Cheddar cheese is undoubtedly one of the most popular cheeses in the world. The bright orange color, the sharp but complex flavor, and its versatility in cooking have earned it legions of fans. But do you know what kind of cheddar cheese it is you love so much? Because there’s more than one type, whether you’re categorizing via age, rind, color, or even countries.
Here’s a brief rundown of how the various cheddar types are different, how the texture and flavor are affected through aging time and technique, and what influence color and country have.
What is Cheddar Cheese?
Cheddar is a traditional English cheese that originated in the village of Cheddar in the South West England country Somerset, sometimes before the 12th century.
It’s a natural cheese made exclusively from cow’s milk, either whole or high-fat, at 3.3%. Once the milk is ripened, set into curds, cooked, and drained, it goes through the process of Cheddaring: an additional multi-step process of draining remaining whey from the curds by forming “loaves” and stacking them on top of each other. It’s necessary to achieve the right acidity level and texture in the cheese.
Cheddar cheese is then aged, most commonly between 2 and 24 months, though certain manufacturers tend to age the cheese further to develop a more unique (and expensive) product.
Yummy Bazaar hosts a carefully curated collection of cheddar cheese at our online cheese store, where you can always find either an old favorite or a new flavor to experiment with.
The Types of Cheddar Cheese (by Aging):
One of the most common ways to differentiate between different subtypes of a particular cheese is by how long it’s been aged (ex. Gruyere, Pecorino, Manchego, etc.), and Cheddar cheese is among them! Generally, Cheddar cheeses get divided into four distinct types:
Mild Cheddar Cheese also referred to as Young Cheddar Cheese, has a (comparatively) soft, smooth, creamy texture. It walks a fine line between a soft and semi-hard cheese, though many classify it as the former rather than the latter. Young Cheddar Cheese is typically aged between 1 and 3 months and contains a high amount of moisture, lending itself perfectly to melting.
Semi-Sharp Cheddar Cheese is aged between 3 and 6 months, remaining on the smoother side, though by the end of the process, its texture can already be confidently defined as semi-hard. It’s at this stage that cheddar starts to come into its own, so to speak, and acquire the characteristic tang, but the texture remains somewhat buttery and moist.
Matured Cheddar Cheese or, more commonly, Sharp Cheddar Cheese, is the most popular type of cheddar. Sharp Cheddar cheese is typically aged between 6 and 12 months. At this stage, the cheese starts to acquire its classic, relatively hard, and a bit crumbly texture, as well as its renowned robust flavor profile. Once the aging process passes the first six months, the cheese will start to develop calcium lactate crystals on the surface. These crystals look like white specks and dots and often get confused with mold by consumers. In reality, they’re entirely safe for consumption. They’re somewhat similar to tyrosine crystals formed in cured meats, which we’ve discussed before.
Vintage Cheddar Cheese (or Aged Cheddar Cheese) is any cheddar cheese that has been aged for over 12 months. While a 12 to 24-month period seems to be the most common, it’s not rare to encounter cheese aged over 36 and up to 60 months. Commercial manufacturers don’t tend to age cheddars for much longer, but at smaller artisans’, you may even find cheddar that has been aged up to 10 years. The further the cheddar is aged, the harder its texture becomes, retaining less and less moisture and losing the buttery smoothness. Vintage Cheddar is fully hard and has a dry and flaky texture. It’s dotted with calcium lactate crystals throughout, adding a unique crunchiness to the cheese (again, the longer the cheddar is aged, the more crystals it develops).
In a category of its own is Vegan Cheddar Cheese, one of the most popular options in dairy-free cheesemaking. Its popularity among manufacturers likely results from a combination of two factors: 1. It’s one of the most popular cheeses worldwide, with guaranteed clientele; 2. Its flavors are some of the easiest to replicate in a vegan alternative, thanks to the additional flavorings like herbs and spices. Vegan Cheddar usually tends to be on the softer side with good melting qualities, but some companies produce blocks that imitate sharp cheddar cheese closer.
What Does Cheddar Cheese Taste Like?
Like texture, the flavor profile of cheddar cheese is dramatically influenced by aging, with each type boasting its distinct characteristic taste.
Mild Cheddar Cheese (i.e., Young Cheddar Cheese) has a very mild, creamy flavor, generally with no notable complexity to the taste.
Semi-Sharp Cheddar Cheese has started to develop the characteristic tang but, at this stage, is primarily an undertone. Semi-sharp cheddar is richer and more buttery than young cheddar but still quite mellow, with a bit of sweetness.
Matured Cheddar Cheese (i.e., Sharp Cheddar Cheese) can be described as classic cheddar, as, at this stage, most flavors are already developed. Sharp cheddar cheese is tangy, nutty, and slightly earthy, with a hint of sweetness that gradually lessens over time.
