Stinky Brie Cheese

March 1, 2011 10 Comments

Why Does My Brie Cheese Smell Like Ammonia?

I received a comment from Angie who read my post, Moldy Brie Cheese asking about some brie she purchased that looked lovely, but had an overwhelming ammonia smell. I sent her question to my favorite cheesemonger, Jack Morgan, who gave a great reply.

Jack gives a small plug for his cheese shop here in Philadelphia at the end of his explanation but it is also great advice when seeking out a reputable cheese store anywhere. It is so important to find a cheese person who doesn’t just try to sell you cheese but answers your questions and let’s you try their cheeses. Be nice to your cheese purveyor and you will be surprised how much they will go out of their way to make sure you are satisfied.

Question From Angie:

I have read conflicting responses on other sites about the ammonia smell to Brie. The rind is pure white, and the cheese is a beautiful color, but the ammonia smell is throwing me. I have never tried this particular kind until tonight – Martin and Collet French Brie. I don’t know that I’ve had a French Brie before, but I do not recall it smelling like ammonia. Please help! 

Response From Jack:

g cheeseman jack

Brie does not necessarily have to be “pure white”.  True “Brie”, that soft-ripened” cheese named after the town of it’s origin, should not, in fact be all white. The various colored spots that may decorate the rind (fleuri) of a authentic brie will tell you a little about the state the cheese is actually in.

Just as our experiences tell us a green banana will taste different than one which is yellow, spotted, or black (and all are very usable in each state of ripeness) so too with the average soft-ripened, bloomy rind cheese.

In truth, a pure white brie will usually denote that the cheese has been “ultra-pasteurized”; a system of heating the curd using very high heat for long periods of time, twice, so that most, if not all bacteria will be killed off. (The word “bacteria”should not be confused with “pathogens”). This process allows the cheese to be “shelf stable”. The resulting cheese is now an approximation of brie.

This super market ideal is based on ill informed facts on how long a particular cheese on a grocers shelf will last before profits are lost with the ultimate decay of the aforementioned product. Knowing this, if one can only buy cheese at a supermarket and you see a “spotted” brie, avoid it. Surely since the cheese has been stabilized you can correctly deduce that the cheese is “old”, rather than aged or professionally cured for x amount of time.

Ammonia Smell

A by product of all bloomy rind cheeses is “ammonia” smell. This some-what offensive aroma results when the cultures used to make the cheese consume and convert the proteins in the curd into ammonia. Refrigeration traps this aroma in the cheese not allowing it to evaporate away. Exposing the cheese to air will help dissipate this aroma.

It is what it is. A lemon should be sour. Excessive anything is never good so it will be up to the individual consumer to decide what is palatable. If you are unable to taste before you purchase, make sure the cheese slightly bulges to touch, is not to colorful, and the smell does not overwhelm you.

Each and every person’s taste buds are legitimate. There are no hard fast rules to what we should like or dislike. Rare steak can be as enjoyable as well done. Do you want yellow bananas or black bananas for puddings and daiquiris? Find a cheese shop, establish a courteous relationship, and  try some samples before you buy.

The photo above is “Brie Noir”; One year “aged”.  At what point is this cheese not serviceable? The answer is up to who will use it and for what purpose.

A small plug for my shop – All customers are allowed to taste most of our cheeses. We supply service and knowledge that matches the superior products we sell. We do not require that any particular consumer have any knowledge what so ever on what it is they may want.

Cheese snobbery is a predictable result of insecure, self-important individuals. We try not to intimidate. The experience of tasting and purchasing should be pleasurable. After all, it is only cheese.

Jack Morgan
Downtown Cheese
The Reading Terminal Market
Philadelphia, Pa.

Last modified on Sat 25 January 2014 11:35 am

Comments (10)

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  1. Pat Doyle says:

    Well if she lets the smell put her off how about trying some Limburger cheese? A kiwi friend of mine used make sandwiches with it and bring them to the office. I remember the inmates of a German prison striking over their Camembert not being ripe. My personal favourite is Stilton.

