Artisanal Cheddar

Published July 1, 2012. From Cook's Illustrated.

Plain, rubbery American cheddars never measured up to the British stuff. But by merging Old and New World techniques, some domestic creameries are waging a revolution.

Overview:

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, with supermarket shelves stocking more than 3 billion pounds of the shrink-wrapped, smooth-textured blocks—all of which helps explain why it’s the variety you’re most likely to see melted on a burger or oozing from a grilled cheese. Whether cheddar boasts distinct, nuanced flavors has never mattered much; most people seem to think cheddar is supposed to be a plain-Jane cheese.

But American cheddar is poised to climb out of this 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—which in many cases means more than double the cost of supermarket cheddar. And it’s not just grassroots dairy farms that are… read more

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, with supermarket shelves stocking more than 3 billion pounds of the shrink-wrapped, smooth-textured blocks—all of which helps explain why it’s the variety you’re most likely to see melted on a burger or oozing from a grilled cheese. Whether cheddar boasts distinct, nuanced flavors has never mattered much; most people seem to think cheddar is supposed to be a plain-Jane cheese.

But American cheddar is poised to climb out of this 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—which in many cases means more than double the cost of supermarket cheddar. And it’s not just grassroots dairy farms that are shaking things up: A couple of the biggest names in domestic cheddar production have debuted higher-end lines intended not as burger toppings but as candidates for fine cheese plates.

We were intrigued but skeptical: Other than gourmet-sounding names like “reserve” and “vintage,” what exactly might distinguish these fancy cheeses from the supermarket stuff—and would they really be worth the significant uptick in cost? There was only one way to find out: We held a tasting, sampling nine artisanal cheddars from both small and large producers straight from the package. (Fine cheeses like these aren’t intended for cooking.) We also set up benchmarks on either end of the spectrum, adding our supermarket favorite, Cabot Private Stock, to the mix, and later pitting the domestic winners against Keen’s Cheddar, long considered one of the gold standards of English farmhouse cheddars.

The first thing we noticed was that all of the 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. One thing was clear, though: Our top cheddars were worth every penny. Several didn’t just edge out our supermarket favorite, Cabot Private Stock (which still placed respectably in the contest): They wowed us with “intensely nutty,” “buttery” tang and creamy-textured crumbliness. So just what was going on in the cheese-making process that produced such varied results?

It’s a Wrap

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. These characteristics came at a cost: Because making clothbound cheese is a labor-intensive process that produces less yield than wrapping cheese in plastic (moisture loss means the cheese shrinks during aging), these were among the most expensive cheddars in our lineup.

But once again, tradition wasn’t everything. Our winning cheddar turned out to be a plastic-wrapped specimen, whose “buttery,” caramel-like flavor with hints of “fruity” sweetness had tasters raving. Like all the plastic-wrapped cheeses, this one boasted an underlying “creaminess,” thanks to the airtight packaging that locks in moisture. That we could be so taken by a shrink-wrapped cheese didn’t surprise Dean Sommer, a cheese and food technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. “Any notion that plastic film–wrapped cheese is somehow inferior is, in my opinion, dead wrong,” he told us. It’s simply a “different animal” from the bandage-wrapped cheeses, with a more “lactic” versus “earthy” flavor that can range from sweet, like our winner’s profile, to sharp, depending in part on how long the cheese is aged. Our top-ranked cheese, aged for just nine to 12 months, was one of the youngest in the lineup. Longer aging of the other plastic-wrapped cheeses, however, proved to be a mixed bag. Aging gives the enzymes in the bacterial cultures more time to convert the milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid, and in one two-year-old cheese aging produced what tasters praised as “appropriately” sharp flavors. But another plastic-sealed cheese, also aged for two years, blew right past sharp all the way to “rotten eggs,” a profile that some tasters found barely tolerable.

Culture Shock

So how could two cheeses aged for the same amount of time and packaged the same way embody such different flavors? According to Sommer, 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. This cheese maker takes the culturing process to another level by adding a second round of bacterial cultures to its cheese. We learned from Sommer that it’s not just a repeat of the first culture cocktail; these secondary bacteria are strains more typically found in Parmesan and Emmentaler than in cheddar, lending the cheese the subtle “butterscotch-y” and “gamy” undertones that earned tasters’ highest praise.

Naturally, that information prompted us to check the culturing details of the other cheddars we’d tasted, and as it turned out, the particularly “toasty,” “earthy,” “complex” flavors of two other cheddars, including our close runner-up, are also the result of that second dose of alternative bacteria.

