Why Is Cheese Salty?

Why Is Cheese Salty

Ever taken a bite of cheese and thought, “Whoa, that’s salty!”? Whether it’s a pungent blue cheese, a sharp parmesan, or a briny feta, some cheeses really pack a sodium punch. But have you ever stopped to wonder why cheese, a dairy product, is so darn salty in the first place?

It’s not like milk straight from the cow; it tastes like a salt lick. So why is cheese salty? And what gives cheese its characteristic saltiness that can range from a mild hint to a full-on saline blast? The answer lies in the ancient art of cheesemaking and the crucial role salt plays.

From regulating bacterial growth to achieving that perfect texture, salt is absolutely vital in transforming plain ol’ milk into the vast array of delicious cheeses we know and love today. But it’s a delicate balance—too much salt and you’re eating a salt bomb, too little and you risk bland, subpar cheese.

In this article, we’ll dive into the fascinating science behind cheesemakers saltiness levels, exploring the different reasons for adding salt and how it impacts everything from flavor to shelf life. You’ll never look at that shaker of salt alongside your cheese plate the same way again!

Why is Cheese Salty?

You might be surprised to learn that milk straight from a cow or goat contains only a tiny amount of sodium—about 50 milligrams per cup. So where does all that saltiness in cheese come from? The simple answer: salt is added during the cheesemaking process.

The amount of salt used Is one of the biggest factors determining just how salty or mild a particular cheese ends up tasting. From just a light sprinkling to a heavy dose, cheesemakers carefully control salt levels to achieve the desired flavor profile and texture for each type of cheese.

On the saltier end of the spectrum, you have most blue cheeses like Roquefort, Gorgonzola, and Danish Blue, which rely on higher salt concentrations. The same goes for hard, aged cheeses like Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, and aged Gouda. Expect a definite sodium punch from these cheesy heavyweights.

On the milder side, fresh cheeses like mozzarella, ricotta, and mascarpone contain very little salt. Cottage cheese and cream cheese are other low-brow options for salt-conscious cheese lovers.

Even within the same cheese variety, you’ll find some variations in saltiness levels. An aged cheddar will taste saltier than a young, fresh one. Feta produced in Greece tends to be saltier than domestic US versions.

Why is Salt Added to Cheese?

While saltiness is one obvious result, salt actually serves several crucial purposes in cheesemaking beyond just providing a flavor boost. Let’s dive into the main reasons why salt is such an essential ingredient.

Control pH and Bacterial Growth

In order to turn plain milk into cheese, cheesemakers rely on specialized bacteria cultures to kickstart the curdling process. These “starter cultures” produce lactic acid, which helps coagulate the milk proteins and lower the pH.

Salt plays a key role in controlling the acidification from these bacteria. Too much acid production can negatively impact the final texture and flavor. By adding salt, cheesemakers are able to limit the bacteria’s activity and maintain the optimal pH level for each cheese variety.

Salt also helps suppress the growth of undesirable bacteria like E.coli, listeria, and others that could cause foodborne illness or spoilage. This preservative effect helps ensure food safety and extend shelf life.

Manage Moisture Content

Have you ever noticed how some cheeses are soft and creamy, while others have a firm, dense texture? The moisture content is a big factor, and salt is used to help regulate it.

When salt is added to the curds during cheesemaking, it causes the proteins to contract and get rid of excess moisture (whey). The longer a cheese is exposed to salt or a salt brine solution, the more moisture will be expelled, resulting in a firmer finished product.

For drier, aged cheeses like Parmesan or dry Jack, more salt is used initially and the cheese may also get periodic salt coatings during the aging process. This preserves the signature gritty texture. Soft, high moisture cheeses like Brie use very little salt to retain their soft, creamy paste.

Develop Flavor and Texture

In addition to contributing its own salty taste, salt also plays an essential role in the development of cheese’s other characteristic flavors through several mechanisms:

Salt impacts protein breakdown – By lowering salt levels, cheesemakers can encourage more protein breakdown over time, resulting in a stronger flavor. This is why aged cheeses taste “brighter.”

