If you’ve ever been to a wine tasting, you’ve seen people swirling their drinks around, holding their glasses up to the light, and sticking their noses in to get a deep whiff before they take a sip. Did you know there’s a similar set of steps for how to eat cheese?
This kind of intentional, observant process is called sensory analysis, the process by which we use our senses to assess and describe food and drink. We recommend using this method when meeting a new cheese for the first time and for any cheese tastings you may host (even if you’re the only guest). Here’s how to eat cheese like a pro.
Step 1: Relax the cheese.
About an hour before you want to taste, take your cheese out of the fridge, unwrap it, and cover it with a cheese dome, inverted bowl, or lint-free towel. If you have a Cheese Grotto, you can either keep your cheese on the counter so it’s always at room temperature when you want a bite, or you can simply pull your Grotto out of the fridge at the appointed time. This process is called relaxing or tempering the cheese, and it allows the wedges you’re about to enjoy to come up to room temperature.
Cold cheese simply doesn’t taste as good as room-temp cheese—the flavors and aromas are muted and the textures hard and waxy. Note that larger pieces or wheels might need a little longer than an hour, and if your space is very warm, you may need as little as half an hour for your cheese to come up to temp.
Step 2: Look at the cheese.
Once you’re ready to taste, it’s time to use your senses to assess what’s going on with this cheese. We’re going to start with visual observation.
Note characteristics like the color of the rind and the paste, the size of the wheel or wedge, and any other traits (wheel shape, striations on the rind, a cream line, etc). As you learn more about cheeses, you’ll begin to associate the attributes of each cheese with its larger family and that family’s flavor profile.
For example, you’ll know to expect buttery, milky, and/or mushroomy flavors from small-format round wheels with a snowy-white rind (like Camembert). This gives you an idea of what they’ll taste, smell, and feel like before you even take a bite.
Step 3: Touch the cheese.
Cut yourself a bite-sized piece (check out our cutting guide for how to get the most surface area and the best paste-to-rind ratio for different cheese shapes) and pick it up. Give it a gentle squeeze between your fingers.
Is it elastic or crumbly? Soft and pliant or firm and unyielding? Is the surface tacky or smooth? Are some parts of the piece softer or stickier than others? This information gives you more clues as to style, age, texture, and moisture and fat content.
Step 4: Smell the cheese.
We smell before we taste for a couple of reasons: to observe the aroma of the cheese (which may differ from its flavor) and to tune our noses into what we’re about to eat (because our sense of smell is such an integral part of how we perceive flavor).
Give the cheese a general sniff—how would you describe what you smell? Make a point to smell the rind and the paste separately, as each component can bring very different aromas to the party.
One tip for getting the most aroma out of your cheese is to break a piece in half, right under your nose, and inhale (this works best with semi-firm and firm cheeses). That fresh exposure to oxygen releases aromas from the cheese paste that otherwise wouldn't be detectable from a cut piece—sort of like swirling your glass of wine to let in oxygen and enhance the aroma.
Step 5: Taste the cheese.
It’s time to taste! Before you begin, take a moment to center yourself. Some people like to close their eyes during this step to help their senses home in on what’s happening in their mouths. Here’s how to do it, sensory analysis-style:
Put the piece of cheese in your mouth.
Allow the cheese to rest on your tongue for just a moment to warm up a bit. What flavor do you notice first?
It’s good to get the cheese all over the inside of your mouth—you have taste receptors all over your palate. Note whether and how the flavors change or shift as you chew.
This bit is pretty self-explanatory, but once again, note how the flavor may differ from when that cheese first hit your tongue.
We recommend finishing the experience with an intentional, reflective breath. After you swallow, close your mouth and exhale through your nose. This last cheese breath pushes aroma compounds from your mouth through your nasal passages, giving you one last chance to observe the cheese’s flavor.
Take note: What do you taste? Is it the same or different from the dominant flavor notes you picked up when the cheese was still in your mouth?
Step 6: Describe your experience.
Once you’ve tasted, describe the flavors, textures, and aromas you picked up. Verbalizing what we taste can be tough, but having a friend, tasting notes from a cheese shop, or even a flavor wheel can help you pinpoint some reference flavors for the cheese you just tasted.
It’s also a good idea to take notes, either in a dedicated tasting notebook or on your phone, so you can refer back to this style later—these references can come in handy when shopping for your next batch of cheese.
Now you know how to taste cheese like a pro! Just be sure to cleanse your palate with a sip of water and a plain cracker or piece of bread before you dive into the next cheese.
Have you ever been to (or hosted) a formal cheese tasting? What do you notice when you taste cheese slowly and intentionally? Tag us @cheesegrotto on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to let us know!