There’s a big difference between eating cheese and cheese tasting. To be clear, we believe in enjoying the majesty of cheese in whatever way you like — but in order to appreciate the full spectrum of sensory experiences a cheese can offer, you must train in the art of cheese tasting. Picture yourself as a sommelier of cheese.
How to taste cheese like an expert
Every cheese has its own personality, and no two cheeses are alike - even among the same variety. An aged cheddar from Cedar Grove Cheese can be delightfully different from an aged cheddar made by Hook’s Cheese Company, despite the fact that both belong to the same family of cheese and both hail from Wisconsin.
If all of this sounds intimidating, that’s ok! Your local cheesemonger can help you navigate this new and exciting world of cheese with expert advice on proper cheese tasting.
What’s a cheesemonger? They’re the go-to expert behind the counter at your local cheese shop and the ultimate resource to help you discover your next favorite cheese.
The cheese tasting journey
So where does the cheese tasting journey start? Well, like we talked about in our meat and cheese pairing guide, this journey begins with the eyes.
Before you even touch the cheese, visually take in its appearance. What does the texture look like? What color is the rind? What color is the paste and how does it perhaps contrast with the rind? Are there any cracks or veins of color? Over time, this practice of observation will help you recognize similarities and differences in cheese varieties and give you important keys to a deeper understanding of specific cheese characteristics.
The next step on the cheese tasting journey is touch. Getting a tactile reference for the cheese also influences your perception of taste (seriously, it’s science). Is the cheese hard or soft? Is it light and crumbly or dense and hard? These cues can help you pin down cheese characteristics like aging and the type of rind.
Take a deep breath in through your nose. Right this moment, millions of neurons in your brain are dissecting all the smells around you and telling you what’s what.
Smell is one of our most developed senses, so it should come as no surprise that around 80% of our “taste” actually comes from “smell.”
When smelling cheese, make sure you keep some distance between the cheese and your nose—some nose-kicking cheeses like limburger or muenster pack a wonderful but distinctly pungent punch! You can also slowly wave your hand towards your face, gently wafting those beautiful aromas right into your olfactory system.
What kind of smells should you be looking for? Cheesemongers keep an eye out for these notes:
- Lactic (milky)
Finally, the part any cheese enthusiast has been waiting for: taste. Resist the temptation to start with a big chunk. You want a small piece that can comfortably sit on your tongue and move around your mouth. It might help to close your eyes so you can really focus on the dance of flavors.
Trying to pin down all the particular flavors you’re experiencing can be challenging, or even overwhelming! Use the five flavors that the taste buds on our tongue are capable of discerning as a jumping off point:
- Umami (savory)
As you spend some time acquainting the cheese with your mouth, pay particular attention to any flavors that shine a bit brighter than the rest. These persistent flavors left after swallowing are known as the finish.
Don’t feel bad if you can’t quite put your finger on all the flavors and aromas you’re experiencing. Like anything, cheese tasting takes practice.
The best solution in this situation is practice, practice, practice! Go ahead and have more cheese, consciously moving through each of these steps, and improving your cheese tasting skills. You’ll quickly find a new appreciation for the incredible range of tastes and flavors that every cheese brings to the table.
Tasting notes of common cheeses
Looking for some guidance for common tasting notes? We’ve compiled this quick list of popular cheeses and their flavors. Trying some of these cheeses can help calibrate your cheese tasting abilities and put you on the road to being a cheese pro!
Gouda often has caramel and butterscotch notes that taste like cooked sugar and intensify with age.
Inspired by traditional cheeses from the Alps, Wisconsin Cheese Makers have adopted the alpine-style and given it a unique dash of Wisconsin terroir. Alpine-style cheeses are famously nutty, with a flavor similar to toasted hazelnuts. You can also expect some grassy notes that will remind you of a freshly cut lawn on a summer evening.
Recognized as the most popular cheese in America, mozzarella offers up a milky and lactic aroma with flavors similar to cream or whole milk. All that milk means you’ll get a buttery mouthfeel (smooth and creamy, just like butter), too.
Made with a delicious and complex flavor profile, parmesan is often sweet with flavors like caramel or toffee, and fruity like pineapple. Don’t be surprised if you swing between sweet and savory when tasting parmesan - buckle up and enjoy the smooth ride of this classic cheese!
Limburger is a Wisconsin classic that has quite an assertive flavor: earthy with notes of fresh mushrooms. If you enjoy a strong cheese with a ton of character, limburger is for you. If limburger's aromatic side intimidates you, don’t worry. Its bark is worse than its bite. In fact, many find they fall in love with this Wisconsin cheese shortly after that first bite.
Blue is known for its piquant and sometimes earthy flavors that range from mild to strong. In terms of texture, blue cheese you can expect a rich and creamy mouthfeel that your taste buds will love.
Ready to use your new cheese tasting super powers in the real world? We bet you are! If you’re looking for some inspiration, you can start on our cheese finder page and get lost in the dozens of cheese varieties made right here in Wisconsin. You can also choose from over 300 handcrafted recipes featuring Wisconsin cheese. Share your creation with us on Instagram or Facebook and become part of the largest cheese community in the world.
FAQs: Cheese Tasting
Why is cheese salty?
For many cheeses, salt is a crucial part of the cheese making process. Salt has the dual purpose of both protecting cheese from harmful bacteria growth, while also giving cheeses like parmesan their signature savory and salty flavor profile.
What do I serve with cheese?
When it comes to serving cheese, it’s hard to go wrong. Cheese is the classic partner with some cured meats and a warm baguette, but it can also fly solo with just some crackers and wine for company. If you’re looking for more specific pairing suggestions to really wow your guests, or better yet, for your own enjoyment, take a look at our comprehensive guides to meat and cheese pairing and cheese and wine pairing.
What is umami?
Umami is the fifth flavor (besides sweet, sour, salt, and bitter) that we’re capable of identifying. Umami describes the savory flavor that some cheeses and foods have. It is also sometimes described as “brothy or “meaty.” Scientists recognized that foods with glutamate (think juicy hamburgers or shiitake mushrooms) can trigger this flavor receptor. In the cheese world, parmesan is known for having a distinctly strong umami. Give it a try and let us know what you think!
How do you appreciate cheese?
The best thing about cheese is that you’re free to enjoy it however you like! Whether it’s part of a recipe or the main course, cheese can be appreciated in whatever way you deem fit. Cheese tasting can be a great way to appreciate your favorite cheeses in an entirely new light, but don’t be intimidated. Cheese is yours to enjoy in whatever way you please.