The best extra-sharp cheddars are bold but balanced. Which cheese should you buy?
Published Dec. 1, 2017. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 11: Pacific Northwest Supper
American cheddar consumption has nearly doubled since 1970, and supermarket shelves are bursting with options, which makes choosing the best block a daunting task. Cheddar comes in a number of styles—mild, sharp, extra sharp, and more. These terms aren’t regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but they usually indicate how long a cheese has been aged. Typically, the older the cheese, the stronger it tastes, which is why we choose extra-sharp cheddar when we want bolder, punchier flavor.
Our mission: Find a versatile extra-sharp cheddar that is fantastic to eat plain but that also holds up decently in recipes where melting is required. To do so we selected seven top-selling nationally available cheddars that were either labeled “extra-sharp” or were aged for 12 to 24 months, which most experts agree is typical for extra-sharp cheddars. We tried them plain, in grilled cheese, and in our Simple Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese.
Some cheddars that we loved plain for their complex, powerful funk and firm texture were oily and grainy when melted. Conversely, some cheeses that melted well were soft, chewy, and a bit bland when sampled plain. A few struck the perfect balance. How’d they get it right?
Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Dairy Research, explained that the characteristics consumers like in a cheese-plate cheddar are at odds with the qualities prized for melting. The longer a cheese ages, the more time bacteria in the cheese have to break down the protein structure and form the flavor compounds responsible for the “sharp” flavor. This protein structure change causes an aged cheese to become more crumbly and drier and not great at melting.
In our lineup, the cheeses that didn’t melt well were all aged for closer to 24 months. Kraft, the manufacturer of the three best melters (including our winner), wouldn’t tell us how long it ages its cheeses, but experts explained that their softer textures and slight give when squeezed meant that these cheeses were likely aged for about 12 months—a year less than some other cheddars.
But of the cheeses that we confirmed or suspected as being aged for about a year, some were flavorful while others were bland. To find out why, we sent all the cheeses to an independent lab to learn more about two key elements: moisture and fat. Aging usually has a direct impact on moisture in cheeses that are rinded or wrapped in porous materials, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or cloth-bound cheddar, but supermarket cheddar blocks are wrapped in nonporous plastic and lose remarkably little moisture during ag...
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