The Art of Tasting Cheese

Expert Laura Werlin, author of The New American cheese shares tips that help take the mystery out of a trip to the local cheese shop.

So how do you taste cheese?

First, there’s no substitute for putting it in your mouth. A simple glance at a cheese won’t help. Nor will taking a whiff. You must taste it. Don’t be afraid to ask retailers for a sample.

They’re usually ecstatic when a customer wants to learn more. But if you’re stymied about what to do with the cheese once it’s in your hands.

Here are a few hints:

  • First, tell the retailer what style of cheese you like. Then ask for one or two recommendations.
  • Try several cheeses in the same category. Don’t try a blue cheese and then a fresh goat cheese. Instead go from mild to strong, soft to hard, within the same category of cheeses.
  • A cheese should always be at room temperature before sampling. A cold cheese has muted flavors and aromas and cannot be appreciated at its full value.
  • If the cheese is not at room temperature, take a small piece and rub it between your thumb and index finger. Then smell it. By rubbing it, you’re warming it up and you’re also helping to release some of its aromas, which will in turn further your evaluation of the cheese. The aroma is just as important as the taste, and this is the simplest way to coax out this essential component in the cheese. Also, by rubbing it between your fingers you will begin to get a visceral understanding of the differences between semi-soft, semi-hard, and hard cheeses. There’s nothing like touching a cheese to understand its moisture or dryness.
  • Take your time. It is important to really pay attention to what you’re tasting.
  • If you can, taste with people who know more than you. They can help educate you and your palate.
  • Look at the cheese. Its visual appeal is not only an aesthetic consideration but also one of the best indicators of the condition of the cheese. If, for example, a hard cheese is cracking and has some blue mold in the middle of it, it might be over the hill. On the other hand, if a soft-ripened cheese is beginning to sag a little, it’s simply in the process of ripening and could very well be at its peak. Ask your cheese monger to guide you.
  • Treat cheese tasting a little like wine tasting: What is the color of the cheese? What is its texture? Swish it around in your mouth and see how your different taste receptors respond to the nuances in the cheese.
  • Try not to sample the cut side of a cheese if it has been exposed to plastic wrap. Sometimes plastic can impart a flavor that will alter the taste of the cheese.
  • Sample cheese from its center to its rind. Even if you’re eating a cheese that doesn’t have an edible rind, it will taste different at its core, or its paste (or p√Ęte) as it is called, than it does closer to the area that is more exposed to air. This is a good way to gain an appreciation for the particular subtleties existent within the same cheese.
  • “Listen” to what you’re tasting. Don’t chew rapidly and swallow. Instead, chew slowly and work the cheese through your mouth, from the front of the mouth to the back. What is the first sensation you get? Is it salty? Bitter? Strong? Sweet? Press it against the roof of your mouth. What is its texture? Keep a small amount of the cheese in your mouth and take a breath through the mouth, exhaling through the nose. This will bring the flavor and scent of the cheese through your nasal passages, which will help you to understand and appreciate both the taste and the smell of the cheese.
  • Try not to talk along the way. Just listen to what your senses are telling you. This will help you get in touch with the intricacies of cheese. Most cheeses are more complex than we give them credit for.

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