For the love of limburger

How can just four ingredients create such a stink?
For the love of limburger
Photo by Larry Chua
The legendary Limburger cheese sandwich at Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern in Monroe

You might think there’d be no numeric way to measure stinkiness, but you’d be mistaken.

We’re talking, of course, about the pungent smell of Limburger cheese, universally recognized as the most head-recoiling cheese of all. And it takes only four ingredients to create.

Jamie Fahrney, master cheesemaker and plant operations manager at the Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe, Wisconsin – literally the only plant in the United States that still produces Limburger cheese – ticks them off: milk, cultures, a saltwater mixture and the secret weapon, which is bacterium linens, the bacteria that unleashes the odor both in our feet and in certain types of cheese.

The bacteria have to be rubbed on the cheese by a gloved hand. A typical vat produces 3,500 6-ounce pieces, and the cooperative produces between 400,000 and 500,000 pounds of Limburger a year. It’s then aged for one to three months before it’s ready for consumption and sale.

Unlike other aged cheeses, Limburger has a hard ceiling: Six months is the maximum amount of time a Limburger can age and still be edible.

“At that point, the pH [acidity] of the cheese rises from a 4.9 to around 6.6., and it starts to smell like ammonia,” says Fahrney. “That’s for die-hard Limburger-eaters.”

Fahrney says America’s love of Limburger has leveled out a little after a decline in recent years. For his part, Fahrney enjoys his Limburger either straight up or trapped between a couple of slices of pumpernickel bread, with sweet hot mustard and a slice of raw onion.

“Now that’s a workman’s sandwich,” he says. No argument here.