Salt affects beneficial bacteria – Many cheeses rely on an assortment of cheese-making bacteria and molds to cultivate unique flavors (think the bluing in Gorgonzola). Salt helps control the growth of these cultures.

Salt influences texture – Cheeses with higher salt concentrations tend to have a firmer, more brittle texture thanks to their lower moisture content. This is desirable for grating cheeses like Parmesan. Lower salt produces an ooey, gooey texture, perfect for melters like Brie.

Extend Shelf Life

As mentioned earlier, salt’s ability to limit bacterial growth helps cheese stay fresh and shelf-stable for longer periods of time. This preservative effect is particularly important for aged cheeses like Cheddar or Gouda that can take months or even years to fully mature.

Most commonly, cheesemakers use curing salts like sodium chloride to prevent growth of decay-causing bacteria and mold during aging. Some varieties may get a salt rub or brine rinse at intervals to further extend shelf life.

Between acting as a natural preservative, controlling moisture content, and managing the growth of flavor-producing microbes, salt is simply indispensable for producing high-quality aged cheeses with complex flavors.

How Salt is Used in Cheesemaking

Why Is Cheese Salty

There are two main techniques: dry salting and brining.

Dry Salting

The dry salting method involves directly applying salt crystals or granules to the fresh cheese curds or formed cheese wheels/logs. This can be done in a few different ways:

Salting the Curds

After the curds have been cooked, drained, and prepared, many cheesemakers will sprinkle or mix dry salt directly into the loose curds before they are pressed into a final shape. This allows the salt to disperse evenly throughout the entire cheese from the start. Cheddar, Colby, and most semi-soft/semi-firm cheeses use this method.

Milling and Salting

Some recipes call for the curds to be drained and allowed to firm up slightly first. The curds are then milled (broken into smaller pieces) and coated with dry salt before being molded or pressed into their final shape. This process expels more moisture and results in a lower-moisture cheese. Parmesan and other dry grating cheeses are made this way. 

Surface Salting

For cheeses like Brie or Camembert that form a rind, dry salt may just be rubbed or patted onto the surface of the formed wheel before aging. The salt slowly absorbs into the paste over time.

Aged cheeses that produce a natural rind, such as aged cheddars, may also receive a dry salt coating partway through aging to further dehydrate the interior and form a thicker protective rind.


The second popular salting technique is brining, which involves immersing the fresh cheese in a salt water solution (usually around 20% salinity) for a period of time to allow the salt to absorb.

Brining has a few advantages: it allows for very precise salting levels and distributes the salt evenly throughout the cheese. However, it does require carefully monitoring brine concentration, time, and temperature. Too much, and you’ll end up with oversalted cheese.

The brining method works best for higher moisture cheeses that benefit from having a very exact, consistent saltiness level. Popular brined cheeses include:

  • Feta – Submerged in brine for several weeks
  • Fresh mozzarella – Quickly brined after stretching/kneading
  • Halloumi – The brining gives this cheese its signature firm, squeaky texture
  • Some blue cheeses – Brine allows even salt dispersion before bluing agents are added

In some cases, cheesemakers use the combination salting method. For instance, cheddar curds may be salted initially, then the formed cheese wheels are immersed in brine before being drained and aged.

No matter which salting approach is used, precision is key. Too little salt and you’ll have a bland, off-tasting cheese prone to spoilage. Too much salt, and the cheese will be inedible. Carefully controlling salt levels through techniques like dry salting and brining is what allows cheesemakers to create their signature flavors.

What Types of Salt are Used in Cheesemaking?

You might think that salt is just salt, but there are actually several different varieties commonly used for making cheese, and they’re not all equally suited for the job. The type of salt can have a big impact on the finished cheese’s flavor, texture, and appearance.

