Have you ever cut into a supple slice of Morbier or a creamy chunk of Humboldt Fog and wondered about the presence of ashes in your cheese? It might sound like an odd addition to a food product, but don’t fear the ash! While the ash used in cheese making did once come from the burning of plants such as grape vines, today it is usually made using a combination of salt and dried vegetables, making it both tasteless and entirely food-safe and sterile.
The use of ashes in cheese making is a longstanding tradition with a functional purpose. One example of this is in the production of French Morbier. Cheesemakers would traditionally make this cheese using two batches of milk; the surface of the bottom layer would be coated in ash inside the cheese mold as a preservation tactic while the cheesemaker awaited the next milking. This inhibited the growth of a rind, absorbed excess moisture, and kept insects away from the exposed cheese. The cheesemaker would then add the top layer of curds to complete the Morbier. While Morbier is now made using one day’s milk, the layer of ash remains for the sake of tradition.
Ash is also used to assist in the ripening of certain cheeses. The combination of ash and salt is a highly alkaline mixture which aids in reducing the acidity of certain cheeses. This alkalinity helps host bacteria used in cheese making, especially penicllium candidum: this mold creates the bloomy, soft white rind found on some soft ripened cheeses. By neutralizing acidity in the curd, the cheesemaker is able to ripen their cheese to a specific flavor and texture profile.
Besides aiding in the protection and ripening of cheese, the contrast of the ash layer to the paste of cheese is a beautiful addition to any cheese plate! Get a hold of some ash ripened cheese for your next cheese plate and bite into a delicious piece of historical tradition and chemical balance!
Daniel McElligott, Oldways Cheese Coalition Research Consultant