In this article, we’re going to look at how to make brine, including how we keep control of its salinity (salt concentration) and how it is used. Before that, it is worth considering why we brine cheese, and there are three really important benefits of the brining process: to add flavour; to remove lactose that could carry on being converted to lactic acid by bacteria, which would prevent proper ripening, and; to form a rind which inhibits surface mould growth.In preparing brine for cheese there are a couple of principles that need to be adhered to consistent with many of the ‘rules of cheese making’ that you are already familiar with. The first is that the water needs to be clean and cool; always keep it below 12C and, although not essential, I still make mine with cooled boiled water to ensure that it is de-chlorinated. With the salt, this needs to be non-iodised but can be any variety.
Not surprisingly, different cheese recipes call for different brine concentrations, measured as a percentage. The following are typical concentrations which require the amount of salt shown per litre of water used: 2%=8g; 10%=82g; 15%=123g; 20%=164g; 22%=173g, 25%=205g (at 25% the water will be saturated, i.e. not all salt will dissolve).
At 2% salt, brine can be used just as a surface wash, whilst at the saturated concentration – which means it is not possible to dissolve any more salt in the water – your brine would be used for firm, washed-rind cheeses. The watch out at this level is that firstly the water needs to be near boiling to dissolve that much slat and the strength of it, at around 25% salt, means that it can too readily draw moisture out of a cheese, so it has to be used either sparingly or very carefully.
To make any concentration of cheese brine you’ll need to follow the same process. Find a non-reactive container that is large enough to take the cheese you have made with room for the liquid to surround it,
remembering that your cheese will float in the salt solution you’re about to make. For consistency and accuracy, measure into that container (or a separate measuring pot if easier) an appropriate amount of cooled boiled water to a whole amount of litres, e.g. 1 litre, 4 litres, etc. This makes the maths so much easier than starting with a fraction of a litre e.g. 3.2litres.
The next step is to weigh out your cheese salt using the appropriate numbers above. Let’s go through an example: if you need a 20% brine solution and are starting with four litres of water, you will need:
4(litres) x 164g salt (from the 20% level given above) = 656g of salt in total.
Add the weighed salt to your four litres of cool water and stir until all of the salt is completely dissolved, which will take some time. Once all the salt is in solution, you will have very accurate 20% salinity brine. You can then use as much or as little of this as you need.
Before placing the pressed cheese in the brine it needs to have been cooled, as warm cheese accelerates the amount of salt absorbed which will result in an over salted cheese. When it’s in the solution, the cheese will need to be turned at least once to ensure that what is originally the top floating above the top of the brine becomes the bottom and has the opportunity to absorb the same amounts of salt whilst evaporating similar amounts of moisture. (This assumes that the cheese is soaked in the brine, some recipes call for the surface to be washed or sprayed with brine, whilst others – famously feta – are stored in the brine as a preservative.)
The amount of time your cheese needs to spend in the brine will depend on how dense it is, how big it is and its weight. The recipe you are following should advise, but a good rule of thumb is two hours per kilo of cheese. After brining, your cheese will need to be air-dried until its surface is dry to the touch. I work on this taking around 24 hours, but it can be longer. Whilst it is drying, your round should be turned regularly to make sure all sides are in contact with the air and it should be kept on a cheese mat to encourage as much air circulation as possible.
Once dry, your cheese is ready to be waxed, wrapped or stored for its natural rind to develop. As for your brine, well, stronger solutions can be kept for up to a month in the fridge (below 20% solutions can harbour bacteria, so are best disposed of), provided it has not been warmed and that any cheese solids have been filtered out of it – although many cheese makers say that they can be kept essentially for ever if they are well maintained…
This video shows a cheese being brined – why don’t you have a go and let me know how you get on.