the molds, yeasts, and bacteria—naturally occurring and otherwise, depending on the variety—in the cheese and in the aging environment to do their work, but cool enough so that the cheese’s journey into ripeness can be controlled properly.
The average home kitchen offers storage options that are typically just outside of this range, depending on your space and the climate where you live. Refrigerators run 40 F or below to store perishable foods safely. Comfortable room temperature for most people is around 10 degrees above that range—and, of course, temperature inside your space can fluctuate greatly depending on the weather and the time of year.
Why Is Cheese Aged on Wooden Boards?
The vast majority of cheesemakers today—around 75 percent, according to the Oxford Companion to Cheese—mature their cheeses on wooden boards. Wood has been used as a material for making and aging cheese for millennia—long before people understood the science behind why it made for great cheese.
In fact, wood makes a great medium for cheesemaking for the exact reason that modern-day regulators have tried to stop its use: because it’s absorbent. Wood helps maintain humidity in a space without building up condensation on its surface. It can also be cleaned and sanitized easily and then inoculated with the desired cultures, helping the cheese to mature properly and warding off potential pathogens.
The design of the Cheese Grotto was developed with these factors in mind. In addition to looking beautiful (and doubling as cheese boards), its wooden shelves help to maintain the proper moisture levels for the cheeses inside.
And it’s super easy to clean and maintain. Hundreds of years ago, the farm wife or dairy maid—as cheesemaking was the province of women on the farm—would have cleaned her wooden cheesemaking implements with coarse salt and left them in the sun to dry. All you have to do is give your Grotto a cleaning with hot water and vinegar every three months to keep it working well and looking great for years to come.
How to Make a Cheese Cave at Home
Unless you live in an old farmhouse with a root cellar—and if you do, I’m jealous!—chances are that you don’t have an ideal cheese storage or aging environment in your home. However, you can still create a cheese-friendly space in your own kitchen, whether you’re simply stashing cheese to eat later or hoping to age some wheels on your own.
One of the easiest ways to do this is simply to add an extra layer of protection to the cheeses in your refrigerator. Storing well-wrapped cheeses in a plastic food storage tub loosely covered with a lid will help protect them from the drying air of your refrigerator. You can also try aging cheeses this way, increasing humidity by placing a piece of damp paper towel at one end of the container and placing the container in the warmest part of your fridge. But the lower temperature means that the cheese will take longer to age.
Another way to store cheese is with the Cheese Grotto. Its wood construction and humidifying clay block provide the right level of moisture for cheeses to be aged or stored. Keep it on the counter and your favorite wheels and wedges will always be the perfect temperature for eating—no more waiting an hour between your cheese craving and digging in for the best flavor and texture. If you’re hoping to seriously extend the shelf life of your cheeses, simply keep the Cheese Grotto in your refrigerator (you’ll still have to let your cheeses relax before serving, but they’ll stay fresh for several weeks this way).
Aging young wheels purchased from your cheesemonger—or even your own homemade wheels, like these French goat cheeses—is one of the many things you can do with the Cheese Grotto. Just keep the wheels on your kitchen counter (below 70oF), make sure the clay block in the bottom of the Grotto stays nice and moist, and watch as the cheese ripens to perfection in the microclimate you’ve created. Our hygrometers can also come in handy for measuring and maintaining the ideal humidity and temperature for the specific cheese you are aging.
What kinds of DIY kitchen projects are you working on while you’re staying home in your own personal Grotto? Let us know!