When it comes to buying cheese at the grocery store, a block of cheddar seems like a simple enough ask, right? A quick stroll past the dairy aisle cheese case quickly suggests otherwise, though. Cheddar is not just cheddar — there are a surprising number of options. And if deciphering all the terms on those labels feels kinda confusing, trust me that you are not alone.
I'm here to answer the questions you have and decode those labels on your selection of grocery store cheddar, so you can buy just the right cheese for you.
Just for now, forget all those cheddars you've seen at Trader Joe's; that cheese case is its own beast. In this guide, we're concentrating on the cheddars you'd find at your local grocery store.
1. Color: White vs. Yellow Cheddar
It's true! When it comes to cheddar, color is not actually an indicator of taste. Cheddar cheese is naturally white to pale yellow in color, and those dark yellow blocks and bags (which actually look orange!) are the result of coloring. Annatto is the additive the most often used to give naturally white cheddar a deep yellow-orange hint.
What to buy: It really comes down to personal preference, since they taste the same.
Aging is the process that affects the flavor of cheddar. The longer a cheese is aged, the more pronounced and sharp its flavor. This is what distinguishes mild cheddar (typically aged for just a couple months, with a smooth, not too distinct taste) from more flavorful, pronounced sharp cheddar (aged up to a year or longer).
One type of aged cheddar we love is Alpine. You're most likely to see it sold as a block from popular cheesemaker Cabot. It's a nutty, sharp-tasting, lactose-free cheddar with a taste that just might remind you of Swiss or Parmesan, and a texture like the latter. Alpine is a great option for cheese boards, or any time you want something a little fancier than your regular sharp cheddar.
Pro tip: You're most likely to find aged cheddar sold in blocks, not pre-shredded bags. Cabot is a reliable grocery store brand with a few options of aged cheddar available by the brick. Expect it to have a pronounced, sharp taste and, depending on the age, even a few of those savory crystals usually found in Parmesan.
3. Sharpness: Mild, Medium, Sharp, and Extra-Sharp
No matter what form of cheddar you buy, you will see it labeled with one of these four classifications. They an indicator of the amount of time the cheese was aged, which affects the overall taste and texture of the cheese. Cheddar develops a more distinct and sharp flavor and contains a lower moisture content the longer it's aged. Exact timing varies from brand to brand, but mild cheddar is aged for the shortest amount of time and extra-sharp the longest.
- Mild cheddar: Aged for the shortest amount of time, mild cheddar has a creamy, subtle taste with a relatively high moisture content, which lends a smooth texture that doesn't crumble easily. It's easy to slice, and melts extremely well.
- Medium cheddar: Aged slightly longer than mild cheddar, it's a little more flavorful, although it lacks the distinct bite of sharp cheddar. It's also very good for melting and slicing.
- Sharp cheddar: A lengthier aging process leaves this cheese with a distinct and prominent flavor. It has a lower moisture content, and while it does melt well it requires more heat to do so.
- Extra-sharp cheddar: The most assertive flavor among these classifications, with a very pronounced, sharp taste, and likely to crumble or break when sliced. Extra-sharp cheddar is best for eating out of hand.
What to buy: For eating cheddar as is, go with the variety that tastes best to you. The more aged the cheese is, the less moisture it contains and the more heat is required to melt it. So when it comes to cooking, mild, medium ,and sharp cheddars are best for melting, while extra-sharp and aged cheddars don't melt as well.
Learn more: What's the Deal with Sharp Cheddar Cheese?
4. Place: New York-Style vs. Vermont
Two other common labels you're likely to spot in the cheese case are New York-style cheddar and Vermont cheddar. Despite their proximity, these two Northeast neighbors offer two distinct styles of cheese. New York-style cheddar is known for its lengthy aging, which means it comes with a very prominent, extra-sharp taste, that's often described as pungent and bitter. Unlike traditional extra-sharp cheddar, it typically has a texture similar to mild cheddar.
Vermont-style cheddar, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the sharpness of the cheese or even where it was produced. Instead, this label simply refers to white, naturally colored cheddar, produced in Vermont and elsewhere.
5. Form: Block Cheddar vs. Pre-Shredded
While there are not quite as many choices as buying blocks of cheddar, you're likely to find bags of pre-shredded cheddar that are mild, sharp, yellow, white, or a mixture of cheeses. These bags are convenient, although slightly pricier than buying an equal amount of block cheddar. The shredded version also contains additives that prevent the cheese from clumping together in the bag, which also means it doesn't melt quite the same as freshly grated cheese.
What to buy: I will always recommend a block of grated cheese over the pre-shredded stuff. But if you want convenience, pre-shredded cheddar will get the job done.
What's your favorite brand of grocery store cheddar?