What is Affinage in Cheesemaking? (RIPENING)

What is Affinage in Cheesemaking? - Cheese Origin (UPDATED)

Affinage is the final stage of the cheesemaking process after:

  1. milking
  2. curdling
  3. molding
  4. draining
  5. salting

This final step is crucial one because it gives the cheese its color, rind, texture, aroma, and flavor through aging.

During this phase, the cheese undergoes transformation by microorganisms (bacteria, yeasts, or molds) controlled by the affineur.

Did you know?
Affinage is a French term that means maturing cheeses by aging and/or ripening them.

A cheese is said to be ripe, or affiné, when it reaches optimal maturity during the aging process.

Also read: Science of Cheesemaking: Bacteria, Mold & Yeast

What is an Affineur?

An affineur is a cheese-aging specialist who overlooks the affinage process to make sure the cheese reaches its optimal maturity in a ventilated environment.

The affineur – who people called the sorcerous of cheese – must manage three key elements:

  • Air
  • Temperature
  • Humidity

This job requires repetition, patience, and passion because regardless of the weather, an affineur pampers the cheese daily by rubbing, salting, washing, and turning it.

It is a very physical job that demands absolute precision.

The affineur also has to choose the right places in the caves d’affinage for optimum ripening.

Temperature, humidity, and ventilation inside the caves have to be regulated on a consistent basis to create the best conditions for perfect cheese ripening.

These are some of the crucial roles that an affineur performs:

  • Tasting the cheese and checking its firmness. Observing its color and aspect.
  • Assessing and adjusting the ambient humidity.
  • In the case of Comté, the affineur uses a small hammer to tap the rind and ‘ring’ the wheels, like a bell. From the tones, he is able to determine whether the cheeses need further aging or if they are ready to be eaten.

Do All Cheeses Undergo Affinage?

Most cheeses undergo affinage, with the exception of fresh cheeses like fromages frais or fromages blancs and whey cheeses which are not ripened.

A fromage frais is literally a ‘fresh’ cheese, one whose curds have just separated from the whey and drained.

Why Do Cheeses Need to be Ripened?

So that cheeses can:

  • Be preserved for longer periods of time
  • Have their own unique aromas and flavors
  • Develop a rind

Developing a rind is awesome because it turns bland, tasteless curds into a flavorful, fragrant, and beautifully textured cheese.

Each family of cheeses requires different attention.

Also read: Can I Eat the Rind on Cheese?

The Two Types of Ripening Procedure

Surface Affinage

This is the quickest method but it is less stable.

Enzymes are applied to the surface of the cheese and gradually make their way to the interior.

This is how affineurs create bloomy rinds with their downy Brie-like white coats, or washed rinds, with their smooth glossy exteriors and beautiful yellow hues.

Surface affinage: Majority of natural-rind cheeses such as Comté, L’Etivaz, etc. For cheeses such as Camembert and Époisses, microorganisms are occasionally added to aid the affinage process.

Interior Affinage

This is the more stable albeit slower method.

Like aged wine, some cheeses can be matured for months or even years, before being consumed.

Interior affinage: Roquefort, Bleu de Gex, Irish Crozier Blue, Dutch Goudas, etc.

Where Do Cheeses Mature or Aged?

Cheeses are aged either at the farm or dairy where they were made, or the affineur takes care of them.

The cheesemonger who sells the cheese may also ripen cheeses in their own caves d’affinage or boutique.

The affinage process usually happens in a ventilated environment. These range from high-tech temperature-controlled chambers to famous cellars to natural caves in the rock.

The temperature-humidity combination, which is fundamental, varies according to the type of cheese (with the exception of fresh cheese and whey cheese, which are not ripened).

It is the affinage that lends each cheese its distinct characteristics.

How Long Does a Cheese Need to Be Ripened?

The duration of cheese ripening differs between families of cheeses and products: some are ripened for only a few days (especially small cheeses), while others take much longer.

Ripening time is directly related to the properties of milk, the breed of the animal, the way its milk was produced, the cheesemaker’s techniques, and local attributes such as weather, the season, and even the condition of the building where the cheese was produced.

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During maturation, each type of cheese requires different temperatures and relative humidity in the caves d’affinage, or ripening rooms.

The Seasonal Impact on Affinage

Affinage is extremely dependent on seasonal changes – even caves d’affinage undergoes climatic changes.

The affineur has to control the caves d’affinage’s own microclimate to keep it as stable as possible, closely controlling humidity and temperature.

Fortunately, most caves today are controlled by elaborate technology, evaporators, humidifiers, refrigeration, and heating.

Nevertheless, some still operate in a traditional way, such as the Roquefort region in France where the cheese is ripened in the fleurs of the natural rock formations.

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