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The Science of Cheese Aging From Fresh to Aged Delights

Cheese, that delightful dairy creation, has captured the hearts and palates of many around the world. The diversity in cheese knowledge and preferences is vast, yet one question consistently rises to the surface, like a creamy Camembert in the making: “How long was this aged?”

Whether you’re savoring a young Camembert or a well-aged Parmigiano Reggiano, that first question almost invariably centers around the cheese’s age. It’s rarely about the cheese-making process or the cow’s diet, although those factors are crucial in flavor development. At its core, cheese is a result of milk, rennet, cultures, and salt, and the smallest adjustments in these variables create a myriad of cheeses.

Andrea Robuschi, a representative of Italy’s Parmigiano Reggiano producers’ consortium, aptly points out that “every day the milk differs according to the season, the type of fodder that the cow ate, the temperature, and many other factors.” Particularly when complexity outweighs consistency in a cheese, you’ll find that the same cheese can fluctuate significantly in flavor and texture from one batch to another.

Yet, the concept of cheese aging carries a certain mystique, partly due to its proximity to wine. Even though only 1 percent of wine is meant to be aged, we often attribute flavor nuances to age rather than the skilled, responsible farming practices that contribute to a cheese’s character. In reality, most cheese on the market is aged a year or even less, and that might just be the perfect age for it.

The Science of Aging Cheese

The art of aging cheese is known as “affinage,” derived from the French verb “affiner,” meaning “to refine.” As cheese ages, it loses moisture and undergoes changes in both flavor and texture. Pat Polowsky, founder of Cheese Science Toolkit, a technical resource for the cheesemaking community, explains that this transformation is primarily due to the breakdown of protein (proteolysis) and fat (lipolysis).

Intact protein in cheese doesn’t have much flavor, but as it breaks down, it forms smaller protein pieces called peptides and free amino acids, which are the fundamental building blocks of protein. These molecules may carry flavors themselves, or they may react with other compounds to create unique flavors. For example, the eggy flavor in some cheddars is a result of amino acid breakdown.

Fat also breaks down into free fatty acids, which can interact more readily with our scent and taste receptors, leading to distinct flavors. Lipolysis can even result in the piquant notes found in certain cheeses like provolone.

Additionally, lactose, the sugar in milk, is fermented into lactic acid during cheese production. This lactic acid further breaks down during the aging process, leading to unique characteristics in cheeses like Swiss Emmentaler.

Avoid DIY Affinage

Not all cheese is suitable for aging. Cheeses like mozzarella, Brie, and fresh chèvre are meant to be enjoyed when they’re young. Even cheese varieties meant for aging require an expert’s touch to achieve the desired results. Attempting to age cheese at home, especially with varieties not designed for aging, often leads to undesirable outcomes.

Polowsky advises against aging cheese at home, as the moisture and temperature control necessary for proper aging are challenging to maintain. Your regular fridge is designed to preserve cheese at the point the cheesemaker intended it to be sold, not to support further aging.

How Professionals Age Cheese

When cheese is aged professionally, the process is a whole different story. Take, for example, Parmigiano Reggiano, where aging occurs under the strict supervision of the producer, regulating humidity and temperature. After 12 months, experts test each wheel for defects that could compromise quality if aged further. The oldest Parmigiano you’ll find in the U.S. market is typically five years, and even that is quite rare.

In places like Wisconsin, cheesemakers go to great lengths to age their products. Hook’s Cheese Company, for instance, has ventured into aging 20-year cheddars. They achieve this by vacuum-sealing the cheese and maintaining it at a precise temperature. The result is a cheese with less acidity, and flavors that are both smooth and crunchy, enriched with calcium lactate crystals.

Is Very Aged Cheese Worth It?

The question of whether very aged cheese is worth the price remains a subjective one. While age isn’t the sole indicator of quality, there’s something undeniably special about tasting cheese that has weathered the years. The flavors in very aged cheeses can be remarkably pronounced, and the texture offers a unique contrast between smoothness and crunchiness. It’s an experience that’s worth indulging in, even if it’s only once in a while.

In conclusion, the world of cheese aging is a complex and fascinating one. Whether you’re savoring a fresh young cheese or a time-honored vintage, it’s a reminder of the artistry behind the creation and aging of these delectable dairy wonders.

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Belinda Hains

Here to share my deep passion for all things cheese with you, I'm on a mission to make the cheesy world more delightful.