You don’t have to go to a fancy shop to find great cheddar. In recent years, inexpensive supermarket cheddars—like Cracker Barrel, Cabot, and Tillamook—have taken top honors in international cheese competitions, beating out much-pricier artisan brands. Supermarket cheddar comes in a few varieties—mild, medium, sharp, extra-sharp—but we reach for sharp cheddar when we need a cheese that’s complex enough for snacking but versatile enough for cooking.
But what exactly is “sharp” cheddar? In general, cheese gets sharper the longer it ages, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn’t regulate cheddar labeling, and it’s up to the manufacturer to determine what’s sharp. We’ve found that most manufacturers consider the aging time frame for sharp cheddar to be six to 12 months.
We selected seven nationally available products to test: five cheeses labeled sharp cheddar and two “aged” cheddars that fall within the six-to-12-month time frame. Since many brands offer both orange and white sharp cheddars*, we asked each manufacturer to identify its best-selling color and ended up with an almost equal mix of orange and white cheeses. Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers tasted the cheeses plain and in grilled cheese sandwiches.
We Were Curious on Color: What’s the Difference Between Orange and White Sharp Cheddar?
Cheddar cheese hails from Cheddar, England, a town known for its elaborate natural cave system where British dairy farmers began aging cheese in the 12th century. Back then, a pale yellow color was a mark of quality in cheddar: It meant that the cheese came from healthy cows that grazed on beta-carotene-rich grasses. But in the 1600s, English cheesemakers figured out that they could pass off low-fat cheddar (which was less expensive to produce, but lacks yellow pigment) as full-fat cheese by adding orange food dye. The trend of dying cheese orange carried over into full-fat cheddar when manufacturers realized that seasonal variations in cheese color (colorful grasses are more abundant in warmer months) could be concealed by dying the milk a bright orange hue with annatto extract, a tasteless plant colorant.
Whether you prefer your cheddar orange or white largely depends on where you live: White cheddar is more popular along the Atlantic coast, while the rest of America favors orange cheddar. To accommodate regional preferences, most manufacturers produce both an orange and a white variety of cheddar. But aside from color, is there any difference between the two?
To find out, we pitted one brand’s white and orange sharp cheddars against each other in a blindfolded taste test, and later repeated the test with another brand just to be sure. In both tests, all tasters were able to identify the color of the cheese via taste alone. The white cheddars were deemed more acidic and sharper, while orange cheeses had softer textures and milder flavors. But if annatto is flavorless, what accounts for the difference? According to Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, some manufacturers actually make their orange and white cheddars differently, altering the moisture, fat content, and aging times to reflect regional palates. Sommer also said that while many dairy scientists maintain that there’s no chemical reason annatto should affect the flavor of cheddar, emerging research suggests that it’s possible annatto has an antimicrobial effect on cheese, changing how it ages and how its flavor develops.
Texture was a nonissue: Most products were “creamy” and slightly “crumbly,” just how we like sharp cheddar; in grilled cheese they were pleasantly “melty” and “gooey.” Flavor differences were more apparent when we tasted the cheeses plain. While we liked most of the cheddars, a few fell to the bottom of the pack for “funky,” “sweet” flavors that, while not necessarily unpleasant, were unexpected. We preferred products with the familiar “bright” and “buttery” flavor of “classic” cheddar.
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Tasters preferred sharper cheeses. But when we contacted manufacturers to find out how long each product is aged, we learned that our top-ranked cheeses actually age three months less than lower-ranked products, for nine versus 12 months. While time is one factor in flavor, how well a cheese ages also depends on how it was made and stored. Most cheesemakers weren’t willing to share those secrets, so we sent the cheeses to an independent lab to learn why some younger cheeses tasted sharper and more complex.
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Here, things started to line up: The longer-aged cheddars at the bottom of our rankings had higher pH values (meaning they were less acidic) than top-ranked cheddars. According to Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a high pH is a good indication that the product didn’t age well. Many factors during production can influence the pH of a cheddar—what the cows were fed, the type of bacteria used to culture the cheese, how long the milk was heated and to what temperature. Whatever the cause, Sommer said cheddar that begins life at a high pH will typically end up overfermented, off-flavored, and sweet by the time it’s ready for sale.
