Autumn, finally. Bring on the Cheddar. But which one? I’ve been noticing something peculiar about Cheddars lately—American Cheddars, especially, but some imports as well. The tang is gone, or muted. In its place: nutty and fruity aromas and a sweet, mellow finish.
What is up with these de-fanged Cheddars? I had a theory but I called a couple of experts to get their take.
“I’ve absolutely noticed it,” said Gordon Edgar, cheesemonger at San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery and author of Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese. Several prominent creameries have taken to using a “culture cocktail” that yields a Cheddar with a gentler tang and a sweeter, nuttier taste. And the votes are in. “Customers love these sweet Cheddars,” says Edgar. “They come in asking for the Cheddars that taste like candy or have the crunchy bits.”
Neville McNaughton, a St. Louis-based dairy consultant, traces the phenomenon to the success of new Dutch cheeses like Parrano and Old Amsterdam. By adding bacteria more common to Swiss cheeses, the Dutch cheesemakers produced wheels with caramel and toasted-nut aromas that American consumers seemed to like.
“Then it jumped into Cheddar,” says McNaughton. The recipe for the popular Beecher’s Flagship, from Seattle, incorporates the Swiss-type Lactobacillus helveticus bacteria. (Some have called Beecher’s a “Swiss Cheddar.”) The same flavor profile turns up in the mellow Cottonwood River Cheddar from Kansas, Oregon’s Face Rock Cheddar and Ireland’s Oscar Wilde Cheddar. Even McNaughton acknowledges that he turned to Lactobacillus bacteria when he helped develop Milton Creamery’s Cheddar-like Prairie Breeze (pictured above).
Compared to classic English farmhouse Cheddars such as Montgomery’s, Keen’s and Quicke’s, these newfangled Cheddars are creamier, less crumbly and definitely less tangy or sharp. Many have a pineapple scent. They have a full, rounded, snackable flavor that’s easy to like. Taste Prairie Breeze against Tillamook Sharp or Cabot Creamery Seriously Sharp to grasp the difference. Lactobacillus cultures have the added benefit of eliminating bitterness, a common flaw in poorly made Cheddar.
According to McNaughton, Cougar Gold, the tinned cheese from the Washington State University creamery, had long been in a “category of one”—a Cheddar-style cheese made nutty with Swiss cultures. Now, the floodgates have opened.
“It’s almost ironic,” notes Edgar. “You’re making your Cheddar with not-the-typical Cheddar cultures, and now everyone is using the same ‘different’ culture. I think it’s going to come to define Cheddar produced in the U.S.”
McNaughton believes it’s time for these hybrid Cheddars to have their own category in competition. Traditionalists may rue the trend, but it’s not going away.
“I don’t think a food producer has ever gone broke overestimating the American appetite for sweet things,” says Edgar. And as long as some creameries stick with tradition, there should be a Cheddar for every taste.
Cheese Class: New and Notable from Europe
Monday, October 9
Silverado Cooking School
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
An evening devoted to great cheeses that didn’t exist a decade ago. Meet the best new wheels from Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland and beyond.