Aged to perfection. Wood is good. Those are just a few of the phrases we had attached to our name tags at the American Cheese Society Conference the last week of July. The cheese that we make at East Hill Creamery will be cheese that is aged on wood shelves. This is a really interesting process, and we want to tell you more about it in this week’s blog.
Aging cheese on wood is not necessarily a super common practice here in the US, but it is the traditional way to age natural rind cheeses. There is a new found interest in using wood to age cheese as it is traditional, natural, and renewable. It is readily available in our situation. We wrote a blog earlier this year telling you all about our forest and the basswood that we will use for our cheese aging shelves. We are pretty proud of the fact that many parts of our Creamery come from the resources we have at our farm, including all of the wood that is being used and also all of the milk to make the cheese will come from our cows. Go back and read that blog about our forest, and also the one about our forester, if you have a chance.
Back to aging cheese on wood shelves…. You have all probably heard of cheeses like Asiago, Clothbound Cheddar, and Gruyere, correct? These are common cheeses that are aged on wood. Rough-sawn boards are best as they allow more ventilation and prevent cheese from sticking. Wood supports the development of biofilms that act as bacteriocides (disinfectants, antiseptics, or antibiotics) and protect the cheese from pathogens. Wood is a reservoir for microbes that benefit rind formation, and it plays a decisive role in regulating the humidity of the ripening room. Wood absorbs water when the room is too humid and releases it when the room is too dry.
Another great benefit of using wood cheese shelves is that they reduce temperature variation in the ripening room (in a warm, dry room water evaporates from the wood causing radiational cooling). Wood is more functional than plastic or stainless steels—because it breathes, the cheese sticks less, and therefore requires fewer turnings. It prevents 1-2% of weight loss from the cheese during aging.
Some good woods for aging cheeses: spruce, larch, pine, douglas fir, beech (very tight surface that is slower to absorb and release moisture), birch (similar to beech), ash (good and strong and has an open grain structure for seed microbes), and oak (heavy to handle). We are going to age our cheese on basswood since it was used around food years ago to make kitchen utensils and packaging because it did not leave an aftertaste or aroma. It is light and easy to handle. Basswood is not common in most areas (we have an abundance in our forest) and we are going on a hunch that it will work well in our cheese caves. Some woods produce toxic resins so they cannot be used for aging cheese. Proper care and cleaning of the wood is critical, and cold water and a stiff brush or pressure washer are used . Soaking may be needed to loosen cheese residues. Wood must be dry before it is used again for aging cheese. Five days are necessary for the shelves to dry in order to stabilize the water flow from cheese to wooden board. At the end of ripening time: 50% of the wood water comes from cheeses. 50% of the wood water comes from relative humidity of the cave.
We hope that you find this topic as interesting as we do. When our Creamery is complete, you will be able to come and see the cheese caves with our basswood shelves. Please ask us any questions or give us some feedback! We love to hear from you. Thanks for reading today!