How we tested
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.
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.
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.