Cheese tasting: a short guide for beginners

An important thing to know before you start reading is that a cheese tasting is not only for professionals.

In fact, really focusing on the characteristics of a particular food is a personal experience through which we determine whether the flavors we are discovering are appreciated or not: nobody can tell us what to like.

Yet, as in many other contexts, a basic understanding of the process is useful, and learning some tricks of the trade can help us to better acknowledge what we’re tasting.

Here is how you must proceed to taste like a pro.

The preparation

Make sure you leave the cheeses at room temperature for at least an hour before starting: the organoleptic properties are less noticeable in a cold product.

Tastings that include different types of milk or aging must follow a precise order, from the freshest to the most ripened.

You can combine them with jams or honeys, but it’s always recommended to try them plain first to fully perceive their characteristics.

Leave the cheeses at room temperature before tasting them

Between two samples you can eat a slice of green apple or a cracker to clean the palate and prepare it to face different flavors.

Steps for a perfect cheese tasting

# 1 – Look

First of all, carefully observe the cheese in front of you.

Evaluate the appearance of the exterior, the type of crust and the presence of mold.

Then focus on the inner part. Most cheeses ripen from outside to inside, so the color will not be uniform. Look for the presence of holes (called eyes) or veins to categorize the product.

#2 – Touch

Raise the cheese and perceive its weight.

It is light? Is its consistency rubbery or fragile, hard or soft?

There are various factors that contribute to the tactile qualities of a cheese: the duration of agin, whether the shape has been pressed or not, the curd formation method and so on.

These characteristics influence the perception of cheese in the mouth and its taste.

#3 – Smell

When we leave the cheese at room temperature in an open space, the aromas of the outer part are dispersed in the surrounding air.

It is therefore important to break it with your hands and smell the inside to better evaluate the product’s aromas.

Break the cheese with your hands and smell the inside to better evaluate its aromas

There are 7 groups of smells in which cheeses are usually divided:

  • lactic
  • floral
  • grassy
  • fruity
  • nutty
  • barnyardy
  • spicy

To these are added the aromas deriving from fermentation.

Smell the product you’ve got in your hands, is the aroma intense or delicate? Acid or sweet? Which single notes can you detect?

In some cheeses you may perceive freshly cut grass, specific fruits like melon and all sorts of nuts. Parmesan, for example, tends to be connected to pineapple, while mozzarella has a strong smell of milk.

White rind cheeses like Brie will probably smell like mushrooms and other earthy things.

Pay attention: a strong smell of ammonia is a sign of excessive aging in an unsuitable temperature or location.

#4 – Taste

When you’ll finally taste the cheese, you’ll be open-minded and receptive to different flavors. Slowly chew on it and notice the texture.

What are the first tastes that come out? Are they sour or bitter, salty or sweet?

When you taste cheese, slowly chew on it

Some cheeses have a mouth-puckering effect, while others feel creamy. Swallow and evaluate the taste that follows.

That persistent flavor, often different from the first, is called the finish. It can remind of hazelnuts or be slightly spicy.

Cheeses made from sheep milk are often associated with caramel, while in other cases people talk about roasted lamb. Give free rein to the imagination and try to define what you perceive in your own words: there is no right or wrong!

The common mistakes

One of the main mistakes we usually make when we approach a tasting is to give too much importance to the flavor.

Much of what we describe as taste is in fact aroma, while our tongue is able to distinguish only five flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.

All that lies outside of these, and that we perceive by eating, comes from the receptors in our nasal cavity and from the interpretation that our brain gives of them.

When it comes to food and its taste, it is not only mouth and nose that get involved, but also the visual signals, the tactile sensations and the way in which they fit together with personal memory and emotional patterns.

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