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When the cheeses were melted into grilled cheese, however, the funky flavors mellowed. In fact, tasters thought that the “fruity” and “grassy” flavors of lower-ranked cheeses added a nuanced complexity to an otherwise mild sandwich. Only one product, Boar’s Head Sharp Wisconsin Cheddar, which tasters found mild when tasted plain, mellowed even more when melted, becoming “boring” and “bland.” Here, moisture was the problem. According to our lab tests, it contained the highest percentage of moisture in the group—roughly 37 percent moisture compared with 34 percent to 36 percent moisture in winning products. High moisture content, like high pH, can prevent the development of flavor and cause the cheese to age poorly. With the exception of this one product, most cheeses made grilled cheese that was “nutty,” “buttery,” and “rich” enough for our tasters.
Ultimately, we ended up recommending six of the seven cheddars we tried. Our former winner, Cabot Vermont Sharp Cheddar, once again took top honors for its complex nutty flavor and balanced sharpness.
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RECOMMENDED: Cabot Vermont Sharp Cheddar
Price: $3.78 for 8 oz ($0.47 per oz)
Aged for: 9 months
This white cheddar took top honors for its “nutty,” “almost smoky” “caramel” notes and “complex” sharpness. Tasters loved its “buttery,” “creamy” texture that “completely satisfied comfort food cravings” when it was melted for grilled cheese.
RECOMMENDED: Tillamook Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Price: $5.48 for 8 oz ($0.69 per oz)
Aged for: 9 months
This faintly orange cheddar was deemed “bright” and “almost citrusy” for its “zesty” tang and “bold” sharpness. When melted, its “gooey,” “buttery” texture earned this cheddar recognition as “a perfect cheese for grilled cheese.”
RECOMMENDED: Cracker Barrel Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Price: $3.89 for 8 oz ($0.49 per oz)
Aged for: Proprietary
This popular block cheese was “salty,” “acidic,” “balanced,” and “punchy,” with a “quintessential sharp cheddar” flavor that made it “great for snacking.” In grilled cheese, tasters found this cheddar “friendly” and “tame.”
RECOMMENDED: Kraft Natural Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Price: $4.79 for 8 oz ($0.60 per oz)
Aged for: Proprietary
“Mild,” “bright,” and “waxy,” this orange cheddar had a “rich,” “elegant sharpness” and “smooth” texture that made for “gooey,” “melty” grilled cheese. “Tastes like childhood,” said one taster, who thought this product’s “classic” flavor would be popular with kids.
RECOMMENDED: Kerrygold Aged Cheddar
Price: $5 for 7 oz ($0.71 per oz)
Aged for: 12 months
With a “mild” sharpness, this Irish import earned comparisons with Swiss cheese for its “slightly funky,” “tangy” flavor. Its subtle “grassy,” “onion” notes added “complexity” to grilled cheese, though a few tasters felt that it had “too many unexpected flavors” for cheddar.
RECOMMENDED: Sargento Tastings Aged Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese
Price: $2.79 for 3.95 oz ($0.71 per oz)
Aged for: 12 months
This petite orange wedge was “thick” and “chewy,” with “toasty” “butterscotch” notes that became “sweet” and “slightly nutty” when the cheese was melted. A few tasters thought that this cheddar had an unusual “tannic,” “tart flavor,” “like port wine cheese.”
RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS: Boar’s Head Sharp Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese
Price: $4.50 for 10 oz ($0.45 per oz)
Aged for: 9 months
Tasters enjoyed this product’s “mild,” “creamy” flavor and “smooth” texture for snacking, but a higher moisture content caused this white cheddar to become “bland” and “boring” when melted into grilled cheese. Summarized one taster: “more reminiscent of Monterey Jack than cheddar.”
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