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By Kellene Bishop

cheese-wax-controversyIt’s interesting what a seemingly innocuous sounding sentence can do.  Apparently the phrase “you can wax your own cheese and store it” is a vile enough claim to cause some to turn on their evil buttons. Oh the controversy. But the problem is that the misinformed cheese wax controversy is causing some to not have their favorite food group in stock in the event of an emergency. No cheese? That’s practically against my religion. I’d rather be hung by my toes and pummeled with an organic carrot than be forced to survive without chocolate and cheese. So, I consider it my duty to share the sound reasons as to why I’m completely comfortable waxing and storing my own cheese.

Sure as shootin’, if you e-mail or question someone at your local extension office or the USDA they will give you the canned statement that the preservation of dairy products without refrigeration is not recommend and may be harmful to your health. However, as in all government and bureaucratic agencies, if you ask enough people, you’ll find conflicting information. The sanctity of storing cheese without refrigeration is no exception. Not only have I found several government and educational entities which agree that hard cheeses do not require refrigeration, but the history books are replete with examples of cheesemakers, restaurateurs, and homemakers doing without the refrigeration of their cheeses long before and after the 1940’s when refrigeration became more widely accepted.

Before union health inspectors swept through the streets of New York City, no self-respecting Italian would ever refrigerate their freshly made mozzarella cheese. In fact, there are still a handful of devout artists who refuse to do so. In spite of today’s advanced technologies, the shop windows in Poland and France are still dotted with a beautiful range of cheeses hanging from the ceiling, tied with cotton string, and snugly wrapped in cheesecloth and wax. Cheese artists will tell you that the masterpiece taste of cheese lies in the aging process, the quality of molds, starters, fermentation, and brining. Refrigeration merely inhibits these agents from developing—without which the taste buds of any cheese aficionado are offended. But alas, mass production has caused the health departments to step in and ensure that no consumer contracts a deadly foodborne illness—specifically botulism poisoning. Yup. Every year the USDA spends hundreds of million of tax dollars so that they can prevent those 160 cases of botulism which occur about every 10 years—103 of them in Alaska, due to the fermented meat eating habits of the Alaska Natives there.   

It’s interesting to note that after a solid week of research on the internet and in the library, I only found one case in which any persons contacted botulism from “cheese.” And in this particular instance (1951) it was actually a commercially canned cheese sauce that was the perpetrator. Yet for some reason, we are still strongly cautioned against waxing cheese and preserving it. Adding insult to injury, (literally) I get to tolerate the ridiculous e-mails from some, accusing me of being some kind of a fascist because I’m advocating that folks wax and store their own cheese. Such accusations are ostensibly based on scientific research. But my research begs the question, “What kind of science is this?” If I tried to use one case in 1951 as the basis of a 6th grade report on “the dangers of waxing your own cheese” I’d surely get an F grade. We’ve had thousands of individuals who’ve been able to reverse their cancer symptoms with vitamin B-12, and yet that’s not considered to be enough scientific evidence to promote such a valuable and non-invasive treatment for our American citizens. So, I’m thinking that one 11-ounce can of tainted commercially processed cheese sauce is certainly not sufficient scientific evidence to say that waxing my own cheese is bad for me—especially in light of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who have joyfully indulged in cheese preserved this way for generations, in all types of weather, all over the world.

Now, making it perfectly clear that I don’t put much stock in something that the USDA says, common sense and an understanding of botulism should cause any cheese waxer to take certain precautions. So I’m going to give you some additional guidelines in order to prevent you from getting sick. (Cowardly useless disclaimer: Wax and consume waxed cheese at your own risk. There. Now my attorney will be happy.)

Only Wax Hard Cheeses:

Fresh Parmesan Cheese on Pasta. Photo c/o foodwinelove.com

Fresh Parmesan Cheese on Pasta. Photo c/o foodwinelove.com

The less moisture you have in your cheeses, the better they are for waxing. The cheese wax controversy is fed by individuals attempting to wax any kind of cheese. But the hard cheeses are the only kind that should be stored this way. The cheeses that I wax are Parmigiano-Reggiano, cheddar, Swiss, Romano, Gruyere, and Colby. In order to eliminate a problem of moisture coming from the inside of your cheese and causing bacteria, select cheeses to wax that aren’t more than 40% moisture. These cheeses will typically continue to age and get sharper in taste, but I think these kinds of cheeses taste better the sharper they get. I LOVE Gruyere on potatoes, Colby paired with chicken, and Swiss paired with pork, Romano paired with risotto, and Parmesan paired with pasta. The sharper the better. Yum. In my extensive research I found several extension services and university instructions which specifically stated that hard cheeses did NOT require refrigeration such as Purdue, Mississippi State University, and the FDA. The key to this being the case is the hardness of the cheese—meaning the lack of moisture. 

