The Commons
Food and Drink

Smells bad, tastes good

Decoding the mystery of washed-rind cheeses

Originally published in The Commons issue #168 (Wednesday, September 5, 2012).

BRATTLEBORO—If you’ve gotten this far in life, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Limburger cheese — likely from an old cartoon, where someone had used it as a dairy-related form of biological warfare.

In the world of animation, Limburger is identified by wavy green lines emanating from it, cartoon shorthand for “this smells terrible.” Its odor makes everyone run away, people and animals alike.

So what’s the deal with Limburger? Is it a real cheese? Why does it smell so bad? Does it taste horrible, too?

Limburger is one of the cheeses that belongs to the “washed-rind” category. It is a real cheese, albeit not the most popular, at least in places where many Germans do not congregate. We’ll get to why it smells so bad shortly.

And, no, it doesn’t taste horrible. Once you trim away the rind, it has a slightly sweet, spicy flavor and is much milder than you’d expect.

Washed-rind cheeses tend to be some of the highest regarded cheeses, at least amongst cheesemongers and other industry professionals and fanatics. Their complexity and richness of flavor — even in pasteurized form — makes them a satisfying group of cheeses for the table, to be enjoyed simply as a snack, with no embellishments or further preparation necessary.

* * *

The name of the category — “washed-rind” — is the key to understanding the character of the cheeses, Limburger included.

During the cheese’s production and aging, the exterior (the rind) is washed, smeared, rinsed, or submerged in a liquid that alters its insides and outsides. (That’s why, in the cheese world, sometimes this category is known as “smear-ripened.”)

Depending on the recipe for the specific cheese, this liquid can be brine (sometimes salt water) with herbs, beer, wine, aquavit, etc. Its effect on the cheese is to decrease its acidity.

This step makes the rind a welcome place for the growth of Brevibacterium linens, or B. linens, a friendly, beneficial bacterium that causes the interior to soften during ripening (just like in the bloomy-rind cheeses), the rind to turn sticky and pinkish-orange, and the aroma to be illustrated by wavy green lines. This cheese smells bad.

If you relied on smell alone, you might never eat this cheese — but then you’d be missing out. While flavor varies by individual cheese, some common taste experiences of washed-rind cheeses are: eggy, sweet, beefy, pungent, creamy, spicy, buttery, and mustardy.

It’s rare that a washed-rind cheese tastes as assertive as it smells, and if it does, it often means the cheese is past its peak and is no longer good.

For those with a highly sensitive palate, I recommend trimming the rind. It can not only taste overwhelming, but its texture is often gritty. Then again, some people love the rind, so do what you like.

* * *

You might have already had a washed-rind cheese and didn’t know it. Some of the world’s most loved cheeses fall in this category.

In addition to Limburger from Germany, there’s its American doppelgänger: Liederkranz. Italy gives us Taleggio; Ardrahan is from Ireland. Not all Belgian Chimay has a washed-rind, but some of it does.

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