Using Wood Aging Boards for Cheese
For centuries, cheese has been placed onto wooden boards while it is aged. The wood shelves we use for aging cheese, are a combination of tight pine boards and ash.
We generally use pine boards for drying cheese, because pine will absorb excess moisture from the cheese.
In addition to cheese boards, we also use plastic boxes, for higher moisture cheese. When needed, these provide an elevated humidity for proper mold development.
Before adding wood boards to a cheese cave, be sure they have been air dried for several seasons. When using pine boards be sure they do not have too many knots or resin spots, because these can stain the cheese surface.
The 3/4” thick shelves we use and the supports are all scaled according to the size and weight of the cheese each shelf holds. These are usually smaller cheeses in the range of 5-10 pounds. The shelf spacing is designed to leave space between the rows of cheese, and also between the cheese and wall, since air circulation is very important.
When cheese is placed too close to the wall or other cheese, mold growth can become a problem, sue to lack of air circulation.
When stacking, we place cheese mats under each cheese, to encourage airflow between the cheese. The only cheese we stack are aged cheese with a very firm and dry rind.
Another option for increasing space in a cheese cave, when aging long aged cheese with hard rinds.
For heavier cheese, shelves need to be substantially thicker and support spans closer together. Below in an example of 90-110 pound Beaufort cheese being aged.
One very efficient system for transporting and aging several cheeses is to use a deeper rack that holds multiple boards, with multiple cheese on each board. The boards are placed on the shelving at a right angle, rather than parallel.
These boards can then be moved carried between locations, giving you the ability to move several cheeses at once.
This can be convent when caring for aging cheese, or moving the cheese to a warmer or cooler location.
Are Wood Aging Boards Good or Bad
Wood has been the aging surface of choice for centuries. The advantages are the porosity of the wood and its natural character. The wood will act as a moisture reservoir, holding moisture when the cheese has excess and returning it to the cheese when low moisture prevails.
Wood also has the ability to provide a place for unique microbes to establish themselves for reseeding the surface molds of many types of cheese.
Another recently understood aspect, from Ireland, is that some of the coryneforms, harbored in the wood, naturally fend off (out-compete) Listeria that tends to grow in washed rind cheese.
Many cheese makers, and affineurs specifically use rough cut wooden boards, because these help air to circulate beneath the cheese. Some use boards with cut grooves across the grain to allow even more air to circulate under the cheese.
Recently there has been much talk about wood boards being bad for aging, because of its porosity harboring many undesirable bacteria that can not be sanitized away.
A recent fight against wood with food handling, was that chefs and restaurants needed to get rid of wood cutting surfaces and knife handles. The errors of their ways were quickly apparent as they found plastic substitutions came with their own problems.
Many larger scale cheese makers have gone to plastic and stainless steel surfaces, especially for aging higher moisture cheese. We do see many benefits from this change, the biggest advantage being plenty of air circulation on washed rinds and mold ripened cheese.
Some regional regulations which require smooth, easily cleanable surfaces will not allow wood. While others allow ‘only hardwood’ to be used in any thing that touches the cheese. Other locations go as far as to require the boards to be held at pasteurization temperatures and times before reuse.
What Type of Wood to Use
In France, a wood called Epicea is primarily used, this tree is in the spruce family. We have also seen Larch being used.
Wood, especially pine and fir, harvested in the summer will be wet and full of moisture, yeasts, and bacteria that will cause cheese to age poorly.
When harvested in the winter, wood will be drier and more suitable for aging cheese. Ideally the wood should be dried for several seasons before being added to a cheese cave, as done in the caves at Roquefort.
Here is a list of good and bad wood we have had experience with
- Ash | Good and strong with an open grain structure for seed microbes
- Bamboo | Quite neutral
- Beech | Very tight surface, slower to absorb and release moisture
- Birch | Similar to beech
- Cedar | It can be very aromatic and interfere with natural cheese aromas
- Larch | Similar to spruce but not as aromatic
- Oak | May work but is heavy to move when cleaning or transporting
- Pine | Good but only use clear without a lot of knots and resin
- Spruce | Very open surface with a positive aromatic quality from the resins
- Mahogany | May cause staining and is too heavy
- Maple | Can cause staining of the cheese
- Redwood | Will stain the cheese
- Teak | May stain and impart an incompatible flavor
- Walnut | Will impart an off flavor and stain the cheese
Note: Avoid Exotic woods and woods that stain or leach natural resins. Many of these have been found to produce toxic resins.
How to Clean Wood Boards and Shelves
Cleaning Wood Aging Boards
After each use, or as needed, the shelves and boards need to be cleaned. The number one rule is no detergents or cleaners. Wood is very absorbent and will take on the scents and detergent, this would not be good for the cheese.
Most cheese makers simply use hot water and a good brush to remove the surface debris. Some larger facilities use a high pressure washing system or specialized automated wash and brush systems.
Sanitizing Wood Aging Boards
Once clean, surface bacteria and molds that are hiding on the surface need to be addressed. When normal sanitizes are not good to use, what is the best answer? Mother Nature, of course. Throughout Europe are stacks of cheese boards drying in the sun. This is not just to remove moisture, the sun has the ability to sanitize naturally, with an abundance of UV. The UV will cut back the numbers of microbes on the boards surface.
It is important to make sure that the boards are well dried before placing them back into the cheese cave.