The New Revolutionaries: American vs. British Cheddars

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

In the Battle of Cheddar Cheese, which side emerges victorious?

Artisanal American Cheddars

Your average block of American cheddar doesn’t resemble the complex-tasting farmhouse-style wheels that have been produced in England for centuries, but that hasn’t stopped shoppers from snatching it up. In 2010, cheddar accounted for more than 30 percent of the cheese produced in this country. Whether cheddar boasts distinct, nuanced flavors has never mattered much; most people seem to think cheddar is supposed to be a plain-Jane cheese.

Traditional British cheddars, on the other hand, are known to boast "barnyard-y," "musty" flavors. They’re rich and crumbly in texture with complex flavors that are more fitted to a fancy cheese board than to be slapped on top of burger (though they would significantly improve any burger lucky enough to host them).

But American cheddar is poised to climb out of its shrink-wrapped, bland-tasting rut. Many well-stocked supermarkets, gourmet cheese shops, and online sources now offer “artisanal” domestic cheddars that claim to rival the English stuff and fetch prices just as high. The only way to find out if they stood up to their British counterparts was to taste them—nine artisanal cheddars from both small and large producers—straight from the package.

The first thing we noticed was that all of the artisanal American cheddars tasted remarkably different. In fact, the spectrum of flavors was so broad—everything from mellow and buttery to pungent and sulfurous—that we were surprised that all of these cheeses could be labeled cheddar. Texture also varied hugely. Some cheddars were so dry that they crumbled in our hands, while others were as moist and creamy as Monterey Jack. So just what was going on in the cheese-making process that produced such varied results?

What Makes a Cheddar a Cheddar

As with most cheeses, cheddar begins with adding a mix of starter cultures to milk. The cultures (each creamery uses a proprietary blend) cause the milk to separate, at which point the liquid whey is pressed out and the remaining curds are shaped into blocks or wheels, vacuum-sealed in plastic or bandaged in cloth (more on wrapping methods later), and aged anywhere from two months to two or more years. The particular methods used to press and shape the cheese, known as “cheddaring,” are responsible for this varietal’s firm, close-knit texture.

Creameries that employ traditional methods stack, turn, and press the curds by hand to achieve the desired moisture level (which must not exceed 39 percent, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s definition of cheddar). Larger-scale manufacturers automate the process by pouring the inoculated milk into closed vats that regulate temperature and moisture and use centrifugal force to press the curds and extract whey.

If we’d had to guess, we’d have predicted that the handmade cheddars would be the runaway favorites—for no good reason other than that we associate “artisanal” with “better.” But as it turned out, two of our three favorite cheeses were actually machine-made.

We moved on to look at other variables that might explain our preferences and homed in on how the cheese was wrapped. “Clothbound” isn’t just another gourmet-sounding label. It refers to cheeses cloaked in lard- or butter-laminated cheesecloth or linen. Wrapped in these porous fabrics, the cheddars lose moisture, form a rind, and in our lineup developed what tasters described as “fruity,” “buttery” depth and a pleasantly “crystalline,” “Parmesan-like” structure. All of the clothbound cheeses, in fact, were well liked.

So how could two cheeses aged for the same amount of time and packaged the same way embody such different flavors? The moisture level of the cheeses could play a role, but so could each maker’s specific blend of bacteria. In fact, the bacterial culture in our favorite cheddar likely had a big influence on its flavor.

The Ultimate Taste Test

Our tasting convinced us that American creameries are producing some top-notch cheddars. But we hadn’t pitted them against the stuff from the old country yet. In an Olympic-style competition, we tasted our favorite American cheddars, Milton Creamery's Prairie Breeze and Cabot's Clothbound, against one of Britain's most famous cheddars, a 12-month-old bandaged wheel from Keen's.

The contest ended in a draw. Fans of the musky, traditional English cheddars leaned toward Keen's, while those who favor more "butterscotch-y" cheddars preferred the American cheeses. The only factor that tipped the balance in favor of the domestic cheddars was price. At $31.96 per pound—twice as much as Prairie Breeze—Keen's might be best saved for your next trip to England.

RECIPE FOR MEMBERS: Grown-Up Grilled Cheese Sandwiches with Cheddar and Shallot

Now that you know the ins and outs of cheddar, make yourself an extraordinary grilled cheese sandwich that features flavorful aged cheddar. A small addition of wine and Brie helps the aged cheddar melt evenly without becoming greasy.

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