Vintage Cheddar Cheese (i.e., Aged Cheddar Cheese) has a complex and robust flavor that’s very sharp and savory. The further the cheddar ages, the more pronounced nutty and earthy flavor undertones become.
Vegan Cheddar Cheese is designed chiefly to imitate the flavor of sharp cheddar cheese; however, the actual flavor profile varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Most seem to aim for a tangy, nutty flavor, but not all can imitate the original closely.
There’s also an entirely different subset of Flavored Cheddar Cheese when the cheddar gets infused with varying flavoring ingredients. It can range from common herbs and spices like paprika or basil to completely unexpected flavors like espresso or earl grey.
The Types of Cheddar Cheese (by Rinds):
Another way to differentiate between types of cheddar is using the rind. There are three ways to allow the cheddar to age, each resulting in the cheese developing a different rind.
The method through which the cheese is aged can significantly influence its taste and texture, sometimes making the cheddar seem younger or older than it is in reality. While most cheddar cheese labels will disclose how long the cheese has been aged, not all may speak about rinds. Still, if they do, it’s worth knowing what you’re getting into with each type:
Rindless Cheddar Cheese (sometimes called Block Cheddar Cheese) is the most common type of cheddar and the one you’re most likely to encounter vacuum-sealed in plastic on the supermarket cheese aisle. It’s a practical choice for large-scale commercial manufacturing since this type of cheese is comparatively quick to package and easy to preserve. The cheese doesn’t develop the rind because it’s aged through an anaerobic process, not being exposed to oxygen during the ripening. The lack of oxygen influence results in a denser and fudgier texture, as well as a sharper and tangier flavor.
Clothbound Cheddar Cheese is aged while wrapped in a cotton cloth. The technique is thought to have developed sometimes during the early modern period and is ascribed to early US colonists. The cheese wheel is tightly wrapped in cotton cloth before being left to age. The theory is that wrapping the cheese became a habit of protecting it from unpredictable weather. Cotton wrapping allows for slow aerobic aging, protecting the cheese from moisture but allowing oxygen to pass through. Clothbound Cheddar has a thick hard rind and a dry, crumbly texture. However, its flavor is more condensed and robust, with complex nutty, grassy, and sweet undertones.
Waxed Cheddar Cheese is aged through the anaerobic method while wrapped in a pliable wax coating. The wax coating prevents moisture loss, resulting in a more buttery and smooth texture. The flavor tends to be milder and less sharp than rindless or clothbound cheddar but complex with nutty, earthy, sweet, and smoky undertones.
White Cheddar Cheese vs. Orange Cheddar Cheese:
Another common way to differentiate between cheddar cheeses is color, though this is usually the consumers’ way of categorizing them and not any official classification.
The truth is there’s no significant difference in texture or flavor between white cheddar cheese and orange cheddar cheese. The aging process works similarly in both cases.
The color difference comes from natural food coloring, most often a condiment called annatto, made from achiote tree seeds. But over the years, many herbs and spices have been used to give orange cheddar its characteristic bright color, from paprika (which is still used today) to saffron, marigold, and even carrot juice.
Apparently, adding food coloring to Cheddar became a thing as early as the 17th century. The cows' diet back then consisted mainly of grass and hay and was thus rich in beta-carotene. Beta-carotene lent an orange hue to the milk and resulted in orange cheese (though nowhere near as bright as cheddar tends to be nowadays).
The problem was if the cheddar was made from skimmed milk, it lost a lot of that orange hue, so the farmers who wanted to make an extra buck by skimming the milk to sell the cream separately or make more butter had to get inventive. That’s where saffron and marigold came into the picture.
Nowadays, most cheddar is made from whole milk, but due to the lack of beta-carotene in the modern cows’ diet, the natural color of the cheese is white!
English Cheddar Cheese vs. Irish Cheddar Cheese vs. Scottish Cheddar Cheese vs. Welsh Cheddar Cheese: Any Difference?
Similar to branding via color (white cheddar cheese has become quite a tagline even though it's virtually the same as orange cheddar), branding via country is another way manufacturers try to set their products apart. But are they really different? There seems to be no consensus.
Cheddar cheese is made virtually the same way in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. While small artisanal shops may have unique touches, big manufacturers are less likely to disrupt the time and tested method to experiment. So the one significant difference between cheeses produced in different locations would be the milk the cheddar is made with.
Unfortunately, there’s no large-scale research, but according to the anecdotal evidence, the one type most consumers can set apart via country of origin is Irish cheddar cheese. It seems there’s a subset of people who feel Irish cheddar cheese is richer and more complex in flavor but also distinctly less sharp and tangy at a similar point of aging as English or Scottish cheddar.
How valid is the claim? Hard to say with no concrete evidence. It may very well be a placebo effect. At this point, the only thing you can do is compare them yourself and draw your own conclusions.