Preserving with wood ash is a time-honored tradition, and there are traditional techniques for using wood ash to preserve eggs, meat, produce and even cheese.
Project for the day?
Preserving cheese in wood ash….Or, more or less entombing a piece of gruyere in wood ash inside a stoneware crock…and then hoping for the best.
The book Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning describes a method for preserving cheese in wood ash:
“Take a piece of Gruyere that is not too thin. Put it in a stoneware pot and surround the cheese with one to one and a half inches of sifted wood ashes. Store the pot in the cellar. Three months later, the cheese will be as fresh as when it was stored.”
I’ll admit I was skeptical until I started doing a bit of research into all the ways that wood ash is used, especially in traditional food preservation. Wood ash in stoneware crocks was once a common method of egg preservation, and farmers in Africa have had good success storing tomatoes in wood ash for extended periods.
I even came across techniques that described how the Cherokee used hickory ash to preserve meat. I imagine, given that it was specific to hickory, the ash acted to flavor the meat at the same time.
Fair enough. Time to test out this traditional cheese preservation technique in my modern kitchen.
Preserving Cheese in Wood Ash
Step 1: “Take a piece of Gruyere that is not too thin.”
What makes a piece of cheese too thin? I guess we’ll find out. My piece is about 4” square and roughly 1 1/2” thick. I imagine if this works, the outside will need to be removed as the ash will create a new rind around cheese inside.
I assume that’s why they instruct a piece of cheese that’s not too thin because then you’d have nothing left at the end. This piece is pretty thin, but we’ll see.
Step 2: “Put it in a stoneware pot and surround the cheese with one to one and a half inches of sifted wood ashes.”
I happened to have a 1-gallon stoneware crock from Ohio Stoneware that I’d purchased for making potted meat. We do a lot of food science around here, and potted meat, basically slow-cooked meat preserved in a crock under a layer of fat, has been on my list for a while.
They’re also really useful for making sauerkraut and Lacto-fermented pickles. That’ll all have to wait though because this piece of cheese is going in first.
Since I wanted to be on the safe side, so I ended up placing about 1 1/2 inches of sifted wood ash both above and below the cheese. As I started covering it, I’m thinking…goodbye my friend. You’re tasty now I’m sure, and I’ll see you again in 3 months.
Step 3: “Store the pot in the cellar. Three months later, the cheese will be as fresh as when it was stored.”
There’s still plenty of space in this crock, but I’m just going to store this single piece of cheese surrounded by wood ash. The crock has a stoneware lid, and I put it onto the crock. There’s no mention of lidding the container, but there’s also no mention of not lidding it.
Given that rodents could be an issue, and were probably a bigger issue historically, it only makes sense to put on the lid. Generally, stoneware crocks come with fermenting weights too, but I’ve just set that to the side.
I took the crock down to my basement and left it undisturbed for 3 months. Generally, my basement says about 50 degrees F year-round, so it’s a nice cool spot.
I recently read about waxing store-bought cheese at home and aging it in a cool location. Since it’s time for all things cheese on my basement shelf, I also went ahead and waxed a few blocks of local Cabot cheddar.
It’s yet another method of keeping airflow and contaminants away from the outside of cheese, and I’ll be interested to see if it works better or worse than wood ash.
Did it work?
Time for the big reveal…did it work?
Yes! Three months later the cheese is delicious, but not at all what I expected.
I reached in and pulled the cheese out of the ash, and there was a covering of ash attached (as expected). I assumed that I’d need to cut off some kind of rind from the outside, formed by contact with the ash. Not so. The ash just dusted right off.
Small bits of ash stayed on the cheese inside of cracks in the surface, but there was no discernible rind on the outside.
The real question is taste…
I sliced off a piece and tasted it, and honestly, the flavor had improved with storage. The cheese was dryer, and harder now, but it had exquisite flavor. Not surprisingly I suppose, it was like the difference between fresh cheese and one that’s been aged.
There must be a technical term, but I absolutely love aged cheddar and parmesan that’s developed those little “flavor crystals” inside. Basically, dry salty sections that almost have a crunch to them. I’ve only tasted it in 2+ year aged cheddar, and in the fresh parmesan that I ate while studying in Italy long ago.
I compared the flavor of this cheese to the waxed cheese I had stored at the same time. Of course, the waxed cheese was cheddar, so it’s not a direct comparison. Waxing worked to preserve the cheese as well, and the cheddar had also improved in flavor.
Unlike the gruyere in wood ash, it hadn’t dried at all, since the moisture was maintained by the wax. It also didn’t develop that flavor crystal-like texture, but was creamy and smooth instead.
Both the wood ash cheese and the waxed cheddar were delicious in very different ways. The end result for the gruyere is that it’s now a hard grating cheese with exceptional flavor, and I basically have something that tastes more like aged parmesan than fresh gruyere.
All in all, I’m very happy with the results.
This stoneware crock is moving on to other food preservation projects, but I’m pretty sure the whole thing would work well enough in a mason jar. If the cheese was in 3” cubes they’d fit right through the opening of a half-gallon mason jar, and you could fit quite a few in that way.
If you do try this, be sure that your ashes are completely clean hardwood ashes. Namely, be sure you haven’t burned any pressure treated wood, bits of plastic or god knows what else in your wood stove.
And obviously, results may vary, and use our own best judgment. You’re responsible for your own health, and just because it worked in my house doesn’t mean it won’t make you sick. Preserve at your own risk.
More Historical Food Preservation Ideas
The book Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning describes a lot of unique food preservation practices, and I’m looking forward to testing out more of them and sharing the results with y’all.
Beyond just food preservation, it also discusses methods to change the flavor of foods in storage. For example, we already root cellar apples for winter use, but the book suggests storing them with elderflowers. Apparently, the elderflowers impart a flavor into the apples during storage, giving them a tropical flavor like pineapple.
I know that without global shipping, a bit of tropical flavor mid-winter would be pretty exceptional. There’s no mention of a specific apple variety, but I’d imagine it was a selection of winter storage apple varieties.
If you’d like to keep reading about my other historical food preservation research, here are a few more options to keep you reading: