Published March 1, 2002. From Cook's Illustrated.
Supermarket cheddar cheeses can be pale imitations of authentic farmhouse cheddars, but they are cheap and widely available. Some are even worth eating.
Unlike other great cheeses, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Stilton, cheddar is not name-protected. Anyone can make cheddar cheese anywhere and any way. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates cheddar cheese as a final product (it must have no less than 50 percent milk fat solids and no more than 39 percent moisture), the means by which manufacturers produce the cheese are ungoverned. This is why there is so much variation in flavor between one cheddar and another and why even within the "sharp" category we found some cheeses as mild as mozzarella and others as robust as Parmesan.
The traditional way to make cheddar cheese is called cheddaring. During cheddaring, the curd (made by adding acid-producing cultures and clotting agents to unpasteurized whole milk) is cut into slabs, then stacked, cut, pressed, and stacked again. Along the way a large amount of liquid, called whey, is extracted from the curd base. The remaining compacted curd is what gives farmhouse cheddars their hard and fine-grained characteristics.
As for what distinguishes different varieties of cheddar—mild, medium, sharp, extra-sharp, and beyond—that is left in the hands of the cheese makers. Our research revealed that most extra-sharp cheddars are aged from nine to 18 months. This much we do know for sure: As cheddar ages, new flavor compounds are created, and the cheese gets firmer in texture and more concentrated in flavor—and it gets sharper. But is more sharpness desirable? Does it make for better cheddar? To find out which supermarket cheddar cheese our tasters liked best, we matched eight varieties of extra sharp cheddar cheese against the winner of our previous tasting of regular sharp cheddars and headed into the tasting lab to sample them plain (at room temperature to fully appreciate their nuances) and melted into grilled cheese sandwiches.
Our tasters generally liked the older, sharper cheeses best. Our three top-rated cheeses are all aged for at least 12 months, and tasters rated them the three sharpest. As for texture, tasters preferred the older cheeses for their denser, more crumbly bite. Younger cheeses had more moisture and a springier, more rubbery texture—fine in a young cheese, but not what we wanted in extra-sharp cheddar. As for melting ability, tasters didn't mind a little greasiness (older cheddars separate when melted, because they contain less water and thus have less insulation against some of their fat melting out) as long as there was big flavor to back it up.
And what about farmhouse cheddars? Farmhouse cheddar cheese is made by small creameries that start with unpasteurized milk, hand-cheddar the curd, and then wrap and age the cheese in a cloth. A great farmhouse cheddar cheese is hard, fine-textured, and flaky, with a sharp, tangy edge that's a little sweet, nutty, slightly bitter, and herbaceous. These various flavors come together to create a well-balanced, complex, and rewarding taste experience. The bad news is that farmhouse cheddars are expensive ($11 to $19 per pound) and often hard to find.
To see just how good these cheeses really are, we organized a tasting, rounding up three farmhouse cheddars from England and one from Vermont. We also included our top-ranked supermarket cheddar, for comparison. Overall, the farmhouse brands provided a more exciting and enjoyable cheddar experience. If you live near a specialty foods or cheese store, we strongly recommend that you try them.