The scientific explanation for the enormous variety of cheese out there is pretty mysterious. We know that the differences between Brie, blue cheese, and feta come down to enzymes and sometimes mold, but how? There are actually teams of cheese scientists whose sole job is to provide consultation to cheesemakers. That’s right: There is a whole field of microbiology behind your favorite cheese.
Fresh cheese, which resembles ricotta, is the cheesemaker’s base. To get the desired consistency, taste, and texture, cheesemakers add different levels of digestion-friendly microbes like yeast, mold, and bacteria. A cheese scientist analyzes the cheesemaker’s work, and even sometimes uses DNA sequencing to get things just right.
The difference between varieties of cheeses comes down to microbes: the tiny organisms that produce different flavor combinations in each cheese. For instance, the reason why Limburger is so stinky? It has to do with added mold breaking down the milk into sulfuric compounds, giving the cheese its iconic stench.
“Cheese is intentional delicious rot that a cheesemaker controls through the whole process of aging,” Ben Wolfe, a microbiologist at Tufts University, told Wired. “So there you go. The varieties of cheese are just all the ways that milk can rot.”