From soft-ripened cheese to smear-ripened and beyond, we throw around the term “ripe” to describe a cheese that’s reached its prime and is ready to be eaten. But cheese is not a plant, you might say. How do we know when to slice into that creamy Brie doing its time on the shelf? That’s the art of affinage, or purposefully aging cheese.
Affineurs lovingly tend to the stock in their cheese caves, turning, flipping, and washing the wheels, all of which helps move the cheese to its peak maturity. However, the real expert hand is in determining a cheese’s readiness, something that has to do with feel just as much as it does appearance. No, cheeses don’t turn red like some apples (although Livarot does turn slightly orange), but the rind of a cheese does show distinctive patterns in mold growth or coloration that can signify maturity. Just as well, you should be able to gauge a soft-ripened cheese by how well it squishes (but don’t push too hard!), as the Epoch Times highlights in their how-to guide.
At its simplest, there are two ways that cheeses ripen: inside-out, and outside-in. If you have a softer cheese, it’s more likely the ripening began on the surface; these types have microorganisms introduced to their rinds early in the aging process, and later show mold growth. From the surface, these little critters break down the milk proteins, fats, and sugars in the paste, creating a softer texture and giving some cheeses their distinctive stink. The University of Guelph describes the putrification process (yum, right?) –when cheese takes on that “rotten potato” smell:
Natural degradation of protein is called ‘putrefaction’ and results in ‘rotten potato’ type odours, especially if high quality proteins such as animal proteins are involved. That’s because animal proteins contain the essential sulfur amino acids. These ‘putrefactive’ components are also the stuff of which good flavours are made. Protein degradation during cheese curing is a directed process resulting in protein fragments with desirable flavours.
Typically, the longer a cheese is aged, the harder it is. Sometimes, however, affineurs can focus the way in which bacteria and mold eat at the cheese. That’s where washed rinds and clothbound cheeses come in; by scrubbing off the mold with proprietary solutions called “red smear” or by binding the mold tightly to the rind, growth is slowed or halted, making for a product that tastes entirely different.
On the other side of the wheel, harder cheeses like Swiss-style or cheddar are ripened from the inside-out; bacterial cultures introduced into the milk do the same thing as they do in surface-ripened cheeses, but they make for a more solid product by hardening the paste first. In the case of cheddar, the microorganisms eat away at and ferment the lactose, thereby giving it its sharper taste and uniform texture. More famously, though, the bacteria in Swiss give it its distinctive holes, called “eyes,” by eating away at fat and proteins and leaving behind gasses that fill the empty space.
If you want to age your own cheese, bacteria aren’t the only factors you have to consider (and there are many types and varieties to choose from). As mentioned before, there’s the turning and flipping, and there’s also the choice of where you age it. Most affineurs–home and professional–age their cheeses on wooden boards, and different types of wood have varying accents that they add to the flavor. Climate control is also a big issue, as warmer and more humid environments will make cheeses age quicker–but not necessarily more thorough. Artisan Cheese Making at Home has an excellent guide on how to climate control and circulate your home cheese cave.
Photo Credit: Epoch Times