We are aspiring cheese makers, and after having fun with fresh cheeses of all sorts, we decided to try to make simple aged cheeses such as Jack and Farmhouse Cheddar. After one failed experiment, we realized that in order to make these cheeses well, we would have to have a proper environment for aging (affinage).
Living in a condominium, we don't have a lot of space, so we needed a solution that fit on a kitchen counter and more importantly, fit within our budget. We also needed a solution that could keep the environment constant for 3-6 months at a stretch. Here is the result of our efforts. With a minimum of expense, we now have an environment we can regulate between 45-65 degrees (+/- 3 degrees) and 35-90% relative humidity (+/- 3%). It fits under a kitchen cabinet and takes up a little space next to the sink.
So far we have made a couple of amazing cheeses and are well on our way to more challenging and interesting possibilities.
Step 1: Materials
One countertop wine cooler/refrigerator (we were fortunate to be able to use rewards points to get this 16 bottle Cuisinart model) $185
Three or Four 10" x 16" bakers cooling racks~$8 a pair
One Reptile & Terrarium Humidity/Temperature controller (we used a Zoo Med HygroTherm, also sourced online) $60
One Travel sized personal humidifier (we used a Suppentown, sourced online) $37
One plastic water bottle (free with a bottle of water) $0
Step 2: Step 1: Racking
The first thing you will have to do is remove the curved chromed shelves from the wine cooler. This is straightforward as they are made to simply slide out.
Next you will need to trim the baking racks. We used a mini bolt cutter, but wire cutters or a rotary tool should work fine as well. The key here, since not all the shelf slots are the same width, and your tolerances will need to be smaller than the stock chrome racks. Why? Well, since the bakers racks are thinner wire and need to be rigid to hold your cheese wheels up, they need to fit tightly. In order to achieve this you will need to trim about an inch and a half off initially, then slowly snip in small (1/8th to 3/8ths inch) increments until your racks fit tightly in the shelf slots but don't scratch or bind the sides of the cooler.
Once you have the racks cut to size, you will need to cut a small square out to accommodate your chosen water bottle/humidifier. When choosing a humidifier, smaller is better since the front of the cooler is sloped but the center is raised. You will want your humidifier to fit in the sloped section, or you will loose too much rack space to fit large cheese wheels.
Step 3: Putting the Countertop Cooler Cave Together
Almost there! Next you just need to plug in the temperature/humidity control. Since our wine cooler has a temperature control, we only needed to plug in the humidifier into the humidity side of the unit. Programming the unit for a specific humidity range is straightforward, and you will need to follow the instructions that come with the unit.
Finally, fill the water bottle with water (use filtered, or in our case, distilled since we have our own water distiller), and place it in the humidifier. Turn the humidifier control up all the way. Be sure to route your cords through the door (including the temperature/humidity sensor). We also placed our cooler on a boot tray we had lying around to catch any spills, you can just as easily use a dish tray. The point is, water is going to be condensing on the inside of the cooler, and draining out the bottom. You can rely on the very small, very rear mounted standard drip tray (which will easily overflow in an evening) or put something under the unit that can handle a bit more water and deliver it safely to the sink.
Well, that's it. Good luck and happy cheese making!