The Cheesemonger: How to Taste Cheese

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

We know it may be funny to dissect how to taste. Even our resident cheesemonger was skeptical of the merits of over-intellectualized tasting at first, her mind filling with echoes of wine geeks waxing dramatic about notes of fresh lemongrass and overripe honeydew on the mid-palate. But now we’re all converts.

So what exactly is the number one most important step to tasting cheese? You’ll be surprised.


You actually taste more with your nose than you do with your tongue.

You can detect five senses on the tongue: Salty, Sweet, Sour, Bitter, and Umami. The nose carries anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 different smell receptors, which is why when you’re sick (or if you plug your nose when you eat– try it) you may be able to detect the sweetness of a peach, but only when you get better (or unplug your nose) do you pick up that nuanced note of what a peach’s flavor really is. These are the smell receptors that send messages to your brain informing it of what you’re tasting. They induce emotional response from eating and bring back memories of peach-filled summers and your grandmother’s peach pie.

If your cheese has been sitting out, perhaps coming up to room temperature before you serve it, try taking a fresh cut before you smell your cheese, or take the piece you have and break it in half. Cheese flesh that’s been unexposed to the air will be more fresh and pungent.

Next, smell your cheese and free associate. Here’s where you can call in your wine friends.

Great cheese words:

  • Grassy

  • Pungent

  • Earthy

  • Citric

  • Sweet

  • Gamey

  • Lactic

  • Lingering

  • Sharp

  • Lemony

  • Buttery

  • Nutty

  • Herbaceous

  • Toasty

  • Spicy

Knowing the vocabulary of cheese and making reference to what’s familiar will enhance what you taste and help you verbalize what you like and dislike the next time you order cheese. Being able to pick up certain underlying aromas will in turn help you determine what you may want to pair with your cheese, too.

When you take your first bite, don’t forget about your nose! Breathe out through your nose when you swallow and pay attention to what’s called the retro-nasal effect, the aromas that hit the passage between your throat and nasal passage.

We wish every morsel of cheese in your future to be all the more taste-worthy.