Often found in cave-aged and natural rind cheeses, where does earthy flavor come from?
Sometimes described as “musty”, “cave-y”, “dirt-like”, or “basement-like”, some cheeses exhibit an earthy flavor. The flavor can be found in many different cheese varieties, but it is often prominent in cave-aged cheeses, natural rind cheeses, bandaged cheeses, some blue cheeses, and some bloomy rind cheeses (similar to the mushroom notes we’ve talked about before).
Earthy flavor originates from many different compounds. In some cases, earthy flavor is being generated by microbes that are growing in/on the cheese. In the case of cave-aged cheese, microbes that are native to the cave/cellar can begin to inhabit the cheese surface and produce compounds that give it the cave-y goodness. Example of compounds that have been found to contribute to earthy flavor include: geosmin, pyrazines, borneols, and many others.
Since many earthy cheeses are getting their musty aroma/flavor from surface microbes, the earthiness usually diminishes as you work your way into the cheese away from the rind. That’s one way to lessen the earthiness. Or — we could take a note from the seafood industry and use acidity to weaken the earthy flavor!
At this point you are probably thinking I’ve completely lost it. What does seafood have to do with the earthy flavor of cheese?! To be honest, not much. With that being said, one of the earthy molecules found in cheese, geosmin, can also be found in fish muscle. Ever had a fish that tasted like dirt? Well now you know why! A trick cooks have been using for years to help alleviate that earthy flavor is to add acid to fish (in the form of lemon juice). Acid will break down geosmin into argosmin, which is flavorless. You may be able to do a similar trick with earthy cheese. Using cheese in an acidic application has, in my experience, relieved some of the earthy funk.
In a similar vein, 2-methylisoborneol (another earthy compound common between bottom-feeding fish and cheese) is broken down by acid as well. It forms 2-methylenebornane, a less earthy compound.
While we often talk about flavors and aromas being caused by certain compounds, it’s important to remember that the unique taste and aroma of cheese is caused by a whole menagerie of chemicals. Cheese flavor is definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.