How to Really Taste Cheese (and Other Foods)

More than a week has passed quietly on The PhCheese blog. Why? Because the cheese doc has been dealing with some afflicted sinuses.

Springtime is beautiful to behold, but terrible to inhale. When the sore throat, runny nose, and hives turn suddenly into a stuffy, hard-of-hearing, difficulty speaking, excuse-me-I-need-to-blow-my-nose-yet-again mess, there is more at stake than the appearance that there’s snot slowly dripping out of your nose when you don’t realize it.

A sinus infection is bad, but it is 15 times worse for someone who works with cheese. After all, scent is a very important sense when it comes to enjoying—and tasting—food and drink.

According to cheese guru Max McCalman, “about 90 percent of what you taste in a cheese’s ‘flavor by mouth’ is aroma” (Mastering Cheese, 94). He goes on to explain that you can smell the surface of the cheese before you put it into your mouth, but that only after you begin to chew the cheese do all of its internal aromatics start to dance on your palate and in your olfactory system.

So in order to really taste cheese, you need to use more than just your mouth and your taste buds. In fact, you need all of your senses. (And if you’ve been paying attention, the how-to is not that dissimilar from the tools I provided for telling whether or not your cheese is still good.)

Here’s a quick and dirty guide to tasting—really tasting—cheese like a pro.

  1. Look at the cheese.

First, use your sense of sight to behold the morsel before you. What color is it? Is it beige, cream, yellow, orange, riddled with blue veins, or sparsely dotted with blue veins? Is it pale white in the center and butter-yellow around the edges? Does it have a natural rind, a bloomy rind, a wax covering? What does the texture look like? Does it appear chalky, smooth, dense? Does it have eye holes or fissures?

  1. Smell the cheese.

Pick up the tender morsel and take a whiff. You may need to clear your senses first, by sniffing coffee beans, taking a sip of sparkling water, or, if you aren’t wearing any lotions or perfumes, by sniffing the inside of your forearm. (I kid you not, this is something I learned from a wine professional who was one of my classmates at the Cheese School of San Francisco; she claimed there is nothing more neutral to you than your own scent.)

Try to pinpoint what you smell. Is it buttery? Sweet? Tart? Cheesy? Dusty? Grassy? Really try to push yourself to come up with words for the sensations reverberating through your nostrils when you smell that cheese nugget.

  1. Touch the cheese.

If you can—as in, if it’s not a liquefying mass of soft ooze—feel the cheese with your (hopefully clean) fingers. This works best on firmer cheeses, unless you really want triple cream all over your hands. Squeeze the paste and the rind. Notice: is it spongy? Does it bounce back? Is it super hard or crumbly? Does it crack in half? If it breaks, do the halves fall into smooth lines or jagged edges?

  1. Then smell the cheese again.

While you were touching the cheese, you actually warmed it up with your fingers. So go ahead and try smelling it again, to see if you can get a stronger sense of any of the cheese’s aromas. Try breaking the cheese in half if you haven’t already done so, and smell the halves that just separated from one another. Are there fresher aromas there than on the cheese’s previously cut surfaces?

  1. Taste just the paste.

Take a nibble of the cheese’s interior, called the paste. Don’t chew and swallow it just yet, though: let it slide around in your mouth and coat your whole tongue. Notice how the paste feels on your tongue, notice whether you smell anything new, notice what you taste. Is it smooth, silky, supple, gritty, grainy, crusty? Is it citrusy, lemony, tart, fresh, buttery, milky, sweet? Does it taste like earth, or hay even, or leather? Push yourself to label the flavors that are floating around in your mouth.

  1. Taste the rind.

If the cheese has a natural rind (as in, not wax, cloth, or anything else that is inedible), take a nibble of the rind. It may be unpleasant, but it’s worth tasting to see what the rind adds to the cheese’s overall flavor profile. Notice whether the rind is hard or soft, rubbery or brittle. Is it metallic, earthy, mushroomy, dank?

  1. Taste the paste together with the rind.

Now taste a bit of paste and rind together, following the same model. Coat your tongue with the cheese, ponder what you taste, and notice how it is different from what you tasted in the paste alone and the rind alone. Are there the same flavors? Are they stronger, more toned down? Is there something new that you taste in the combination of paste and rind?

 

As for the sense of sound? Well, you’ll hear if that Gouda is crunchy, or if the paste snaps when you break it in half. Your ears are less important for tasting cheese, but they might come in handy.

If you’re really interested in tasting or learning about cheese, it helps to keep a cheese journal. Some cheese shops give them out for free, or you can just take notes in a notebook or on your phone. I like to take notes for every cheese I taste, meticulously following the 7 steps outlined above.

I also use wine-tasting vocabulary a lot of the time when I am tasting and smelling cheese—most likely because the tasting forms we used at my last store were actually wine-tasting forms that the boss had adapted for cheese tasting. There are tons of flavor and aroma wheels for cheese that can direct your attention to what you’re tasting, many of them available online.

I can’t tell you what you will smell or taste in cheese if you follow this method, but I bet you will get better at noticing what you taste and smell, and you will learn more about what to expect in different kinds of cheese, why you like or dislike certain cheeses, and your palate will probably evolve and sharpen.

Plus you’ll sound like such a snot at parties when you start riffing on the aromatic profile of that Delice de Bourgogne around the uninitiated. Who could resist?

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