  2. Rebecca says:

    thanks for the stinky brie cheese post..you just saved my night and stomach…I love brie however I have never gotten one that smelled so.much like ammonia.

  3. Sheila says:

    Glad I could find something to explain that smell … really had me wondering if we were given something that should have been pitched. It tastes so good … will air it out and then maybe the sense of smell can enjoy along with the taste buds.

  4. Maurice Sarles says:

    A recent BRIE purchase in West Palm Beach, FL smelled more like Limburger than any Brie I have ever purchased. I tolerated the odor because I also like Limburger but purchase Brie because it normally does not offend my wife nor stink up the refrig. Please comment.

    Hi Maurice, not sure what you are asking that the article doesn’t describe. – RG

  5. Mike Says says:

    Wow! i didn’t realize this either.
    I just had teh very same thing happen to me, I gota nice round of brie – it was completely white and had been refridgerated.
    I tasted it even though the smell was really nasty amonia smell, I didn’t like the outside at all so I opted to cut the top off and then use a small spoon to scrap the softer center out to use, it was excellent this way although I feel like I lost out on the wieght paid for the rind that was supposed to be able to eat as well.
    it was not a total loss. the amonnia smell appeals to some folks? ICK! lol those peopel must like to clean the cat box too I guess. I love strong cheese but chemical tastes are not appealing to me at all.

  6. Dianne says:

    Thank you for solving a mystery! I have often purchased brie or Camembert which I have thrown away because of the heavy ammonia smell, thinking that they were spoiled. Now I know that it is normal – and I will try leaving at room temperature for a while … if that doesn’t help, they’ll still go in the bin! Can’t eat something with such a pungent and unpleasant smell!

    I agree Dianne and if the smell is that heavy of ammonia, it may be too over ripe to eat. I have friends who like it really strong tasting but if that’s not how you like it, don’t. That’s why it is critical to get to know your cheese merchant and taste BEFORE you buy. – RG

  7. mick t says:

    thanks for solving the mystery of the stink, i’ve retreved it out of the bin ( it was still in its wrapper ) bon apetite’

  8. Kim says:

    I frequently do cheese hors doeuvres and the best results for an unbaked Brie is being at room temperature no less than three hours. It should be nearly weeping. The flavor will be amazing…and it lessens the ammonia smell/taste that many find unpalatable

  9. Ella McJayne says:

    I love a good stinky brie, but I have had the misfortune of purchasing bad brie from a cheese shop in New York. A good stinky brie will taste a bit mushroomy or sulfuric like cauliflower, and will perhaps have a very vague scent/taste of ammonia. By that I mean: after like ten minutes, the vegetal flavor will subside and you might taste something that very vaguely seems like it could be ammonia.

    A *bad* stinky brie will a) smell overwhelmingly of ammonia and b) taste like nothing but ammonia. It will not taste like mushroom, or cauliflower, or anything vegetal. It will taste like ammonia, immediately, and like nothing else.

    If your brie tastes like pure ammonia, and the taste gets up into your nose and feels like ammonia — it’s bad.

  10. Tom says:

    For the first time in my life, I wish I lived in Philadelphia. Oh, to have a good cheesemonger instead of a “cheese island” in the supermarket. I especially like Jack’s comment about each person’s taste being legitimate. I frequently tell my wife that she doesn’t have to like my soft-ripened cheeses; that just leaves more for me, and I try not to make too much fun of her fondness for processed cheese food.

    But now a question. I’ve occasionally run across imported soft-ripened and washed-rind cheeses which claim to be made from unpasteurized milk. Are they really? And if importing them is not a problem, why doesn’t Hampshire Cheeses send that marvelously smooth and flavorful Tunworth to the US? They always said that unpredictable times in a refrigerated container made exporting Tunworth to the US impractical. Of course, it does give me something to look forward to when I travel to the UK.

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