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Describing Cheese

Understanding how to talk about the flavor and aroma of cheese

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Walking into a cheese shop can be like trying to decipher a secret language. Cheesemongers throw around words like "barnyardy", "yeasty", "grassy" and "nutty" as if we all know exactly what they're talking about. Describing the flavor and aroma of cheese can be challenging for cheesemongers; you can't just keep saying, "it tastes good" or "the flavor is strong". That's why creative adjectives are so important.

Below is a list of the most common adjectives used to describe the flavor and aroma of cheese. Some words appear in both the mild and strong categories. For example, an "earthy" smell can be light and pleasant, like the way a forest smells after a gentle rain, or it can be intense, like the way a pile of old leaves smells on a wet autumn day. Keep in mind that strong aromas and flavors are not necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on your personal taste.

Following the descriptive words is a brief explanation to help you conjure up what the cheesemonger might be talking about

1. Mild Aroma

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© Image 2012 Jennifer Meier
  • Floral: the scent of jasmine, lavender, etc
  • Perfumed: similar to floral, but a bit stronger
  • Earthy: like walking through a meadow or forest after a rain or stepping into a cellar
  • Fresh: the crisp, clean morning air, a light aroma
  • Fruity: cut open an apple, peach or melon and inhale deeply
  • Nutty: have you ever walked by a stand selling roasted nuts? Or eaten a hazelnut?
  • Sweet: think about salted caramel and toffee, or biscuits baking in the oven
  • Grassy: freshly mowed grass, freshly cut hay
  • Yeasty: the aroma of baking bread, or the smell of a wine cellar

2. Strong Aroma

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© Image 2014 Jennifer Meier
  • Barnyardy: means exactly what it says, the aroma of a barn filled with animals
  • Earthy: a pile of wet leaves, wet dirt, a cellar
  • Gamey: a meat-like aroma that is a little bit off, or could be an aroma similar to salami
  • Garlicky: just like smelling cut garlic
  • Oniony: milder than the garlicky aroma
  • Funky: stinky, pungent, not unlike a pair of gym socks
  • Musty: opening an old book, walking into a cellar
  • Ammoniated: acrid, bitter, stinging, (usually a negative descriptor meaning the cheese is past its prime)
  • Funky: pungent but in a good way, bold, unique, aggressive
  • Sour: ever smell sour milk?
  • Ripe: a noticeable but pleasant aroma
  • Fermented: old fruit, wine, beer

3. Mild Flavor

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© Image 2014 Jennifer Meier
  • Fruity: pleasantly acidic, slightly sweet
  • Citrusy: like a squirt of lemon
  • Butterscotch: hard butterscotch candy, sweet, buttery,
  • Buttery: cheese that basically tastes like eating a stick of delicious butter
  • Clean: light and pleasant
  • Creamy, Milky: tastes like sipping whole cream
  • Herbal, herbaceous: a grassy flavor, or a flavor not unlike a fresh herb
  • Sweet: sweet cream or a butterscotch quality
  • Nutty: a little sweet, often similar to the flavor of hazelnuts
  • Green, spring-like: think about asparagus
  • Rustic: often a cross between earthy and sharp
  • Yeasty: the aroma of baking bread, or the smell of a wine cellar
  • Metallic, soapy: like biting into tinfoil or sucking on a bar of soap. While unpleasant, these sort of flavors are usually faint and not overpowering

4. Strong Flavor

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© Image 2014 Jennifer Meier
  • Meaty, bacon-y: tastes like pot-roast or bacon
  • Tangy, acidic: citrus-like, makes the sides of your mouth salivate (some fresh goat cheese is like this)
  • Caramelized: intensely sweet, like sucking on a piece of salted caramel candy
  • Complex: every bite tastes a little different, a strong but very pleasant flavor
  • Full-flavored, robust: an intense flavor you'll notice immediately
  • Explosive: watch-out, the flavor just might knock you out
  • Goaty: tastes like a goat smells
  • Barnyardy: like walking into a barn filled with animals
  • Mushroomy: funky and earthy, not quite in gym sock territory but getting close
  • Spicy, peppery, piquant: some types of cheese have a flavor that reminds a person of black pepper, paprika and other spices. Some types of cheese literally have pepper in them.
  • Rich: usually means super-creamy
  • Ripe: full-flavored in the best way, eat it now or tomorrow it might be too intense
  • Sharp: noticeable flavor, sometimes acidic
  • Smokey - a cheese might literally be smoked (like smoked cheddar) or it might just have a flavor reminiscent of something that has been smoked
  • Wine-y, fermented: the cheese might have actually been soaked in wine (like Drunken Goat) or it might just have an acidic bite to it
  • Bitter: the opposite of sweet

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