My mom recently (and ever-so-boldly) declared that she wasn’t particularly fond of cheese. Upon hearing this news, I immediately ordered a genealogy test because there was no way I could possibly be related to her. In fact, it seemed more likely that a stork made out of cheese dropped me off on her doorstep on a sunny June Monday in 1987.
The beauty of cheese is that there are, quite literally, thousands of varieties to choose from (and from all over the world), though Americans’ indisputable favorite is cheddar. And not just any ol’ cheddar — the bright-yellow, mainstream blocks that has most cheesemongers turning up their noses.
But not everyone can appreciate the nuances of a good cheese … nor do they want to. On Taco Tuesdays, for example, if it’s creamy, salty and melts easily, and that’s good enough for most palates. That said, we should all do ourselves a favor and reconsider our cheese-buying habits during any future trips to the grocery store.
“If you’re shopping for cheddar, it’s best to know a couple things in advance: How you’re planning to use the cheese and what your personal preferences are for flavor,” advises Molly Brown, education director of the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. “If you’re planning to use the cheese in a recipe, look for meltable mild to medium cheddars. Older cheddars will not melt as well, but will also have more robust flavor profiles for salads, sandwiches and cheese boards.”
“In terms of ingredients, virtually all cheese is made from the same four ingredients: milk, cultures, rennet/enzymes and salt. Cheddar can contain a few optional ingredients — annatto, which produces the signature orange hue that we associate with this category — and any herbs, spices or other flavorings that the cheesemaker may have used to enhance the flavor of the cheese,” she adds.
While some of the best Wisconsin-based cheddars can be found from brands like Hennings, Hook’s, Deer Creek and Roelli, I bought eight of the most readily available, store-bought offerings to put to the ultimate taste test. For consistency’s sake, these blocks had to be yellow, sharp or extra sharp, and found in practically any store across the country. Unsurprisingly, it was one of the most difficult rankings I’ve experienced in a while — I would happily consume every contender in amounts that would make anyone’s jaw drop.
But alas, there could only be one winner. Check out which cheddars were just OK and which were grate.
Note: Popular brands like Kerrygold, Sartori and even Trader Joe’s are not included because their cheddar blocks are white. These are brands that I absolutely adore and would have ranked in the top five of this list. Please consider them.
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8. Happy Belly Sharp Cheddar Cheese
While the flavor was briny and creamy, it also had a somewhat bitter aftertaste, which placed it dead last. It also felt a touch too heavy on the tongue, coating its entire surface with a milky film that I, frankly, could have done without. But would I turn this down if it was sliced up and part of a charcuterie board? Absolutely not. Bring it on.
7. Kraft Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Kraft tasted like a slightly saltier Happy Belly, which I welcomed with open arms. Its impression, however, was not particularly lasting, which was a bummer because the company’s blue box of macaroni and cheese is obviously iconic. Perhaps it needed to be melted into some noodles to really shine.
6. 365 by Whole Foods Market Sharp Cheddar Cheese
This was one of the creamiest options of the bunch, which means it will lend itself to anything in need of a bit of decadence. I would have preferred a bit more sharpness (it’s in the marketing, after all), but consider it to be a solid choice if you’re perusing the dairy aisle of your local Whole Foods.
5. Boar’s Head Vermont Yellow Cheddar Cheese
Boar’s Head is a certified leader in the mainstream cheese space and blocks like these prove why. While it wasn’t advertised as sharp, the cheddar had a distinct tang as a finishing note, which tasted different than anything else on this list. It may be a bit too funky (and less versatile) for picky eaters, but to that I say broaden your horizons and challenge those bored taste buds.
4. Tillamook Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Tillamook has proven to be a true dairy queen with its high-rated line of ice creams, so its bangin’ cheddar was obviously no exception. This was the most well-rounded of the group — I could see it topping anything from a baked potato to chili to broccoli soup to the crust of an apple pie. (Yes, that’s a thing. Yes, you should get into it.)
3. Cracker Barrel Extra Sharp Yellow Cheddar Cheese
Did you know Cracker Barrel cheese isn’t connected to the restaurant? This would make sense since this cheese is awesome and the beloved chain’s is ... well ... not. No shade to my favorite road-trip pitstop (its Country Store is the best), but this cheese tasted a bit too gourmet with buttery notes and a delightfully soft texture. But what’s even more shocking is that you can pick it up at any ol’ grocery store.
2. Sargento Sharp Cheddar Cheese
This tasted the most complex of the lot, with a flavor profile that practically metamorphosed with every bite. It went from creamy to sharp to nutty to even a bit sweet. Serve this on your charcuterie board to stand up to those hearty crackers, fruity jams and tear-inducing mustards. It will also bring a bit of pizzazz to greasy deli meats and veggies on a sky-high sandwich.
1. Cabot Vermont Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Color me shocked. I have purchased Cabot cheese on many occasions, but never realized just how good it was until pitted against its competition. This cheddar was rich, buttery and zesty, but most importantly, well-balanced, making it the deserving titleholder of best grocery store cheddar. And if you visit me and see a giant bite taken out of the block, that wasn’t me. It was the, um, New York City rats.