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All About Artisanal American Cheddar Cheese
From California to Vermont, cheesemakers are producing some top-tier cheddars by hand.
What You Need To Know
I grew up on the border of Wisconsin, so I love cheddar and always keep a block (or two) in my fridge. Even so, I was an adult when I realized how vast the world of cheddar is. I was a new cheesemonger tasked with cutting big 40-pound blocks and smaller wheels of cheddar into individual pieces. When I cut into Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, an artisanal cheese from Vermont, I realized it was covered in strips of fabric that had to be peeled away. It’s obvious in retrospect—clothbound means “wrapped in fabric”—but I’d never seen anything like it. The cheese’s crumbly texture, caramel sweetness, and earthiness were also a pleasant, eye-opening surprise.
What Exactly Is Artisanal Cheddar?
Although most of us have a clear idea of what cheddar looks and tastes like, it’s a difficult cheese to define succinctly. “It is all things to all people,” as The Oxford Companion to Cheese (2016) puts it. It’s available in an incredible variety of shapes, sizes, flavors, textures, colors, and ages. We’ve written before about sharp cheddar and extra-sharp cheddar. For this story, I focused on artisanal cheddars—that is, those that are made by hand—so I went to Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vermont, to shadow head cheesemaker Helen Cowan and observe the process firsthand.
The milk used to make cheddar can be raw—as it is at Shelburne Farms—but it’s typically pasteurized. The milk is heated and then specific strains of cultures are added for flavor. To tint the cheese bright yellow or deep shades of orange, makers sometimes add annatto (a flavorless dye derived from the seeds of the achiote tree). Enzymes or rennet are added to make the milk thicken and form a gel the consistency of soft yogurt. The gel is cut into cubes that are drained, heated, and allowed to fuse together into curds.
Next comes the step that gives the cheese its name: cheddaring. The curds are drained, pressed together, and cut into rectangular slabs. To remove moisture and ensure that the eventual cheese has a uniform and elastic texture, the slabs are stacked and turned at regular intervals. At Shelburne Farms, Cowan and cheesemaker Sam Zinner methodically flipped over each slab of curds and also alternated its position in the stack. They then fed the slabs through a machine that resembled a wood chipper, producing curds roughly two inches long. Finally, they salted the curds and packed them into stainless-steel forms that were pressed to remove still more moisture. For aging, the cheeses are removed from the forms and moved to underground caves or large walk-in refrigerators. Depending on the size and style of the cheddar, aging lasts months or even yea...
Everything We Tested
Tasting Notes: This creamy and slightly crumbly cheddar is flecked with “lots of tiny, crunchy crystals.” Gently sweet but still sharp, it’s also buttery and nutty. It’s a definite crowd-pleaser that stands out as “a special cheddar.”
Background: After opening in Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 2003, Beecher’s opened a facility in New York’s Flatiron District and formed a partnership with Shullsburg Creamery in Wisconsin. Beecher’s also produces the clothbound Flagship Reserve, which is drier, sharper, and has more complex earthy, nutty flavor than the block version.
Tasting Notes: The “complex sweetness” and “toasty” flavor reminds us of “caramelized nuts.” Near the rind, there’s a distinct earthiness. Smooth and dense and a little crumbly, it’s an exceptional clothbound cheddar.
Background: Willi Lehner, the owner of Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, has long collaborated with the team at Henning's Wisconsin Cheese in nearby Kiel, as they have the forms he needs for pressing clothbound cheddar. About a week after he makes the wheels, Lehner moves them to his underground caves. He only makes cheese when the cows are on pasture and aren’t stressed by the hottest temperatures of the summer, which typically works out to 4 or 5 months of the year.
Tasting Notes: “How can one cheese have so many disparate flavors?” asked one very happy taster. Any given batch can be “grassy” and “nutty” and taste of “brown sugar,” “pineapple,” or “onions,” making for a complex yet very approachable cheddar. The texture is crumbly yet creamy with “crystalline pops.”
Background: In 2003, Cabot Cheese, a large Vermont-based cooperative that produces huge quantities of cheese, had the ability to make clothbound cheeses but lacked the appropriate space to age them. Nearby Jasper Hill Cellars was just getting started making cheese, and agreed to age a few wheels as an experiment, kicking off a wildly successful collaboration.
Tasting Notes: A “smooth but resounding kick” of sharpness that pairs beautifully with a subtle grassiness and butterscotch-like sweetness. Despite its punchiness, it's very smooth and creamy. It crumbles a little and has some tiny crystals for crunch.
Background: Started in 2006 by Chris Gentine, Deer Creek remains mostly a family business. They make a variety of cheddars—most of which are named for animals—in collaboration with Henning’s Cheese. The Stag is the stronger, longer-aged sibling of The Fawn.
