Wooden boards give life to aged cheeses

Cheese cave at uplands

Cheese cave at Uplands Cheese Company. Photo by jonny.hunter via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Lest yesterday’s post about the UW Dairy Cattle Center open house lead you to think that I frown on the university’s entire dairy program, I thought today I’d share some info from the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research’s latest newsletter. Bénédicte Coudé and Professor Emeritus Bill Wendorff provide details on the safe use of wooden boards in cheesemaking:

Wooden boards have been used for many years in most traditional cheesemaking countries as a shelving mechanism for aging cheese. In France, more than 300,000 tons of cheese are ripened on wooden boards each year (Meyer, 2005). Most artisan cheesemakers feel that wooden shelves favor cheese rind development and improve the organoleptic qualities of aged cheeses thanks to the formation of a biofilm on the wood surface.

Biofilm, you say? Yep, that’s cheesemaking magic at its best. As Will Fertman describes in a piece for the cheese magazine, culture,

Take a look at an uncut wheel of Camembert, wrapped in its bloomy white jacket. All that luscious rind—the best part to many people—is made of microbes; the cheese itself begins a few millimeters under the surface. The entire outer crust is actually a colony of organisms, sealing the paste away from pathogens and contributing its own unique flavors to the finished product.

The technical term for this community is biofilm, a web of interconnected microbes that rely on each other to create their own environment, like a coral reef. Biofilms are found everywhere that microbes settle, from a slippery river rock to the lining of your stomach….

But biofilms aren’t just masses of microbes; they’re organized. Individual cells constantly send out and measure chemical signals in a process called quorum sensing. When the bacterium or fungus detects enough of its own kind (or enough other species) in the area, the cells switch from acting as individuals to acting as part of a community of connected organisms.

By knitting themselves together with strands of protein and sugars, the microbes become much tougher. While this is a problem with pathogenic microbes, which become harder to control with chemicals or antibiotics, cheesemakers take advantage of biofilm’s toughness by cultivating edible versions that resist the growth of undesirable bacteria and mold, while regulating the flow of gas and moisture into and out of the cheese paste.

But is it this wood-riding biofilm safe? Yep, if the right steps are taken. Coudé and Wendorff conclude that

considering the beneficial effects of wood boards on cheese ripening and rind formation, the use of wood boards does not seem to present any danger of contamination by pathogenic bacteria as long as a thorough cleaning procedure is followed.

Want all the fascinating technical details? You can find their article on pages 8 and 9 of this PDF.

Finally, to see an award-winning cheesemaker at work, aging his much-sought-after cheeses on wooden boards (and even wrapped in spruce bark), check out the episode of Wisconsin Foodie that features Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese. (Hatch also happens to be a dairy science alum of UW-Madison.) Enjoy the whole program if you’ve got time, or skip ahead to catch a couple minutes starting at time mark 10:11.

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2 comments

    • Todd Ingram

      Sorry, Steven — CDR reorganized their website after I originally posted this. I’ve updated the link above with the new URL, so you should be able to find the PDF now.

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