I’ve asked my coworkers at America’s Test Kitchen to eat a lot of cheese in the name of science and objectivity. We’ve compared assortments of artisanal cheddar and goat cheeses. We’ve eaten Gruyère and a whole lot of blue cheese, and (of course) sampled our fair share of Trader Joe’s cheeses.
Cheese in a Can That’s Actually Good
When I grabbed a can opener and announced that we were going to try canned cheese, most people responded with some variation of, “Wait, what?”
But a few people practically shouted, “Is it Cougar Cheese? I love Cougar Cheese!”
That second group of people was right on both counts: It was Cougar Cheese. And as the rest of us quickly declared, we love Cougar Cheese too.
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What Is Cougar Cheese, Anyway?
Cougar Cheese is cheese that comes in large 30-ounce cans and has been made at Washington State University’s Creamery for nearly a century. Its production is a key part of the university’s mission to provide teaching and research opportunities to the university community.
As explained on the Creamery’s website, students get lots of hands-on experience. After fresh milk arrives at the Creamery, they help pasteurize it and use it to make Cougar Cheese and another delicious dairy-based treat, Ferdinand’s Ice Cream. Both are sold at Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe on campus. Students also help package the cheddar and fulfill mail orders.
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Why Does Cougar Cheese Come in a Can?
Back in the 1930s, the Creamery was looking into different ways to store cheese. The wax they tried cracked, making the cheese vulnerable to contamination. The durable plastic most cheddar makers use today wasn’t yet available. Cans seemed like the best option. One of the canned cheeses was especially successful. They named it “Cougar Gold,” a tribute to both the school mascot (the cougar) and a researcher named Dr. N. S. Golding.
Fast-forward to today. According to the school, the Creamery produces 250,000 cans of Cougar Gold and other variations each year.
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How Does Cougar Cheese Taste?
We sampled two cheeses: Cougar Gold (a white cheddar) and Natural Cheddar (an orange cheddar).
Both were packaged in 30-ounce cans labeled with the names of the students who had prepared them. (Hi, Ash and Kelsie! We love your cheese!) The cans were wide and squat, kind of like really big cans of tuna. I clamped a can opener to the side and popped off the tops. Once we caught a glimpse of the cheeses, we knew we were in for something special. Both were firm and dry and really appealing.
We shimmied the wheels of cheddar out of their cans, cut them into wedges, and dove in.
- The Natural Cheddar was pleasantly “acidic” and “bitter” with “big lactic tang.” Aged for at least a year, it crumbled just a little but was still firm and uniform to slice. Though full-flavored, it was generally deemed to be the milder of the two.
- The Cougar Gold is WSU’s most popular cheese and it was our favorite as well. It was “sharp” and impressively “complex,” with a milky sweetness that lingered. It had lots of the crunchy crystals we love in Parmigiano-Reggiano and other aged cheeses but retained a “buttery richness.” One person went so far as to call it “phenomenal.”
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We’re a bit envious of people who live close enough to WSU to pop into Ferdinand’s and buy a wheel or a wedge in person. The rest of us can purchase online. At $27 for 30 ounces (plus shipping), it’s a bit of a splurge but it would make a great holiday gift. The cans are bright and colorful, so all you need is to wrap a ribbon around them.
Anyone who values cheese or education (or both!) will be pleased that some of the proceeds go to educational support for WSU Food Science students.