Tasting Notes: “Supercreamy” and “smooth,” this cheese stands out from some drier, crumblier options. It’s also “milky” and “nutty” with very little bitterness, for a comforting, familiar combination one taster compared to a “warm hug” or a “dependable neighbor.” We also like its crunchy crystals.
Background: Located in Bandon along Oregon’s southern coast, Face Rock Creamery was established in 2013 with a focus on cheddar. In addition to the Extra Aged Cheddar, the company makes two clothbound cheddars: one using cow’s milk and one using a mix of cow’s and sheep’s milk.
Tasting Notes: This firm, crumbly raw-milk clothbound cheddar has plenty of satisfying crunchy bits. Both “nutty” and “buttery,” it also has a bright, vibrant sharpness that makes you keep going back for more. It has a slightly sweet, “earthy” finish.
Background: The Old World Cheddar is the most popular cheese from Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese. The company’s roots in Modesto, California go back to 1914, when the Fiscalini family started a 10-cow dairy farm. By 2000, the dairy farm had grown considerably in size and John Fiscalini started using a portion of the milk to make cheese.
Tasting Notes: Made with raw milk, this clothbound cheddar has incredible complexity that one taster described as “unlike any cheddar I’ve ever had.” It’s “grassy,” “tangy,” and savory with hints of everything from “mushroom” to “lemon.” It’s firm and smooth.
Background: The roots of the Grafton Village Cheese go back to the Grafton Cooperative Cheese Company, which was founded in Grafton, Vermont in 1892. Today’s iteration of the company is operated by Windham Foundation, a nonprofit focused on supporting rural communities in Vermont. Grafton Clothbound Cheddar won first place for clothbound cheddars 12 months or less at the 2022 American Cheese Society Awards.
Tasting Notes: A bold and bright orange, it has the sharpness and acidity typical of great Wisconsin cheddars. Although it’s aged five years, it retains some sweetness and has a pleasant "fruity sharpness." It’s firm and dense enough to slice fairly easily.
Background: Helmed by Tony and Julie Hook, the Mineral Point, Wisconsin, company produces both orange and white cheddars that are often aged for as long as 10, 12, or even 15 years. A variety of conditions, from the specifics of a given day’s milk to the weather, determine when a given batch of cheese is at its peak.
Tasting Notes: “I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t like this,” noted one taster. It has a “soft tanginess” and “sweet caramel-butterscotch” flavor balanced perfectly with bitterness and a “sour cheddar edge.” The “luscious” and creamy-crumbly texture is interspersed with little pops of crystals.
Background: Milton Creamery in Milton, Iowa, was established in 2006 in an area known for its Amish and Mennonite dairy farmers. Prairie Breeze was one of the first American cheddars with a distinctly sweet-sharp profile to become popular, and it remains one of the best-known examples of this type of cheddar.
Tasting Notes: “Rich and buttery” with gentle tang, it’s one of the smoother and more mild-mannered clothbound cheddars. It’s savory but also has a distinctive and very enjoyable “fruitiness.” It’s smooth and easy to slice.
Background: At age 16, Alise Sjostrom set a goal of establishing a cheesemaking operation and using milk from her family’s dairy farm, Jer-Lindy Farms, located in Broonten, Minnesota. After tailoring her college curriculum around the idea, Sjostrom founded Redhead Creamery and began making cheese in 2014. Lucky Linda is named for Alise’s mom, who was her assistant cheesemaker during the creamery’s early days.
Tasting Notes: This Wisconsin cheddar has the “classic flavor” of cheeses made in the area: pleasantly sharp and slightly "bitter" without being overpowering. It’s dense and almost “fudgy” in texture.
Background: Certified Wisconsin Master Cheese Maker Chris Roelli comes from a family with 100 years of tradition making cheese. At his facility in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, he produces about 200 twenty-pound wheels of Haus Select each year. The wheels are coated with food-grade wax, so they don’t lose as much moisture as clothbound wheels but develop a similar texture.
Tasting Notes: This young cheese is made with raw milk from pasture-based cows, and it tastes pleasantly “grassy” and “slightly vegetal” but remains mild overall. It’s soft, creamy, and very approachable.
Background: Shelburne Farms is an education nonprofit that focuses on sustainability. It’s located in Shelburne, Vermont on land whose landscape design was inspired by Frederick Law Olmstead; the cheese is made and aged in a converted stable. Batches of cheddar are typically aged between 6 months and 3 years.
Tasting Notes: With a “supersmooth” and creamy texture, “there’s a richness” to this cheddar that we love. There’s a burst of sweetness and slight oakiness but “that cheddar tang” still cuts through. It’s firm enough to slice easily.
Background: In Theresa, Wisconsin, Cheesemaker Joe Widmer continues a family tradition that dates back more than 100 years. Alpine Cheddar is his newest cheese. It’s made with a combination of cultures typically used for Alpine-style cheeses such as Gruyère and the traditional cultures Widmer uses for his other cheddars.
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.