When ageing certain cheeses such as Gouda cheese waxes and cheese coatings are often used. They are the protective coatings that are applied to cheese. The purpose of these coatings is to protect the cheese from moisture, contaminants and mould growth.
Cheese waxes and cheese coatings can be made from a variety of substances, but they all have one common goal - to keep the cheese fresh for as long as possible. Cheese wax is a type of wax that is typically made from a paraffin based product, or less commonly from a microcrystalline source, both of which are a byproduct of crude oil. They are both food grade and are perfectly safe to eat - though they wouldn’t taste very nice! Beeswax is occasionally used as a wax coating but it doesn’t work as well, is difficult to be used and reused repeatedly and doesn’t provide as much mould resistance as the other two forms of wax.
Cheese wax also has an aesthetic appeal and makes the finished cheese stand out - especially when bright colours are used, such as red, yellow and green. Black and clear wax are also commonly used.
Cheese coating is another form of protective layer used in cheesemaking. It is often used in conjunction with cheese wax and adds a protective layer under the wax. Cheese coating usually contains Natamycin which aids in mould prevention as it is a mould inhibitor. Cheese coating is a paint-like liquid which can be brushed on. Once dry more layers can be added if necessary or wax can then be added.
Cheese wax or coating is the best way to protect cheese from drying out and to prevent mould from forming on it. If you’re wondering how to apply cheese coatings or waxes, the best way depends on what finish you are aiming for. Before starting with either wax or coating, the cheese will need to be air dried for a few days first. The cheese must be dry before it is coated and free from mould. If there is any mould growth present on the cheese it should be cleaned off first with white vinegar or a brine solution.
The best way to apply cheese coatings is to either paint them on using a brush, smear it over the cheese using your fingers (best to wear clean latex gloves whilst doing this) or dip the cheese in the coating. If you are just using the coating and not adding wax then you’ll want to let the coating dry before repeating the process. Keep adding layers until you get the desired finish you are after. Cheese coating provides a much more breathable protective layer on the cheese compared to wax.
Applying wax is a little different. You can either apply the wax at a low temperature or at a high temperature. Use a pan that can sit over another pan of water, like a double boiler to melt the wax. It is best if you keep this pan and use it only for wax as it can be quite difficult to clean it out afterwards. Cheese wax is designed to be melted and then remelted over and over again.
If you are heating the wax at a low temperature you are far less likely to burn yourself or cause a fire risk - so it is a much safer way to use the wax. Heat it up till it has melted then remove from the heat. The downside of using wax at a low temperature means that there is a slight risk of mould appearing on the cheese. It is therefore recommended that a layer or two coating is used first if the low temperature method is being used.
The wax can be brushed onto the cheese (using a brush with natural bristles). If using a brush, it must be made of natural bristles, using plastic ones means that the bristles run the risk of melting due to the high temperature of the wax. Probably the best method is to dip the cheese into the wax. Two to three layers of wax is usually sufficient, to give the level of protection required.
The high temperature method involves heating the wax up to much higher temperature - higher even than boiling water. Therefore safety precautions must be taken. It is advisable to wear protective gloves, long sleeves, trousers and eyewear, as molten wax will not only burn if it comes into contact with skin, it also sticks to it.
Lay waxed paper or kitchen foil down where you are working as hot wax is difficult to clean up. Heat the wax up to 106-113°C. Once at this temperature turn the heat off and remove the pan from the heat source. It is vital that the wax does not get heated any higher than this temperature. At around 200°C the wax is in danger of catching fire so it is important to stay well below this flash point.
Dip the cheese into the wax and allow to dry. This can be done in two halves i.e one half of the cheese is dipped, allowed to dry then the second half is dipped. Repeat this process, two to three layers is best. The benefit of using a hotter wax is that any mould spores will be killed off so you'll be extremely unlikely to get any mould appearing on the surface of the cheese. You’ll also eliminate the need to apply a layer of cheese coating first. Personally, I would alway recommend using the safer lower temperature method and using a layer or two of cheese coating first.
Cheese wax has the advantage of being a much more protective, tougher layer than coating but it isn’t as breathable. It comes down to the type of cheese you are producing as to which finish you’d prefer. There are plenty of cheeses that shouldn’t be waxed at all as you are trying to develop mould growth on the rind.
The advantages of the protection offered by using wax, coating or a combination of both has been covered but there are other methods you can use to protect your cheese whilst you’re ageing it. One traditional method is bandaging the cheese. This is often done with Cheddar, and cheeses that need to be aged for a long time, waxed cheeses tend to be aged for a few months only. The cheese is usually smeared with butter or lard before wrapping in cloth. Bandaging a cheese by wrapping it up, using muslin cloth (like the cheesecloths used to strain the curds), slows evaporation leading to a moister aged cheese. The mould growth will also grow on the surface of the bandage and not the cheese itself.
Another traditional method is to ‘oil’ the cheese using olive oil. This helps to prevent mould growth and excludes moisture loss. Commonly done with Spanish cheeses such as Manchego. Various papers such as waxed paper, and Brie wrap and foil wraps used for blue cheeses are other methods employed to protect the cheese whilst it ages. A more modern approach is to vacuum pack your cheese and this method is used more often these days commercially.