Cheese expert Erika Kubick
Photo: Good Pepper

How Cheeses Get Their Funk, According to a Self-Proclaimed Cheese Evangelist

Erika Kubick explains the science behind stinky and sweet-smelling cheeses, and how to cook with them, in her upcoming book, “Cheese Sex Death.”
By Mara Fisher
October 29, 2021
7 minute read

In 2015, former cheesemonger and self-proclaimed cheese evangelist Erika Kubick founded Cheese Sex Death, a blog and online resource for all things related to the fermented dairy product that has been revered for thousands of years in various ways (as detailed in Kubick’s informative yet delightfully conversational posts), including as an edible delicacy, a divination tool, and—perhaps not suprisingly—an object of religious importance. Kubick, who lives in Chicago, says she experienced her own “come to Cheesus” moment when she was fresh out of college, with a degree in filmmaking, and received an assignment to research non-Manchego Spanish cheeses for Plate magazine. What started as a Google search turned into a deep dive into the domain of pressed curds and milk, and Kubick began to unpack what cheese can tell us about science, history, and culture. The experience eventually led to her current venture, which is defined by her passion for the subject that borders on the erotic. “I believe cheese is the sexiest, holiest food in the world and that we should all pleasure ourselves with it every day,” she writes on her website. “I created Cheese Sex Death to inspire people to indulge their funky fromage fantasies.”

Kubick's upcoming book, Cheese Sex Death: A Bible for the Cheese Obsessed (Abrams), collects her extensive knowledge in a single, highly entertaing volume written for cheese connoisseurs and novices alike. Readers can learn about the science behind various cheese-making processes, and how to cut, serve, and pair different varieties. There’s also an encyclopedic guide to the rinds and bodies one might find when venturing into the world of artisanal cheese, and plenty of cheese-centric recipes, spanning apple camembert clafoutis to tips for making the perfect grilled cheese.

How a cheese is made, Kubick says, often has a palpable impact on its aroma. We recently asked the author about some of her most potent olfactory encounters with the food, and the surprising ways in which scent influences its creation and consumption.

To your nose, what are some of the strongest-smelling cheeses?

Cave-aged clothbound cheddars are incredible, because the porous cloth allows the natural smells of the cave to penetrate the cheese and shape its aroma and flavor. To produce this type of cheese, it’s first shaped into a drum-like wheel then rubbed in a fat, such as lard or a plant-based fat. Next, the wheel is wrapped in muslin cloth, giving it that breathable rind. This method of cheesemaking yields some of my favorite smells. They’re often musty and dank, but there’s also so much freshness due to the microbial activity taking place on the rind. Clothbound cheddars can showcase deeply complex flavors ranging from soil and grass to juicy tropical fruit.

If I’m looking for a true olfactory assault, I go for washed-rind cheeses. These are made by coating the cheese in brine or a diluted alcohol solution—a process called putrefactive fermentation—to promote the growth of bacteria, which then ripen the flesh of the cheese. The resulting aromas are super pungent, which some may describe as reminiscent of body odor. This is due to the presence of the bacteria brevibacterium linens, which also lives on human skin.

One cheese I love that creates a similarly potent aromatic experience is Oma, a raw cow’s milk cheese made by Von Trapp Farmstead and aged at Jasper Hill Farm, both in Vermont. At peak ripeness, it has this distinctive toasted peanut scent with a bit of a funky foot smell. I love pairing it with peanuts to really bring out a bit more of that nutty saltiness.

That sounds adventurous. When eating pairings like that, or having cheese on its own, how does a cheese’s aroma impact the tasting experience?

One of the first steps I do with every cheese tasting is to invite participants to smell the cheese. There are so many memories stored in smells, and we each create such personal associations with scent. It’s why I still love the sugared, dried pineapple scent of [Sartori] SarVecchio parmesan, an incredible cheese my mom brought home from a farmer’s market one day when I was fourteen—it transports me to a specific time and place from my past.

Most flavors come from the olfactory system, as we smell so much more than our taste buds can detect on their own. Cheese is almost always stronger in smell than in taste. This is best exemplified in those washed-rind cheeses—some of these, like Taleggio, have a funky gym sock smell, but when you taste it, it's much more savory and the dominant flavors are milder, reminiscent of beef or egg yolk.

Which cheeses do you suggest someone to smell to experience the food’s olfactory potential?

Limburger cheese is notoriously aggressive in smell, but I think it’s something everyone should try. If you can find it, ask for one that is a little bit milder, so probably on the younger side. Ripe wheels of Limburger are not for the faint of heart—so much so that this cheese was actually outlawed in Louisville, Kentucky, for a number of years. You definitely can’t eat it on public transportation.

There’s an anecdote in Mark Twain’s short story, The Invalid’s Story, that’s worth mentioning here: In it, there are two characters that have a box with unidentified contents. Due to the smell emanating from the box, they fear there’s a dead body inside, but later come to find out it’s just a piece of Limburger cheese.

Are there other elements beyond the cheese-making process that impact its scent?

In production, different olfactory influences can impact the flavors in a particular cheese before the milk used to make it is even gleaned from the animal. As cows, goats, and sheep graze, the different plants they’re smelling go into their bloodstreams and into the milk they produce. For instance, if a cow simply smells chives growing in a pasture, the scent can be absorbed in their gut and will be detectable in their milk. This is one of many factors—such as climate, geography, and lactation cycle—that shape the final tasting notes in each cheese.