So much for plain-Jane American cheddar. By the end of testing, we were convinced not only that the hybridization of traditional and modern cheddar-making methods leads to a top-notch product but also that these new-school American cheeses more than hold their own with the stalwarts across the Atlantic.

Methodology:

Twenty-one Cook’s Illustrated staff members sampled 10 cheddars at room temperature, rating them on flavor, texture, and sharpness. Brands were selected from among top sellers at cheese markets and recent winners of American Cheese Society awards.

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  • Product Tested

    Price*

  • Prices are subject to change.
  • Highly Recommended - Winner

    Milton Creamery Prairie Breeze

    This cheese was one of the youngest in the lineup, but thanks to an extra cocktail of bacterial cultures, it wowed tasters with “deeply rich,” “buttery” flavors and a “sweet” finish that reminded some of “pineapple.” It boasted a “crumbly” yet “creamy” texture reminiscent of “young Parmesan.”

    $15.98 per lb

  • Highly Recommended

    Cabot Cellars at Jasper Hill Clothbound Cheddar

    Cabot’s high-end line—the priciest American cheese we tasted—is also inoculated twice and won raves from tasters for its “mature sharpness” and “rich dairy flavor” that they likened to Gruyère. But the bigger draw: its “craggy” texture that broke into addictively “jagged,” “crystalline” shards.

    $23.98 per lb

  • Recommended

    Tillamook Vintage White Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese

    Compared with the company’s other cheddars, this two-plus-year-old cheese is “vintage,” but unlike some other long-aged samples, its sharpness was “appropriately bold” and “balanced.” Fans of smoother cheddars will appreciate its “extremely creamy” texture—not to mention its affordable price tag.

    $9.50 per lb

  • Recommended

    Beecher's Flagship Reserve Handmade Cheese

    Besides conventional cheddar descriptors like “nutty” and “sharp,” this “firm,” “grainy” clothbound cheese earned compliments for more complex flavors like “buttery walnuts” and a “gamy,” “Parmesan-like” tang. No wonder: Like our two favorites, it received a second shot of nontraditional cultures.

    $25.00 per lb

  • Recommended

    Grafton Village Vermont Clothbound Cheddar

    A classic example of clothbound cheddar, this sample was wrapped in a butter-dipped cloth and soaked up a “fruity and nutty” flavor hinting of “caramel.” It breaks into “firm” shards, which makes it a bit tricky to slice but a pleasure to eat out of hand.

    $15.99 per lb

  • Recommended

    Fiscalini Farmstead Bandage-Wrapped Raw Milk Cheddar

    As artisanal cheddars go, this cheese was well liked but unremarkable. Its “complex,” “fruity” aroma prompted the same pineapple analogy as our winner, but its texture was softer and creamier—even “waxy” and “squeezable,” according to some.

    $24.00 per lb

  • Recommended

    Cabot Private Stock Classic Vermont Cheddar Cheese

    The flavor of this “no-frills’’ crowd-pleaser—also our favorite supermarket cheddar—was “straight-up sharp” but “not distinctive,” with a “firm and creamy” texture that reminded us of “what you’d find on the end of a toothpick at a cocktail party.”

    $8.49 per lb

  • Recommended

    Shelburne Farms 2-Year-Old Farmhouse Cheddar Cheese

    After two years of aging in plastic, this cheddar tasted like “wet wool” and “barnyard funk”—a trait that some thought made it a “serious cheddar,” while others weren’t convinced. But all were agreed: The plastic’s moisture-locking seal ensured a “moist, creamy,” “mouth-coating” texture.

    $19.00 per lb

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Widmer's Cheese Cellars Two Year Old Cheddar Cheese

    Neon orange and shrink-wrapped, this cheddar looked the most like a supermarket block and tasted like it, too. Though deemed an “all-around good snacking cheddar,” its “mild” profile was “lackluster” in comparison with others in the lineup, and we’re not sure we’d go out of our way to mail-order it.

    $7.90 per lb

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Grafton Village Classic Reserve 2-Year Aged Vermont Raw Milk Cheddar Cheese

    Thanks to a combination of aging, moisture content, and bacteria cultures, this cheddar was so “sulfurous” that it elicited comparisons to “rotten eggs.” Only those who wanted a really “funky” cheddar found this one palatable, though many appreciated its “rich and creamy texture.”

    $17.99 per lb

*PRICES SUBJECT TO CHANGE
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