While your standard table salt will work in a pinch, most artisan cheesemakers opt for specialized salts better suited for consistent, high-quality results. Here’s a rundown of some of the most popular salts for cheesemaking:

Cheese Salt

As the name implies, this salt is specifically designed and purified for use in cheesemaking. Cheese salt (also called cheese maker’s salt) does not contain any additives like anti-caking agents or iodine that could affect the cheese’s flavor, texture, or how the salt dissolves and ages.

Cheese salt has a distinct granular crystal shape that allows it to gradually dissolve and disperse through the cheese over time during aging. Many cheesemakers prefer cheese salt for brining as it easily dissolves into solution.

Sea Salt

Another premium salt choice is unrefined sea salt, which contains valuable trace minerals like potassium, iron and zinc. These minerals can contribute subtle background flavors to aged cheeses.

However, sea salt does tend to have a slightly more concentrated, briney taste compared to other salts. So it needs to be used judiciously, especially for cheeses where you don’t want an overly salty flavor, like fresh mozzarella or ricotta.

Many cheesemakers prefer using flaked or fleur de sel varieties of sea salt for dry salting curds or applying surface salts. The thin, pyramid-shaped flakes allow for even distribution and controlled absorption.

Pickling/Canning Salt

For cheesemakers on a budget, pickling or canning salt can be a good option. These salts are very pure, with no anti-caking agents or iodine that could cause off-flavors or discoloration in cheese.

The main drawback is that pickling and canning salts have a highly refined, flat taste compared to cheese salts or mineral-rich sea salts. But for basic salting purposes where flavor isn’t the highest priority, these inexpensive salts get the job done.

Kosher Salt

Kosher salt is similar to pickling salt—a highly refined, additive-free salt often used for brines and pickling. While not ideal for cheese purely from a flavor standpoint, many cheesemakers like using kosher salt because of its wider range of crystal sizes.

The larger, coarser kosher salt granules can be preferable for dry salting curds or surface applications where you want a bit of crunchy texture from the salt. Whereas the finer grains are good for brines.

Himalayan Pink Salt

You may have seen those pretty pink Himalayan salt blocks for sale and wondered if that trendy salt could work for cheesemaking. While it certainly can be used, Himalayan salt is really not ideal.

The mineral impurities that give the salt its characteristic rosy hue can contribute some off or even bitter flavors to cheese. And the inconsistent mineral content means salting levels are hard to control accurately. Artisanal cheesemakers tend to avoid Himalayan salt for these reasons.

No matter which type of salt you use, quality and purity are key to making delicious, properly-aged cheese without imparting any funky flavors. Most experts recommend sticking to traditional cheese salts, pickling salts, or fresh, high-quality sea salts.

What Cheeses are the Saltiest?

If you’re a full-blown salt fiend who savors an intense flavor punch, these cheeses are sure to satisfy your cravings. From blue-veined rockstars to aged hard cheeses, here are some of the saltiest cheeses around:

Blue Cheeses

It’s no surprise that blue cheeses rank among the saltiest cheese varieties. Their bold, pungent flavors practically demand a hefty helping of salt during production. Expect an intense salty-umami taste from blue cheese superstars like:

Roquefort: Arguably the “king” of salty blues, Roquefort can contain a whopping 1.8 grams of sodium per 100g serving. This sheep’s milk cheese from southern France is dry salted and then aged for several months, concentrating its fierce, salty taste.

GorgonzolClose behind Roquefort, this veiny Italian blue clocks in at around 1.6 grams of sodium per 100 grams. Its sharp, salty bite comes from repeated brine bathings of the cheese wheels during the aging process. 

Danish Blue: Denmark’s contribution to salty blue cheeses contains around 1.5g sodium/100g from the dry salt coating applied before piercing the wheels with metal rods to allow blue mold growth.

Aged Hard Cheeses

For a concentrated, savory saltiness, look no further than hard, aged grating cheeses like Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, and Dry Jack. These cheeses start off with an ample salt coating on the curds or wheels to draw out moisture and develop a firm, crumbly texture.

