Taste of Cheddar Cheese — An Overview

Cheddar cheese is a hard and savory cheese that offers an intense flavor. Its taste varies depending on the age of the cheese, with younger cheddar having a milder, creamier flavor while aged cheddar has a sharp and robust taste. Cheddar also has a tangy aftertaste that comes from its acidity. And lastly, the salty flavor of cheddar can be attributed to the curing process in which salt is added to the cheese.

To get the best out of cheddar cheese, it’s important to opt for good-quality cheddar made from unpasteurized milk. Pasteurization is a heat treatment for destroying harmful bacteria in the milk so that the cheese is safer and longer-lasting, but it may also affect the natural flavor and some benefits. As such, unpasteurized cheese offers a much more intense and complex taste profile.

  • Mild Cheddar – Sweet, creamy, earthy flavor. It’s also moist and smooth in texture.
  • Medium Cheddar – Rich, tangy, nutty, buttery flavor.
  • Sharp/Extra Sharp Cheddar, aka ‘vintage’ matured cheddar – Robust, sharp, slightly sweet & bitter, floral/fruity flavor. The longer-aged ones will likely have salt crystals and a pungent smell.

Other cheddar varieties and their additional taste profiles:

  • Irish Cheddar – Softer texture, bolder in taste, grassy.
  • Smoked Cheddar – Roasted nutty, toasted.
  • Waxed Cheddar – Sweet, creamy, zingy.
  • Processed Cheddar – Mild, bland. Similar to American cheese, also called “cheddar flavored”. Contains preservatives and additives.
  • Pre-shredded Cheddar – Mild and mellow. May contain ingredients like starch or cellulose.
  • Clothbound Cheddar – Earthy and savory. Drier crumbly texture.
  • Caved Aged Cheddar – Earthy, butterscotch and complex.
  • Blue Cheddar – Delicate ‘blue’ taste.
  • Yellow/White Cheddar – No difference in taste. One is colored with annatto.
  • New York Style Cheddar – Particularly sharp, subtle smoky. Softer texture.
  • Vermont Cheddar – Sharp, pronounced bitter, pungent flavor. Typically as white cheddar.

The taste of cheddar varied depending on the brand of the cheese as each brand uses different milk sources, ingredients, production procedures, and curing time. Some brands also add additional flavors to their cheddars, such as garlic or herbs, to enhance the flavor.

Other producers feature pasture-raised, grass-fed, raw unpasteurized milk, organic, rBST-free, non-GMO, heat-treated ‘thermized’ milk, vegetarian (microbial or plant rennet), certain breeds of cows, i.e. highland cows, or sheep and goats.

The Science: why is cheddar taste like that?

As the cheese age, a diversity of bacteria contributing to its flavor changes and becomes more complex as more compounds form.

It all started with the milk used for production. Much like wine, certain types of cows produce more robust and flavorful milk – due to their diet, soil composition and climate. From there, cheese makers use different types of starters or production methods to make their cheese stand out. These contribute to the flavors and textures of the cheese. For instance, the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) West Country Farmhouse cheddar can only be produced in Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Cornwall.

Overall, British cheddar tends to be crumbly in texture and strong aged cheddar, great for cheeseboard for guests; While American cheddar is slightly milder with a smoother texture, great for kitchen and various cooking recipes.

The milky, creamy, buttery, sweet taste of cheddar

When cheddar cheese is young, such as mild cheddar, it has a good creamy taste. As the cheese ripens, its texture becomes drier and more compact at the same time also gains a richer buttery taste.

The sweet-milky taste in cheddar comes from lactose (natural milk sugar) that hasn’t been converted into lactic acid – this happens during the aging process. The other compounds contributing to cheddar’s milky taste are lactones, a group of naturally occurring compounds produced when the milk is heated during cheesemaking. It is also responsible for the buttery/fruity aroma.

Younger cheddar will tend to have higher diacetyl and acetoin produced by (LAB) lactic acid bacteria [3]. These compounds are described as having a buttermilk or butter-like flavor.

Some of the common LAB bacteria strains used in cheddar production are Lactococcus lactis ssp. lactis and Lactococcus lactis ssp. cremoris. Streptococcus thermophilus impart a yogurt-like rich flavor. Lactobacillus helveticus gives it a more nutty taste.

The acidic, citric, zingy taste of cheddar

The acidic and zingy taste in cheddar is mostly due to lactic acid produced by lactic acid bacteria which are added in the starter culture. The longer a cheddar ages, the more lactic acid is produced and it intensifies the zingy flavor.

Some producers will also use food-grade acids like vinegar, lactic acid or citric acid to help with regulating the acidity. Acidity is crucial in cheesemaking as it helps with the texture, flavor, and aroma — and affects how well cheddar melt, we’ve discussed more here. Cheddar is usually having a pH between 4.9–5.4 when ripening, which is a bit more acidic than other cheese types like Gruyère, mozzarella, brie, and blue cheese.

The acidic taste may also be described as a sharp taste. Some other descriptions of “cheddarness” are bitter or spicy. So I group them up in the section below.

The bitter, sharp, spicy, savory, umami taste of cheddar

The “sharpness” of cheddar is often associated with the level of bitter compounds in cheddar, especially aged or matured ones. The bitter or sharp taste of cheddar comes from the enzymatic reaction of the breakdown of casein proteins into several groups of bitter-tasting compounds. The bitterness develops over time, sometimes even up to 12 months or longer depending on how long the cheese has been aged. The compounds contributing to this bitter taste include several types of peptides, amino acids, and volatile compounds.

Furthermore, there are numerous compounds contributing to the spicy, savory and umami taste — glutamic acid being one of them [4]. The free glutamates are present more in aged cheddar. Together with bitter peptides, it will taste somewhat like piquant spiciness. These compounds add complexity to the flavor, making it more balanced and rounded.

Apart from that, some animal or plant rennets (or excessive usage of them) can cause bitterness flavor in the final cheese too. The proteolytic activities hydrolyze caseins and produce bitter-tasting peptides [6]. Too much bitterness in cheddar is not desirable and is considered a defect as it will ruin the taste.

The pungent smell of cheddar

Some bacteria produce volatile and non-volatile molecules. Among the volatile molecules, acetic is the most abundant and responsible for the buttery flavor of cheddar cheese. Followed by the butyric and caproic acids [7]. Caproic acid smell like cheesy, sweat-like and waxy odor like that of barnyard animals. Other sulfur-containing compounds such as methanethiol [8] and dimethyl sulfide [9] are also present in small concentrations and contribute to the “stinky feet” characteristic of cheddar cheese.

The salty taste of cheddar

And lastly, we have the salty taste of cheddar cheese. Most producers add 1-3% of salt during the cheesemaking. Salt is usually added in during the ‘cheddaring‘ process and also salted before being pressed. It serves as a natural preservative to help with flavor and texture, which limits the growth of certain bacteria. Salt also helps lower the moisture and preserve the cheese for a longer period.

But some are saltier. For example, the Kraft sliced processed cheddar has 470 mg of sodium content while the Cabot block cheddar only has about 200 mg of sodium per 1 oz (28g) serving size. The cheese age did not affect the saltiness of the cheese.

Reference:

  1. Science Direct – Cheddar Cheese
  2. https://www.cheesescience.org/milky.html
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/acetoin
  4. Drake, S L et al. “Sources of umami taste in Cheddar and Swiss cheeses.” Journal of food science vol. 72,6 (2007): S360-6. doi:10.1111/j.1750-3841.2007.00402.x
  5. https://www.journalofdairyscience.org/article/S0022-0302(49)92128-1/pdf

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