Why Fat Means Flavor in Cheese

Why Fat Means Flavor in Cheese

Nora Singley
Mar 4, 2008

I went to San Francisco for a visit home last weekend to find that my parents never seem to learn.

Despite years of my proselytizing ranting about the joys of real cheese (and the inferiority of industrial wannabes), I slid open their dairy drawer and there it sat, the ever-present cryovacked package of Jarlsberg Lite presliced swiss.

It's always there, the without-fail standby in my very own childhood home, as if to mock my cheesesnobbery sensibilities, each time and time again I open that refrigerator door. My parents swear by its convenience, consistency, and character, and every time I go home I try it again, just to be sure that it's as plasticky as I remember. Needless to say it never fails to deliver.

I've always preached that as far as cheese is concerned, fat equals flavor. The most telling application of this theory you can see for yourself. Notice the sheen that appears on the surface of certain aged cheeses if you leave them out for too long. (Manchego is a prime example.) These small droplets are milk fat globules expanding as they warm to room temperature and leach out butterfat. Taste the cheese now and see if it's not a shadow of its former self, with less flavor compounds and a loss of textural complexity now that much of its fat has exited.

Vital to note about fat and cheese: harder, more aged cheeses, despite what you may think intuitively, have a higher fat content than creamy, oozingly rich cheeses. Fat in cheese is measured in parts per dry matter, which means that if you compare one ounce of an aged pecorino to an ounce of an oozing triple creme, more fat will be packed into the former, since soft cheeses like bries are made mainly of water. Imagine leaving two same-sized hunks of these cheeses in the sun for the afternoon. The triple creme would melt away, not leaving much solid matter behind, while the aged pecorino would remain a solid mass of dry matter (with a pretty thick layer of shiny butterfat, I'm sure).

A study by the Department of Food Technology at Iowa State University, inspired by market demand for low fat cheeses, recently compared cheddars made with full-fat milk and low-fat milk. They found that the low fat cheddars had "reasonably pleasant flavors," but concluded that these low fat versions resulted in "cheese with flavors significantly lower in Cheddar-like flavor" than cheddar made with whole milk.

As someone who has never had a particular affinity (or aptitude) for science, I'm grateful that it's finally coming in handy.

(Image credit: Cheese Supply)

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