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Supermarket Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Does aging make for better sharp cheddar? Turns out, it’s complicated.
What You Need To Know
You don’t have to go to a fancy shop to find great cheddar. In recent years, inexpensive supermarket cheddars 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.
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.
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.
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 b...
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