I also interviewed 3 professional cheesemakers over this past week. All of them were of the same opinion and experience that they regularly store the hard cheeses waxed for 2 years or more. Even the cheese aging process requires that cheese be stored at cool room temperatures—not refrigeration.

Waxing Considerations:

  • Part of the cheese wax controversy comes with the problem of using the wrong kind of wax. When it comes to the science of waxing your cheese, I can’t say it strongly enough. The only wax you should use is cheese wax. Please do not use paraffin wax. While the cheese wax actually melts at lower temperatures than paraffin, it can ultimately (and safely) reach a higher temperature than paraffin. You want this in order to prevent any bacteria from growing on the outside. So be sure your wax is hot enough. Germs are killed at 180 degrees, so heat up your wax to 200 degrees so that when the temperature is dropped when you put it on the cheese, you still are applying wax that is 180 degrees or more. (Don’t heat the wax hotter than 210 degrees F. After heating my wax sufficiently, I turn off the heat source completely.)
  • Cheese wax is also more pliable than paraffin. Whatever position you put your cheese in when you store it, gravity will come into play and readjust it a bit. Thus you want a wax that will move with it. Paraffin wax will not do that. Cheese wax also dries faster than paraffin, making your task less time consuming and giving less opportunity for moisture to develop during the waxing process. 
  • In view of the gravity issue I’ve already mentioned, it’s also smart to wax smaller sections of cheese instead of heavy ones in which the weight will cause a greater shift in the position of the cheese. (Since most of my recipes call for 1 to 2 cups of shredded cheese, I like to wax nothing bigger than 16 ounces of cheese.)
  • Use food handling gloves on your hands when you wax the cheese. The oils from your hands will affect how the wax adheres to the cheese. With your bare hands it’s also easy to add germs to your cheese.
  • Red Cheese Wax

    Red Cheese Wax

    Next, the color of wax doesn’t matter. (Some crazy visually impaired person must have started that particular cheese wax controversy :)) The color of the wax is really only symbolic to the commercial cheese industry in terms of how long a cheese has aged. However, I prefer to always use the red or the black wax since it will allow less light into the cheese.

  • Prior to putting your cheese in the wax, or brushing it, be sure to pat the cheese completely dry. You don’t want to see any moisture on it at all. This is part of the reason why I’m adamantly against folks freezing their cheese before or after waxing it. If you freeze it and then put hot wax on it, you are forcing an expansion and condensation process. The same happens if you freeze it after waxing it. You don’t want any expansion going on. Let it sit out to get to room temperature prior to waxing it.
  • If you have trouble getting your wax to adhere to the cheese, then consider wrapping the cheese first in real cheesecloth material. I apply just a little bit of wax with the brush in order to keep the cheesecloth in place prior to dipping it. (For applying wax on your cheese, I don’t recommend using cheap cheesecloth from the grocery store. It barely qualifies as cheesecloth. What you want is a bit thicker, more muslin type. I recommend getting the cheesecloth from a dairy farmer, or a cheesemaking supply retailer on the internet.)
  • Use several thin coats of wax instead of a couple of thick ones. I have adapted to dipping my cheese in the wax 3 separate times and then I brush on the last coat, for a total of 4 coats. It’s key to use the boar’s hair brush, because that will give you the most even and smooth coat of wax. You can brush all of your coats of wax on if you’d like, but it takes longer and it requires more wax. (The good news is though that you can reuse your cheese wax. Just peel it, clean it with soap and water, and then you can re-melt it and use it again. I even save my “Bonne Bell” cheese wax and use it.)
  • When you dip the cheese in the wax, hold the piece above the wax for a full 90 seconds to dry after you’ve dipped it; before dipping in another portion of the cheese. If you lay it down to cool/dry, then you run the risk of a crack or crevice to be created while the wax is cooling. So yes, my arms get tired sometimes, but I’d rather be sure that I’ve done the waxing process right. Also, don’t allow the cheese to sit in the wax when you dip it for longer than 5 seconds. You will run the risk of melting the cheese if you expose it to that heat for that long. (Yes, this is a bit of a tricky dance sometimes.)

