Salt is instrumental in the making of most preserved foods. Cheese is no exception.
Salt pulls moisture out of cheeses, preparing them thus for their ageing journey. Without adequate salting, cheeses remain too moist. As moist cheeses age, they succumb to rampant, unwanted mould and bacterial growth. On the other hand, excessive salting can leave cheeses parched, and thus prevent a cheese from ageing by limiting bacterial and fungal development.
Salting also gives cheeses their rinds. Rinds help keep cheeses together as they age: rinds hold in the molten insides of a ripe Camembert; they keep Feta from dissolving into its brine; and they keep cheeses from drying out.
Salting can proceed in either of two ways: surface salting or brining. Both achieve the same end.
Salt’s magic powers:
Salt pulls moisture out of cheese by a means called osmosis. Osmosis defines the way in which salt pulls moisture towards it. If two objects are in contact with one another, and one object is saltier than the other, the saltier object will pull moisture from the less salty object, while salt will move from the saltier to the less salty. Like so, osmosis maintains a salt and water balance between two neighbouring objects.
In the context of cheese, salt is put upon the surface of freshly formed cheeses. The cheeses are less salty, and have more moisture than the salt. As such, the salt on the surface of the cheese pulls moisture out of the cheese. And to establish a salt and water balance, some salt from the surface migrates within. Overtime, the salt grains on the surface melt into puddles of whey pulled out from the cheese, and the cheese becomes less moist and saltier.
Types of Salt
Unrefined sea salt is my salt of choice. Salts that won’t work for cheesemaking are coarse-grained salts, or iodized salt.
Unrefined sea salt contains within it trace minerals that add flavour and nutrients to your cheeses. These minerals will also add a slight bit of grey/brown colour to your cheese. This addition of colour can enhance your cheeses – use pink Himalayan salt upon your cheeses, and watch them turn rosy….
Kosher salt is another good choice for cheesemaking. Kosher salt is a refined and additive free salt, whose flake like texture adheres well to cheese.
Iodized salt contains iodine, a necessary nutrient added to salt to reduce the instance of certain nutritional deficiencies. Iodine is also an antibacterial agent. It is used to clean out wounds, and it will clean out your cheese if it’s what you choose to use.
Coarse-grained salt does not stick so easily upon the surface of your cheese. Choose fine-grained in preference, as the grains will adhere better to the cheese. Cheese salt, available at many cheese supply shops, is refined, non-iodized rock salt, ultra finely ground.
Smoked salts can be used to imbue your cheeses with fine smoked flavour without having to smoke them.
To surface salt a cheese, apply the appropriate amount of salt to the surface of the cheese. Most cheesemakers add 2% salt by weight. I add a certain amount of salt based on the amount of milk I’ve used to make cheese. For every gallon of milk used, I add one tablespoon of salt. So if my wheel of cheese evolved from three gallons of milk, I will apply three tablespoons of salt. If my gallon of milk made three camemberts, every camembert will get one third of a tablespoon of salt – equivalent to one teaspoon.
Spread the cheese around the surface of the cheese as evenly as possible. No need to be overzealous about the spreading – the salt will spread throughout the cheese quite well on its own.
Only cheeses of a small size can be surface salted. Large cheeses over a certain size are difficult to surface salt, as their surfaces are not large enough to hold on to the large quantities of salt needed to salt them. Most cheesemakers brine larger cheeses.
Brining cheeses involves submerging them in saturated salt brine. As these brines have a known concentration of salt, cheeses can be left in the brine for a certain amount of time to salt them. For every kg of cheese, four hours are spent in the brine. So a Cheddar that weighs 10kg will spend 40 hours in the brine, while a camembert that weighs one quarter of a kilo will spend one hour in the brine.
To prepare a saturated salt brine, take one gallon or more of whey from the cheese that you’ve made. Don’t mix wheys from different cheeses because of the risks of cross contamination. Whey from a blue cheese, for example, contains mould spores that could cause blue mould growth on Camemberts that have been brined within it.
Warm up that gallon of whey slightly, to help dissolve the salt, then pour in five cups of non-iodized salt. Stir the whey until the salt is mostly dissolved. Some salt should remain in the bottom of the brine as a salt reservoir which will be used up as cheeses are salted in the brine.
Brines can be used almost indefinitely. Many cheesemakers use them for many years. If you do reuse your salt brines, be sure that there is always a reservoir of undissolved salt at the bottom. If there isn’t, add a cup of salt. Keep your brines in a cool space between uses.
It may seem counterintuitive that you’d place cheeses into a liquid brine to dry them out. However, the saturated salt brine is saltier than the cheeses, and thus pulls moisture out of the cheeses to establish a salt balance between the two. During brining, some salt also migrates into the cheese.
After salting, all cheeses must be air dried to wick away excess surface moisture. Leave your cheeses out at room temperature on an appropriate drying rack. I leave my cheeses to air dry on a sushi mat raised up on a baking rack, over a vessel that will catch any dripping whey. Flip your cheeses once or twice as they sit out to assure even drying conditions.
Cheeses need about 24 hours of air-drying before they are sufficiently salted. When ready, their surfaces should feel dry to the touch, and should lack any sheen. At this point, cheeses are ready to be put away into the cave for ageing.