Parmigiano-Reggiano: Italy’s “king of cheese” is renowned for its intense saltiness, averaging 1.5g sodium per 100g. This iconic cheese spends over 18 months being repeatedly brined and absorbing salt into its dense, crystalline paste.

Pecorino Romano: Hailing from Italy’s Lazio region, Romano’s bite comes from being brine-soaked for extended periods. It contains around 1.3 grams of sodium per serving.

Aged GoudMassive 90+-lb wheels of this Dutch cheese are salted in a brine solution, then coated with salt again partway through their minimum 18-month aging. The result? A salty, crunchy, concentrated flavor.

Mediterranean Cheeses

Hailing from hot, arid regions of Southern Europe and the Middle East, many iconic Mediterranean cheeses underwent heavy salting methods to preserve them in the days before refrigeration. Even today, their recipes call for a generous amount of salt.

Feta: No cheese symbolizes the “salty” flavor better than briny, tangy feta. After curing in an intensely salty brine for several weeks, feta averages around 1.1 grams of sodium per 100 grams.

Halloumi: This firm Cypriot cheese is unique in being one of the only cooked-curd cheeses that gets brined. The saltwater soak gives halloumi its distinctive squeaky texture and salty taste.

Dill-Cured Cheeses: Many cheeses from Eastern Europe, Morocco, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt are heavily salted and then packed in dill or herb brines to cure them. Examples are akawi, jibneh, and labneh balls brimming with intense saltiness.

Even some familiar domestic cheeses pack a salty punch if you’re not careful. Mass-produced processed cheese slices or spreads, like American cheese, are extremely high in sodium—in many cases, over 30% of your daily recommended intake from just a couple slices!

What Cheeses are Less Salty?

On the opposite end of the spectrum from salty heavyweights like blues and aged cheeses, you’ll find a whole category of mild, creamy cheeses with a delicate touch of salt. For those looking to reduce sodium intake or simply appreciate a more delicate cheese flavor, these are some top options:

Fresh Mozarella: One of the most iconic mild, milky cheeses, fresh mozzarella only contains around 0.2g sodium per 100g thanks to a quick brine bath after stretching and pulling the curds. The salt plays a supporting role in the pure, sweet milk flavor.

Burrata: This luscious variation on fresh mozarella contains an even creamier center wrapped in an outer mozarella shell. With only 0.1g sodium per 100g, it’s a buttery, delicate treat.

Ricotta: One of the lowest sodium cheeses at just 0.1g/100g, ricotta is made by reheating the drained whey left over from other cheeses. Its soft, creamy texture calls for minimal salting.

Cottage Cheese: Another fresh, protein-packed option is humble cottage cheese, which contains only around 0.3g of sodium per 100 g in its uncured form. 

Cream Cheese: With just a hint of salt (around 0.4g sodium/100g), plain cream cheese makes a versatile spread or base for both sweet and savory dishes while letting other flavors shine.

Mascarpone: Silky, lush mascarpone is the ultimate in indulgent, fresh Italian cheeses. It needs just a touch of salt to enhance its creamy, slightly sweet richness.

Even some aged cheeses, like Swiss, tend to be lower in sodium thanks to their unique manufacturing processes. The large “eyes” or holes in Swiss develop best with minimal salt.

Finally, many fresh goat cheeses and spreadable chevres use little to no salt, instead highlighting goat milk’s distinctive tangy flavor. Cheese lovers trying to reduce their salt intake have plenty of tasty, creamy options.


Can you make cheese without adding any salt at all?

While it is possible to make very fresh, minimally aged cheeses without adding salt, most traditional cheesemaking processes require at least some salt. Salt plays critical roles in controlling bacterial growth, achieving the right texture, and preserving the cheese during aging. However, there are a few exceptions, like fresh cheeses intended for very quick consumption.

Why do some cheeses taste saltier than others of the same variety?