Storing Considerations:

The whole point of waxing your cheese is so you don’t have to take up valuable refrigeration space, and so you can still have REAL cheese in the event of a prolonged power outage scenario. It’s no secret that cheese has been around a LONG time—a lot longer than refrigeration. I assure you cheese was not discovered during the Ice Age. In the Roman Empire, cheese had become a major import/export business by 400 B.C. It doesn’t take a paleontologist to confirm that there wasn’t any refrigeration available back then. The Dutch actually created waxing and brining (salting) in order to extend the shelf-life of hard cheeses. I always picture Caesar indulging in cheese whenever he got stressed. :) http://www.publichealthmdc.com/environmental/food/documents/cheese.pdf

Nothing much has changed since then when it comes to storing cheese safely. The key lies in the light permeation and the temperature of your cheese. A non-clear wax used on your cheese can take care of the light issue. Storing your cheese out of direct sunlight, away from heat, and in a cool area takes care of the temperature issue. In fact, when cheese is aged by professional cheesemakers, it’s kept in temperatures ranging between 55-70 degrees F. In the Balkans, for instance, where the climate is warmer, the cheese is stored regularly at 70 degrees F. The storing of cheese at these temperatures occurs for several weeks or months during the aging process, depending on the type of cheese being made. If you don’t have a home which permits you to store your cheese regularly at this temperature range, then I don’t recommend that you try this route of cheese preservation.  

Store, Air, and Rotate:

Cheesecloth photo c/o surlatable.com

Cheesecloth photo c/o surlatable.com

Pick the coolest area of your home to store your cheese in. I recommend either putting the cheese in a cheesecloth (the cheap stuff is OK for this purpose) and then hang it on the ceiling, or to place your waxed cheese in a multi-tiered hanging wire basket trio (like the ones people store their fruits/vegetables in their kitchens.) Cheese is made with an active culture. Thus you want it to be able to “breathe.” I don’t have problems with rodents getting into mine this way. But if you do have a rodent problem, I recommend to keep the waxed cheese in large Mason jars with some holes punched on the top lid for breathing. It’s also recommended to change the position of your cheese every 4 weeks. As I said before, cheese will be affected by gravity. So, change the position so that it doesn’t “move” so much that it cracks the wax and to prevent the moisture from settling in your cheese. And as with EVERY other thing that you store in your food storage, be sure to rotate your cheese and use it as well. 

Some good news for you to know, is that if your cheese does start to crack for some reason, you can simply rewax that area. If you see some mold developing, simply cut off the mold, about an inch deeper than you see it, and rewax that area. The good news is that no, you have not ruined an entire block of cheese. :)

Wisconsin Cheese photo c/o explorewisconsin.com

Wisconsin Cheese photo c/o explorewisconsin.com

On a final note, I think it’s interesting to note that if you were to go to the grocery aisles in the UK, you would not find your cheese in a refrigerated section. (The same goes for eggs and butter as well.) Believe it or not, here in the U.S. I’ve even found guidelines for retailers from the Public Health Dept. of Wisconsin—a state that definitely knows its cheese in which they share a similar sentiment. In their materials for grocers they specifically say that hard cheeses do NOT require refrigeration when on display. Ironically, my research also benefited from one of the very sources which one of my nemesis referred to when accusing me of the high crimes of cheese waxing. Even the local Utah Valley University Extension offices shared this with me in an e-mail:

A few cheeses based on their dryness, fermentation, and a few other factors are safe to store at room temperature. When these cheeses are stored that way, they can develop mold on the surface. Waxing the surface inhibits that mold.

Naturally, he wouldn’t tell me which cheeses he believed would benefit from waxing. But then again, I doubt he intended to help my research in this case either.

All in all, I hope that sharing some of this research on the cheese wax controversy and more specific tips will help you satisfy your desire for cheese in any circumstance.

Copyright 2009 Preparedness Pro & Kellene Bishop.  All rights reserved.  You are welcome to repost this information so long as it is credited to Preparedness Pro & Kellene Bishop.

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