Why Some Foods Get Better With Age
Why do some foods get better with age? Because humans help them along.
Connoisseurs of fine food say that ripening, or aging, of some types of cheese enhances both the flavor and texture of the finished product. Although not everyone agrees—especially when the result is a "stinky"or musty-flavored cheese—it is true that the basic nature of cheese changes as it ages, until it becomes an entirely different food.
Although it was probably discovered by accident, aging is a controlled process of storing cheese under special conditions, at a specific temperature and humidity level, until the desired flavor and texture is achieved. Some common aged cheeses include Parmesan, Romano and other grating cheese that are dried out during the ripening process, which, for the best tasting cheeses, lasts at least 2 years. That moisture loss results in the concentrated flavor and grainy texture common to these types of cheeses. Hard, aged cheeses are naturally low in lactose, a benefit for anyone who is intolerant or sensitive to milk sugar.
During the aging process, some cheeses are intentionally sprayed with bacteria or mold to further change its nature. Brie cheese develops a powdery rind as a result of added bacteria and gorgonzola cheese gets its signature blue-green veins from an injection of mold spores.
The combination of natural and added substances that develop during the cheese aging process results in a taste sensation known as "umami." It is a uniquely complex flavor attributed to glutamate, an amino acid that is part of the protein component of a food. If you are familiar with the additive monosodium glutamate, and how it enhances the flavor of food, then you can understand how natural glutamate makes some foods taste especially good. Aged and cured meats, fermented foods such as soy sauce and miso, and other foods with concentrated savory flavor, such as some exotic mushrooms, are also described as umami. Besides better flavor, aged, fermented foods can be stored a lot longer than fresh foods.
Wine is also a fermented product that improves with age. Most wines reach their flavor peak by one year, but some get better with much longer aging. Like cheese-making, fine wine-making is an art and a controlled process with specific flavor goals in mind. Dry red wines, matured in oak barrels, usually result in the best tasting aged wines. As with fine aged cheeses, it is the multifaceted nature of the flavors that arise from chemical reactions that give the best wines their unique and desirable bouquet. As a wine matures, the harsh, astringent or acidic flavor of newly fermented fruit gives way to a smoother, mellower, and more balanced taste.
Dharmadhikari, M. "Wine Aging." Iowa State University Extension. PDF Web. 4 Feb 2011
Colorado State University. "The Physiology of Taste." 10 Dec 2006. Web. 4 Feb 2011
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