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Why Do Some Cheeses Smell Bad, But Taste Good?

Ah, stinky cheeses. They earn us no friends in close quarters — that is, unless everyone is eating it.

Why is it that a cheese can smell so bad, but taste so good? Two words: Brevibacterium linensAlso known as b. linens, this is the bacteria responsible for the funk so closely associated with many washed-rind cheeses. It’s also responsible for the typical pink-orange rind and tacky texture of stinky curds. So where does it come from? To answer that, we need to delve a little deeper into a washed-rind’s make process.

Washed-rind cheeses are called such for a reason: as they age, they’re repeatedly washed in brine. Sometimes the brine is a simple saline solution, other times it’s wine or beer. This constant washing provides the moist, briny environment b. linens needs to flourish. Sometimes makers even spread b. linens directly onto the surface of the cheese during washing, or inoculate the milk with it. So why this bacteria — the same one found in human sweat, and why washed-rind cheeses often smell distinctly like feet or locker room musk? B. linens may be offensive to the nose, but your taste buds may have other feelings — ones of love resulting from tasting a low-acid, umami-laced, gooey, salty paste. 

Ready to tackle some flavorful washed-rind cheeses? If you’re a beginner, try out Taleggio, a tamer, firmer washed-rind from Italy, or Red Hawk, a buttery, beefy triple cream from California’s Cowgirl Creamery. Ready for the big boys? Goopy Epoisses is both meaty and milky, and spoonable Vacherin Mont d’Or is woodsy, soft, and excellent drizzled over roasted potatoes. If you can find it, grab some Winnimere from the Cellars at Jasper Hill. Regularly brushed with local lambic beer, Winnimere is velvety and almost soup-like when ripe. All you need is a crusty baguette for dunking. Or…simply a spoon.

Photo by Kirstin Jackson for NPR

Rebecca Haley-Park

Rebecca Haley-Park is culture's former editor and resident stinky cheese cheerleader. A native New Englander, she holds a BFA in creative writing from University of Maine at Farmington.