Even within the same type of cheese, you can find significant variation in saltiness levels. This often comes down to the specific cheesemaker’s techniques and salt quantities used. For example, an aged cheddar from one producer may taste much saltier than another, depending on how much salt was applied to the curds or if the wheels were re-salted during aging.

Do cheeses lose or gain saltiness as they age?

In general, the overall saltiness of a cheese tends to become more concentrated and pronounced as it ages due to moisture loss. As cheese continues to release moisture over time, the same amount of salt gets squeezed into a smaller area, resulting in a more intense salty flavor. This is why aged cheeses like parmesan or aged cheddar taste “saltier” than their younger counterparts.

Are there any health benefits to eating saltier cheeses?

While cheese in general provides important nutrients like protein, calcium, and vitamin B12, overly salty cheese varieties are not necessarily more healthful. Consuming high amounts of sodium from very salty cheeses can potentially contribute to issues like high blood pressure in some individuals. Moderation is key when enjoying saltier cheese varieties.

What makes some salts better for cheesemaking than regular table salt?

Specialty salts made specifically for cheesemaking, like cheese salt, pickling salt, and high-quality sea salts, do not contain any additives that could negatively impact the cheese’s flavor, texture, or appearance. Table salt often has anti-caking agents and iodine, which many cheesemakers prefer to avoid.

Can you control the saltiness when making cheese at home?

Yes, when making cheese at home, you have control over the saltiness level. Most recipes will specify exactly how much salt to add during the process. For a less salty cheese, use a bit less salt than called for. Or for a saltier flavor, increase the salt slightly. Just keep in mind that salt plays a role beyond just flavor, so don’t reduce it too much.

Do plant-based cheeses contain salt? Why or why not?

Many dairy-free, plant-based cheese alternatives do contain added salt, though typically not as much as traditional dairy cheeses. Salt helps provide a cheesy, savory flavor and texture in these products made from ingredients like nuts, seeds, coconut oil, etc. However, some varieties are made without any added salt for a very mild flavor.

Which type of milk produces the most naturally salty cheese?

While no milk is extremely high in sodium content naturally, sheep’s milk and goat’s milk do contain slightly higher levels of naturally occurring sodium than cow’s milk. This very modest salt content gets concentrated as the milk is transformed into cheese. So cheeses made from sheep’s and goat’s milk may have a touch more natural saltiness before any salt is added during production.

How does salt impact the texture of fresh cheeses vs. aged cheeses?

For fresh, unaged cheeses like mozzarella, feta, chevre, etc., salt helps extract just enough moisture to create the desired soft, spreadable texture. Too much salt would make them unpleasantly dry. In aged cheeses, higher salt levels facilitate further moisture loss over time, resulting in a firm, dense, grainy texture suitable for grating.

Is there a difference in saltiness between cheese made with pasteurized vs raw/unpasteurized milk?

The pasteurization of the milk itself does not significantly impact the final saltiness of the cheese. Both pasteurized and raw milk cheeses can end up salty or mild, depending on how much salt is incorporated by the cheesemaker during production. Other factors, like aging, tend to play a bigger role in salt levels.

What causes some white crystals or grit to form in aged cheeses?

Those crunchy calcium lactate or tyrosine crystals that develop in many aged cheeses, like aged cheddar or grana styles, are not salt crystals. They form separately as a natural byproduct of the proteins breaking down over time. However, the higher salt content in these cheeses does contribute to allowing the crystals to form and persist during aging.

The Salty Truth

So there you have it, my fellow cheese enthusiasts—the salty truth behind our favorite food. That saltiness in cheese isn’t just a coincidence; it’s a carefully crafted fusion of flavors, textures, and artistry. The next time you savor that delicious piece of cheese, take a moment to appreciate the salty taste that elevates the experience to new heights.

Armed with this cheesy knowledge, go forth and spread the gospel of why is cheese salty. Share the information, experiment with different flavors, and embrace the saltiness that makes each cheese unique. Remember, cheese isn’t just food—it’s a culinary masterpiece!

Bon appétit, and may your cheese adventures always be salty and sublime!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like