With the myriad of aromas and flavors available in cheeses, the question comes to mind: where do they all come from?
Starting at the endpoint, our taste buds and noses where the detection of those flavors and aromas occurs. The amounts and combinations of fat-soluble and water-soluble compounds within cheeses, some of them volatile, trigger those sensations. The overall taste is comprised by multiple components. The cheeses are distinguished by the way that their volatile compounds combine, interact, and balance each other. The more components a cheese has, the more complex its flavor. If a cheese has few components, it lacks complexity. When one of more of those components dominates or drowns out the others, the cheese lacks balance.
The protein, fat, and sugar in the milk are the building blocks of flavor. The volatile compounds, often referred to as “aromatics,” come from two principal sources: first, the plants the animals eat, and the breakdown of the chemical compounds in those plants during the animals’ digestion process: and second, the action of enzymes, secreted by microorganisms, in breaking down those “building blocks” during the cheese-making and ripening processes.
Scientists estimate that some aromatics come from the feed the animals eat (and the water they drink). The rest is determined by cheesemaking and ripening parameters. Cheese making is largely a preserving of the milk through dehydration, thereby increasing the percentage of milk solids. In terms of taste, the aromatics become more concentrated.
The simplest of cheeses are gently acidified with some salt added. The more complex flavors in an aged cheese are yielded when a series of biochemical reactions begins to occur after the addition of a starter culture. The cultures release their enzymes, and rennets (the coagulants) contribute their animal or plant enzymes. Additional molds, yeasts and bacteria introduced during cheesemaking and/or ripening secrete their own enzymes, which in turn act on the fats and proteins to create volatile compounds. Each substance contributes its specific flavors.
The milk of dairy animals grazing on pasture yields more flavor than animals who are consuming hay or TMR (total mixed ration – a supplemental dry formula feed). Native plants and grasses offer unique flavors and aromas. As the animals chew plants, crushing and oxidizing the chemicals within, aromatics are released into their digestive tracts. Those aromatics make their way into the milk to emerge as aroma- and flavor-giving substances in cheeses. Some of the aromatics are merely inhaled – the quickest method of absorption into the bloodstream.
Species and breed of animal are important factors contributing to flavor, as are all steps of cheesemaking and ripening. Good temperature conditions, enough feed, and plentiful clean water keeps the animals happy. The conditions enjoyed (or endured) by the animals affect the chemical composition of their milk and thus the building blocks of cheese flavor.
With all these variables taken into account, it is no wonder that there is such a broad range of aromas and flavors available in cheese. Furthermore, it should be no surprise that artisanal cheeses will taste a little different, one wheel from the next. A food that we might consider to be rather simple is instead a rather complicated “living” food – a good thing. Better that it be alive than barely breathing!