Science & Technology

Wanted: Pizza and Ice Cream Tasters

A Center for Dairy Research job posting creates an international sensation.

Panelists focus on test tasting

Good panelists can detect sweet, salty, bitter, and acidic tastes. Bryce Richter

The UW’s Center for Dairy Research went viral last spring when it posted an ad for “descriptive sensory panelists” — in other words, people who taste cheese, pizza, and other dairy products. Fascinated by a position that screamed “only in the Dairy State,” CNN, NBC, and other media outlets published articles oozing with cheesy puns. Sample headline: “Grate Job!”

While national reporters believed this was all very silly (or “brie-lieved,” as they inevitably put it), descriptive sensory panelists play an essential role in a research operation that benefits both consumers and the dairy industry. They help improve quality and develop new products. You can thank them the next time you bite into a perfect cheese curd.

“When you buy curds from the grocery store, they’re often mushy and not very pleasant,” says sensory coordinator Brandon Prochaska ’12. “We’re doing research into how to prolong the squeak.”

The Center for Dairy Research normally gets about 10 responses to a job posting for descriptive sensory panelists. This time, with all the publicity, it received more than 250 from around the world. After intensive training, the five lucky hires joined the 20-person panel in September to measure how cheese melts, browns, and blisters on a scale of zero to 15, among other tasting-related tasks.

Successful panelists have a knack for detecting sweet, salty, bitter, and acidic tastes. In common parlance, they’re good eaters.

“I love aromas, textures, and flavors,” says new panelist Kelly Kluck, whose interview process included three hours of sniffing and tasting tests. She had previously evaluated coffee and wine as a hobby and can’t believe she now gets to eat cheese for a living.

And make no mistake, working at the Center for Dairy Research is not a picnic — it’s a profession. No matter how much panelists like pizza, for example, it takes discipline to taste up to two dozen a week. Part of the secret is spitting out the food rather than swallowing it.

“If we consumed everything we were evaluating, we’d be full within the first hour,” Prochaska says. “And once you’re full, you can’t really do a good job of being objective.”

Published in the Winter 2023 issue


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