Why do some cheeses smell bad but taste good?

By John Cox
FEMA Executive Director

Imagine you’re at your favorite restaurant. You have been waiting for this meal all day and it finally arrives at your table. What is the first thing you do? Most people take a moment to enjoy the aroma coming from the dish.

We often write about the relationship between smell and taste in flavor perception. Both play a major role in how we experience flavor, which is what makes foods like cheese somewhat of a paradox.

Typically, a good smell correlates with a good taste. But when it comes to cheese, this isn’t always the case. Some cheeses such as Limburger and Valdeon are known for having a relatively good taste despite their unfriendly smell.

Regardless of the bad smell, we often still eat foods if they taste good. Eventually we become desensitized or used to the smell that it no longer bothers us.

A 2015 study from the Oxford Centre for Computational Neuroscience describes this phenomenon as it relates to Brie, saying “the odor of the cheese Brie may be initially unpleasant, but may become pleasant after learned association with its taste and fatty texture. (Fatty texture may be a primary reinforce because it is an indicator of a high-energy value food.)”

So what exactly makes cheese smell? Well, there are a number of factors beginning with the starter culture. This is a milk product which contains lactic acid bacteria and controls the souring of milk, helping start the cheese making process. It also helps determine the cheese’s taste, texture and smell.

Next is aging and washing. The amount of time it takes to age cheese is dependent on the type of cheese. Some take little to no time at all and some are aged for months. Typically, the longer a cheese is aged, the more intense its aroma and flavor.

The edges of cheese blocks, known as rinds, are washed sometimes in an effort to keep the cheese moist. These cheeses are known as washed rinds and are ripened with beer, wine or other ingredients. According to the American Cheese Society, “The exterior rind of washed rind cheeses may vary from bright orange to brown, with flavor and aroma profiles that are quite pungent, yet the interior of these cheeses is most often semi-soft and, sometimes, very creamy.” Vieux Bloulogne, once named the “world’s smelliest cheese,” is washed in beer as it ages and gets its smell from the beer’s reaction with enzymes in the cheese.

So we ask you, what are your favorite smelly cheeses? Have you noticed any other foods that smell bad but taste good? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States (FEMA) was founded in 1909 and is the national association of the U.S. flavor industry. FEMA’s membership is comprised of flavor manufacturers, flavor users, flavor ingredient suppliers, and others with an interest in the U.S. flavor industry. The association is committed to ensuring a safe supply of flavor ingredients used in foods and beverages enjoyed by billions of men, women, and children around the world.

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