How do you wash cheese?

Following on from our last article about why we wash the rind of certain cheeses, we asked Matt from our cheese maturing team to tell us more about the techniques or levers that are used in our maturing rooms in Bermondsey to affect the finished flavours and quality of mature washed rind cheese. Understanding the elements below is sure to give you context and greater appreciation for the cheese you have before you when you next sit down to enjoy a delicious wedge of washed rind cheese. Sowhether you are a fellow cheese maturer, a cheesemaker on a mission to experiment with washed rind cheese or simply a true washed rind cheese fan who wants to know more, read on. 

What do you wash cheese with?

There are instances where alcohol is used to wash cheese. This harks back to a tradition of washing cheese that started in monasteries. The preference at Neal’s Yard Dairy tends to be to mature and sell cheeses that are a true expression of the milk and the make, and so we simply use a salt water brine for our washing.

How do you wash cheese?

Most of the time it's simply a case of picking up the cheese and wiping the surface all over with a clean cloth that has been dipped in a little of the washing liquid. If there are mouldy patches developing we might wipe a bit more vigourously to try to get rid of these. Then we return the cheese to the maturing rack, flipped on the opposite side from where it began. Turning with each wash helps to encourage an even development of the rind.  

The exception to this approach for us is with St Cera. We are currently experimenting with the maturing process for this cheese, but this video gives you an idea of our approach to washing them once they are in their boxes.

How much liquid do you use when washing cheese?

There is no need to use too much water or brine while washing, especially once the orange bacteria have become prevalent on the rind. After this, washing helps to clean off any moulds that have grown back and to maintain the correct pH and conditions for further rind development.  

If we use too much liquid, this could unbalance the conditions of the rind by oversaturating the surface.

It is key that there is at least some moisture on the cheese surface while ripening as this, in conjunction with correct room humidity and temperature, will help retain moisture and encourage further breakdown. If the rind gets too dry, cracking or other rind defects may occur. 

Sometimes a sticky rind may form – the first impulse will probably be to let the rind dry out however the correct action is to continue routine washing which will rebalance the rind to correct conditions.

How much salt should you use when washing cheese in brine?

As a general principle – the ammount of salt in brine should be at the same level as the ammount of salt found in the cheese to avoid pulling moisture out of the cheese – unless the objective is to alter ripening by playing with the cheeses salt content. The level of salt in an average washed rind cheese we sell is around 2%.

For pale cheeses, activity of the bacteria can be boosted by increasing salt content or slowed down by decreasing the washing rate or the temperature. Higher concentration salt brines may cause a rind to harden.

At what temperature should you mature washed rind cheese?

Temperature affects the development of microbes and the enzymatic activity in a cheese.

We have found that 10-15' C is the optimal temperature for washed rinds development. Brevibacterium linens and other rind bacteria require a temperature of at least 4' C  and their optimum temperature, along with yeasts, is 20+ 'C. However at this temperature control of the process is lost. Our target temperature of 12' C allows for more controlled gradual ripening and maturation.

Does humidity affect the maturation of washed rind cheese?

High humidity in ripening room (85-100%) aids moisture retention within cheese. This is key. Firstly because it allows for microbial activity, which contributes to the flavour and smell. Secondly the retention of moisture in the cheese supports the development of soft, runny textures, which many people enjoy. Lastly, if there was lower humidity, this would lead to more weight loss. As many of our washed rind cheeses are already small and sold by weight this would have a big financial impact, aside from the quality implications of harder cheeses being less desirable for our customers.

What is the role of acidity in the maturation of washed rind cheeses?

Cheeses ripen faster when the development of the surface microbes is faster. Encouraging the activity of yeasts, for example by keeping the cheese in warm conditions for the first few days, lowers the acidity on the surface of the cheese and kick-starts the ripening process. Very ammoniated conditions may also lower the acidity on the surface of the cheese; however this may have other negative implications for flavour and appearance.

When do you choose to wrap and refrigerate washed rind cheese?

At Neal's Yard Dairy, once the cheese has ripened fully, the cheese is wrapped and kept at a cold temperature to stabilize it. Further maturing is slowed right down by cold temperature. Hopefully the only change at this point will be a slight increase in the depth of flavour and breakdown by the residual activity of the enzymes.

The key reason for wrapping is to protect the cheese until it is sold. The wrapping needs to be breathable so that gases (e.g. ammonia) can be let out and fresh air let in. If cheeses were not wrapped, the cheeses might dry out. Good wrapping paper will absorb a small amount of moisture, and will prevent excessive moisture loss.