Unlike other great cheeses, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Stilton, cheddar is not name-protected. Anyone can make cheddar cheese anywhere and any way. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates cheddar cheese as a final product (it must have no less than 50 percent milk fat solids and no more than 39 percent moisture), the means by which manufacturers produce the cheese are ungoverned. This is why there is so much variation in flavor between one cheddar and another and why even within the "sharp" category we found some cheeses as mild as mozzarella and others as robust as Parmesan.
The traditional way to make cheddar cheese is called cheddaring. During cheddaring, the curd (made by adding acid-producing cultures and clotting agents to unpasteurized whole milk) is cut into slabs, then stacked, cut, pressed, and stacked again. Along the way a large amount of liquid, called whey, is extracted from the curd base. The remaining compacted curd is what gives farmhouse cheddars their hard and fine-grained characteristics.
As for what distinguishes different varieties of cheddar—mild, medium, sharp, extra-sharp, and beyond—that is left in the hands of the cheese makers. Our research revealed that most extra-sharp cheddars are aged from nine to 18 months. This much we do know for sure: As cheddar ages, new flavor compounds are created, and the cheese gets firmer in texture and more concentrated in flavor—and it gets sharper. But is more sharpness desirable? Does it make for better cheddar? To find out which supermarket cheddar cheese our tasters liked best, we matched eight varieties of extra sharp cheddar cheese against the winner of our previous tasting of regular sharp cheddars and headed into the tasting lab to sample them plain (at room temperature to fully appreciate their nuances) and melted into grilled cheese sandwiches.
Our tasters generally liked the older, sharper cheeses best. Our three top-rated cheeses are all aged for at least 12 months, and tasters rated them the three sharpest. As for texture, tasters preferred the older cheeses for their denser, more crumbly bite. Younger cheeses had more moisture and a springier, more rubbery texture—fine in a young cheese, but not what we wanted in extra-sharp cheddar. As for melting ability, tasters didn't mind a little greasiness (older cheddars separate when melted, because they contain less water and thus have less insulation against some of their fat melting out) as long as there was big flavor to back it up.
And what about farmhouse cheddars? Farmhouse cheddar cheese is made by small creameries that start with unpasteurized milk, hand-cheddar the curd, and then wrap and age the cheese in a cloth. A great farmhouse cheddar cheese is hard, fine-textured, and flaky, with a sharp, tangy edge that's a little sweet, nutty, slightly bitter, and herbaceous. These various flavors come together to create a well-balanced, complex, and rewarding taste experience. The bad news is that farmhouse cheddars are expensive ($11 to $19 per pound) and often hard to find.
To see just how good these cheeses really are, we organized a tasting, rounding up three farmhouse cheddars from England and one from Vermont. We also included our top-ranked supermarket cheddar, for comparison. Overall, the farmhouse brands provided a more exciting and enjoyable cheddar experience. If you live near a specialty foods or cheese store, we strongly recommend that you try them.
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
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