What’s the Deal with Sharp Cheddar Cheese?

published Oct 17, 2014
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(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

It’s hard to imagine life without cheddar cheese — there’s a block of it in my fridge at all times, ready to be sprinkled onto scrambled eggs, melted into grilled cheese sandwiches, or stirred into bechamel sauce for homemade macaroni and cheese.

But cheddar cheeses can be confusing: some are white, some are yellow or orange, and some cheddars are labeled mild, sharp, or extra sharp. Cheddars seem to be the only cheese with that label, so what does it all mean?

(Image credit: Air Images)

How Cheddar Cheese is Made

Before we get to talking about sharp cheddar cheese, let’s delve into what cheddar is in the first place. It’s a cow’s milk cheese that originated in the village of Cheddar in England but is now one of the most popular and inexpensive cheeses in the US.

The cheddar-making process starts out like most other cheeses: milk is cultured, meaning starter bacteria is added to acidify the milk. When enough acid is developed, rennet is added and milk forms curds. After the curds form, the watery whey is drained out to leave behind more concentrated curds. The concentrated curds are then heated to about 100 degrees F to release even more whey and start to melt together.

It’s at this point that cheddar continues on a different path in cheesemaking called the cheddaring process. The curds are formed into big slabs that are piled together and flipped over many times, getting denser and releasing more whey. Finally, the pressed curds are passed through a mill to make small curds again before being pressed into molds to drain further and age.

(Image credit: MSPhotographic)

White vs. Orange and Yellow Cheddars

Why is some cheddar white and others yellow or orange? Historically, cheddars made in New England were undyed and left white, while cheddars made elsewhere were dyed with things like annatto to help distinguish their origins. Nowadays, it’s just a consumer preference and both are still produced.

(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

So What’s Sharp Cheddar?

Cheddar cheese is one of those unique cheeses that has a descriptor before it, the term ‘sharp’. It’s a loose label that isn’t regulated, so designations can be inconsistent across brands.

Sharp is the term that indicates how cheddar changes in flavor and texture as it ages. Mild cheddars are aged 2 to 3 months, sharp 6 to 9 months, and extra-sharp 1 1/2 to 2 years old. As cheddar ages, it goes from mild to tangier with more complex and deeper flavors. Its texture also goes from smooth and creamy to developing hard, salt-like crystals called calcium lactate.

The best way to understand the age and sharpness of cheddar is to taste two different ages of cheddar side-by-side. Go with the same brand if possible to have a fair comparison and start tasting! Only then will you know if you like mild and creamy or nutty and tangy.

Cooking with Cheddar

If you’re just nibbling on cheddar, you should obviously go with the age you think tastes the best. Cooking with cheddar is a different story though. The more aged the cheese is, the less moisture it contains and the more heat is required to melt it. Mild or sharp cheddars melt the best, while aged cheddars start to behave more like Parmesan cheese.

So there you have it — everything you need to know about cheddar and how to pick the right one at the grocery store. Who’s ready to have a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner tonight?