When you hear the words “American cheese” you might cringe at the thought of those tasteless, individually wrapped, orange-coloured squares. And it’s through no fault of your own. The fact is American cheese making was practically founded on commercial manufacturing.
While a flood of English and Dutch immigrants brought traditional cheese making skills to the U.S. in the 1700s, factory produced cheeses were already the norm by the mid 1850s. It was at this time an Ohio cheese maker named Emil Frey figured out he could heat scraps of cheese (mostly Swiss) and mix them with a few other ingredients. The “processed” cheese product he created was perhaps a bit bland, but Americans seemed to like it (and it didn’t even require refrigeration!). Ever heard of Velveeta?
Today most of the cheeses made in the U.S. are still manufactured, particularly in the states of New York, Vermont, Wisconsin, and California. But not all American cheeses deserve a bad rap. In fact, you can walk into an American supermarket and find almost every cheese variety imaginable. There are even superb domestic imitations of world-famous cheeses like Provolone, Cheddar, Brie, Havarti, Swiss (Emmental) and Danish Blue that rival those made in Europe.
While there are few cheeses that actually originated in the U.S. (most came with the various immigrant groups who settled there), there has been a recent resurgence of artisan cheese making that should have cheese lovers chomping at the bit. It’s almost as if American cheese making is taking a step back in time, with large-scale production giving way to small-scale dairies and farmstead cheeses made entirely on site. Free from the confines of tradition, a new generation of American cheese makers is turning out innovative, handcrafted cheeses with deliciously stunning results.
Below is a guide to typical American cheeses, along with some speciality varieties it would behove any cheese lover to get to know.
This all-American cheese originated in Wisconsin in the late 1800s. Its name is derived from an early cheese making technique in which actual bricks were used to weight the curd and press out the whey. The cheese is also moulded into brick shapes. Made from cow’s milk, Brick cheese is semi-hard, with small irregular holes and an open texture. It is mild, sweet and buttery when young, but can become spicy and as pungent as Limburger when left to ripen.
Named after the Wisconsin town where it was first made, this traditional creamery cheese is made from whole cow’s milk. Often thought of as a type of Cheddar, Colby is actually higher in moisture, with a more elastic, springy texture, and a mildly sweet (rather than savoury) flavour. The washed-curd cheese is made in block shapes with no rind. Best enjoyed right after purchase, Colby is popular for snacking, sandwiches and cooking.
A true American original, ColoRouge is a washed rind cheese made from the pasteurised whole milk of Jersey and Holstein cows. It is ladled by hand into wheel shapes, and aged for two weeks, during which time it is manually turned and smeared. Wrapped in special foil imported from Europe, the cheese develops a unique red-orange-white mottled rind. Inside, ColoRouge is soft and creamy, with mild, buttery overtones. With age, it becomes more spicy and complex. A perfect pairing for an American microbrew, the cheese can be enjoyed before or after a meal.
First made in Healdville, Vermont in 1824, Crowley is the only remaining original Vermont cheese. Today it is still produced in Winfield Crowley’s factory, using only human power (no automated equipment) and only at few hundred pounds per day. Often compared to Colby or English Cheddar, this unpasteurised cow’s milk cheese is actually much smoother and creamier. It is not nearly as dry or acidic, and it doesn’t take long ageing for cheese to develop its characteristic strong, robust flavour.
Also known as Monterey Jack, California Jack, or Sonoma Jack, this buttery, semi-soft cheese was created by 19th century cheese maker David Jacks. It can be made from whole, skimmed, or partially skimmed cow’s milk, and its texture and flavour varies with maturity. Unaged Jack, ripened from one week to one month, is mild and high in moisture, with excellent melting qualities. Aged or dry Jack, ripened for about 10 months, is hard, rich, nutty and fruity. It’s most often used as a grating cheese on pasta and salads.
Created by Fritz Maytag, son of the Maytag washing machine/appliance founder, Maytag Blue was one of the first American farmstead cheeses renowned for its superior quality. Produced since the 1920s, the vegetarian cow’s milk blue is still handmade in small quantities on the Maytag family farm in Iowa. The cylindrical-shaped cheese is moist yet crumbly in texture, with a tangy, spicy flavour and lemony finish. Wonderful as a table cheese or for crumbling into dressings and salads, Maytag Blue is a darling on gourmet menus across the U.S.A.