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:
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.
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.
The Reading Terminal Market