How to Taste Cheese

June 10, 2010

Just like drinking wine, I get frustrated when I eat cheese that I can taste a difference, but seem to lack the vocabulary to describe what I taste. I end up describing probably a vast majority of the cheeses I taste as “nutty”, but not all cheeses taste the same, so I should be able to describe them differently. The New American Cheese: Profiles of America’s Great Cheesemakers and Recipes for Cooking with Cheese by Laura Werlin is about the only book that I’ve really seen address how to taste cheese.

When drinking wine, one talks about how a wine looks, smells, how it feels in the mouth, and how it tastes. Cheese can follow along those same lines.

Visually, one should ask a cheesemonger how a cheese should look. Different varieties will have different qualities too look for, such as a blue cheese should show mold, but a Cheddar cheese should not.

Cheese might smell pungent, strong, sweet, or other descriptors.

When it comes to mouth feel and cheese, it is usually thought of as texture. Cheese can be smooth, granular, creamy, rubbery, etc. Werlin even suggests that the average cheese consumer can realize when something is wrong with the cheese due to texture, and gives the example that a semi-soft cheese should not taste granular. In addition, a cheese labeled hard should not have a soft mouth feel, indicating it was not aged as long as it should have been.

Finally, for tasting, Werlin suggests that certain cheeses have certain characteristics:

For example, fresh goat cheese naturally has a lot of acid, resulting in a tangy flavor, while an aged sheep’s milk cheese usually has a more pronounced, earthy flavor. Aged cheeses in general, devoid of most of their moisture, are often saltier and stronger, while a young cow’s milk cheese might be a little tangy. A cheddar is often nutty, as is a Gruyère and some Goudas. As for blue cheese, the salt factor often distinguishes the style and age of the cheese.

Nothing replaces actually eating the cheese, so when looking to purchase cheese, Werlin says to ask for samples, and try several of the same kinds of cheese within a category. Consume the cheese at room temperature, and take your time. “What is the first sensation you get? Is it salty? Bitter? Strong? Sweet?… What is its texture?” When tasting at home for the sake of tasting, do not consume with other foods except bread or unflavored, low sodium crackers so that they do not taint your palate, and consume only water.

Werlin suggests the following words to use as a cheese vocabulary. Some attributes appear in both the favorable and less favorable groups, so it depends on the cheese and your senses as to which one it is:

Texture and/or Apperance, favorable: cloth-wrapped, cracked, crumbly, crystallized, firm, fresh-looking veiny, natural rind, open, plastic-wrapped, runny, silky, smooth,  soft, solid, supple, vacuum-sealed, veiny, velvety, wax or paraffin rind, well-shaped

Texture, less favorable: chalky, curdy, dried out, dull, gummy, huffed, ill-shaped, lopsided, moldy, mottled, off-color, oily, open, pale, pasty, rind rot, rubbery, rust-colored, saggy, slimy, transparent, unnatural color, unappetizing

Aroma, favorable: barnyardy, earthy, floral, fresh, fresh milk, fruity, gamy, garlicy, moldlike, musty, nutty, oniony, perfumy, smoky, subtle, sweet, truffly, vegetal

Aroma, less favorable: acrid, ammoniated, barnyardy, gamy, pungent, sour, sour milk.

Mouthfeel, favorable: body, buttery, chalky, chewy, crumbly, dense, fondant-like, grainy, hard, pasty, silky, smooth, soft, toothsome, velvety, waxy

Mouthfeel, less favorable: acidic, chalky, coarse, curdy, gymmy, porous, rubbery, runny, supple, tough

Flavor, favorable: acidic, applelike, balanced (milk/acid), barnyardy, butterscotch, buttery, citrusy, clean, coffee, complex, creamy, delicate, earthy, explosive, farmlike, feed, fresh milk, fruity, grassy, hay, hazelnut, herbaceous, herb-flavored, lemony, moldy, mushroomy, nutty, peppery, piquant, rich, ripe, robust, rustic, savory, sharp, smoked, smoky, spicy, springlike, strong, sweet, tangy, tart, toffee, truffly, vegetal, wine-cured, yeasty, zesty

Flavor, less favorable: acidic, acrid, ammoniated, artificial, barnyardy, bitter, flat, garlicky, metallic, moldy, oily, one-dimensional, overpowering, overripe, plastic-wrap, pungent, rancid, soapy, sour, strong, sulfurous, watery, waxy, weedy

Most importantly, have fun. Werlin says, “Unlike wine, cheese has never been a source of intimidation for Americans, nor should it become so now.”

Additional readings: The Cheese Plate and Mastering Cheese, both by Max McCalman and David Gibbons. The later has a chapter titled, “Cheese Flavor: What it is and where it comes from.”

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