When we first got started with our Milk Sheep, we were very excited about the cheesemaking possibilities with the milk. We knew that to make aged cheeses we would need a cheese cave. A cheese cave is a space that is used to store cheeses while they age. Most cheeses need to age at 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit, and 85% humidity for anywhere from one month to many months. Cheese caves can be as big as a room, or a closet, or something smaller. The size depends on how much space you need. After some research, we realized that the easiest and most cost-effective way to get one would be to make it with a dorm-sized mini refrigerator.
Supplies for a DIY Cheese Cave
Here's what you'll need:
- refrigerator (mini/dorm size is easiest to convert)
- digital temperature controller thermostat that has cooling setting option (I found mine on Amazon)
- digital thermometer/hygrometer with high/low memory
- various shallow tubs and cloths to hold water for humidity
- bamboo mats for the cheese to sit on
Refrigerator. We have made two different cheese caves. One from a small dorm-type refrigerator, and one from a full-sized refrigerator. We live in a very dry climate, and thus getting the humidity up where we wanted it was even more challenging than it would be in a more humid climate. It was much easier to keep the humidity at the right setting with the smaller refrigerator, and that is what I would suggest you use to get started. You can often find them for free or for very inexpensive on buy/sell/trade type of websites. If you need more space, you could use multiple small ones, or you could try to convert a larger one.
Digital Temperature Controller Thermostat. Most refrigerators won’t hold at 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. They generally stay colder than that, even on their warmest setting. This device plugs into the wall, and then you plug your refrigerator into it. It has a thermostat cord that goes into the refrigerator. The device will turn the refrigerator on and off, holding it at about 50 to 55 degrees. The brand we use is Inkbird, and it is very important that you get one that has cooling. If it is just heating, then it won’t work. Ours has both the heating and cooling option.
Digital Thermometer/Hygrometer. It is important to be able to make sure that your cheese cave is indeed holding at the necessary settings. So, having a thermometer and hygrometer inside of it is important. I check it when I am turning my cheeses, or at least twice a week to be sure all is well. It would be awful to have a nicely aged cheese that is months old go bad because you didn’t keep an eye on the settings in the cave. And if you get a digital one that has a high/low memory then it will tell you the high/low for that day, which is helpful too because you want to be sure it is staying in the right range.
Shallow tubs and cloths. To keep the humidity up around 85% in the cave, you will need water. We have found that it is kind of an art to figure out the right amount of water in what size tubs to get the humidity just right. We also use some small terrycloth towels to help as well. Surface area (the area of the water exposed to the air), is very important to humidity. Eight ounces of water in a tall, skinny glass will not increase the humidity as well as eight ounces of water in a short, wide container would.
Set Up a DIY Cheese Cave
Clean thoroughly. First, and most importantly, make sure the refrigerator is super clean. Give it a good thorough scrubbing. Cheese is obviously very sensitive to mold and bacteria, and you want the cave to be very clean to keep your cheese from getting contaminated.
Check temperature. Next, focus on getting the temperature right. Start by plugging the temperature controller thermostat into the electricity and plug the refrigerator into it. Set the thermostat at 52 degrees. Put your digital thermometer/hygrometer into the refrigerator so you will know what temperature it is in there. Leave everything for a few hours and then come back and check to see how it is doing. It should be holding around 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Adjust humidity. Once you have the temperature stabilized, work on the humidity. The set up of your fridge will determine exactly where and how you will set up your humidity containers. In ours the bottom was narrower than the shelf areas, so it made sense to set up the dishes down there, leaving the shelves with as much space for the cheese as possible. What worked best for us was a shallow dish of water that had a terrycloth towel dangling with the corner of it in the water and the rest of it draped over a metal rack.
The terrycloth will continue to wick the moisture up and stay wet as long as we keep the dish of water filled. The terrycloth provides a lot of surface are for the water to evaporate off of to increase the humidity. As you can see in the photo, the rack was set over top of another shallow dish, which also had water in it.
If your refrigerator has a drawer in it, you might be able to pour the water into the drawer and then somehow drape a towel into it and have it up out of the water to evaporate. There are many options. Be creative and play around with it until you have reached optimum humidity with the smallest amount of wasted space in the cave. You need to leave the humidity set-up for several hours and then check your hygrometer to see where it is. Then make changes as needed, wait again, and check again. It can take a few days to get the humidity just right. Remember, more surface area means higher humidity. Having a hygrometer with a high/low memory for the day will help too, so you can see the range that it is staying in. Don’t forget to add water to your dishes as needed, if they dry out the humidity will drop.
Add cheese. When your temperature and humidity are doing well and staying in the set ranges, it is time to add your cheese. We use bamboo mats on the shelves so the cheese is getting the proper air circulation. Be sure to keep an eye on the cave, checking your temperatures and humidity at least a couple times a week to be sure nothing has gone wrong. You don’t want to lose all that great cheese to some sort of malfunction.
Making your own cheese cave from a few simple supplies and a mini refrigerator is much easier than you realize. Within a few days you can be filling your converted refrigerator cave with your delicious homemade cheeses, and in a few months, you will be enjoying eating them.
Kat Ludlam is a wife, homeschooling mother, and homesteader living in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She and her husband own and operate Willow Creek Fiber Mill. Kat enjoys teaching others about homesteading through her writing and photography. You can read about their adventures homesteading at high altitude on her blog Willow Creek Farm and read all of Kat’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts.
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