How to Taste Cheese Like an Expert
Tasting is not the same as eating—learning how to actually taste your cheese will help you to better experience and appreciate every bite.
The world of cheese is a fascinating and complex one. While there are only about eight to ten different types of cheese, they can be sub-categorized into many thousands of varieties. If you're wondering how on earth you can navigate this vast world, fear not: Cheese expert Liz Thorpe says your senses are a very reliable guide. By using your eyes and nose first—and then your mouth—you can have a fun, delicious, and educational cheese tasting experience.
While there are some similarities between tasting cheese and tasting wine, Thorpe says, "Cheese is its own thing." Step one: Set yourself up for success but making sure you're not tasting cold cheese. You'll want to let it sit out of the refrigerator, at room temperature, for at least an hour. "If it's straight from the fridge, it's too cold and the flavor is completely muted," advises Thorpe.
Taste with your eyes first.
Once you're ready to taste, Thorpe's first recommendation is to taste with your eyes. Look at the cheese's texture and color. What does the outside/rind look like, versus the inside of the cheese (which is called the paste)? You might notice holes ("eyes"), cracks, fissures, salt crystals, white patches, or color variation. Soft, creamy, spreadable, oozy cheeses are less aged and contain more water. They are likely to have edible rinds, even if the rind looks weird.
Hard, dry, flaky cheeses are more aged and contain less water. They are likely to have rinds not recommended for eating as the rind is also hard and dry, and often takes like dirt. It may be made of wax or cloth—which you definitely don't want to eat! A white, soft "skin" of a rind indicates a Brie style cheese (not necessarily a Brie). Brown mottling on that white rind is normal and fine, but dark brown or reddish spots are a sign that the cheese is too old.
An orange, tacky, sticky rind indicates a Taleggio style cheese (what's called a washed rind). The rind smells bad (like feet, Thorpe says) but this is normal. In fact, the rind is edible, and it's where lots of the flavor comes from. It's been washed in salt water. A bright white paste (interior) is likely to be a goat milk cheese while a buttercup yellow paste is likely to be a grass-fed cows' milk cheese. A cheese with blue mold running through it is a blue cheese, made moldy on purpose. A hard cheese with white specks or white dots inside it is aged over nine months. It'll have crunchy crystals—crystallized protein—when you chew it.
Taste with your nose next.
Next, Thorpe says, taste with your nose. For one, doing so will help you identify a cheese that's "off" (for example, she says, Brie styles should never smell like ammonia or Windex). Secondly, your nose will greatly inform your perception of flavor—in fact, some experts say that up to 80 percent of what we consider taste is actually smell. They're so intertwined, says Thorpe, that a cheese that tastes "grassy" is often a cheese that smells like mown grass.
All cheeses have a smell, but some styles smell stronger than others. For instance, fresh cheese (think: a bright white, no rind cheese like mozzarella or ricotta) should have almost no smell, almost like taking a whiff of a glass of milk. On the other hand, Brie style cheeses with a white rind can smell "pretty funky, like broccoli soup," says Thorpe. Taleggio style cheeses (with an orange rind) smell strongly and often smell "bad" (like sweaty feet), but that's normal for that style, Thorpe reassures. And aged cheeses like cheddars, Parmigiano or Swiss often smell like roasted or toasted nuts.
Last, taste with your mouth.
Now it's time to actually try the cheese. Thorpe likes to taste from the inside out. The flavor gets stronger as you approach the rind, she explains, "so if you don't like the taste under the rind, you're probably not going to like the rind itself.
Lastly, Thorpe says it's important to make a distinction between tasting cheese and eating cheese. When Thorpe is tasting, she's focused on the nuances of the cheese, so she doesn't include any other foods in her tasting, except some plain baguette or water crackers to neutralize flavor in between cheeses. Eating cheese is another story, though. With friends on a Saturday night, Thorpe will serve cheese with all kinds of other foods. She looks to sugar, acid, and spice to cut the fat and protein of cheese, and always includes some crunchy foods for textural contrast.