Cheese is a beloved food enjoyed all over the world. There are thousands of cheese varieties, each with its own unique flavors and textures. When shopping for cheese, you may come across labels describing cheeses as "mild," "sharp," or "extra sharp." But what exactly does sharpness mean when it comes to cheese?
Sharpness refers to the intensity and tanginess of a cheese's flavor. A sharp cheese has a robust, pronounced taste that makes your mouth tingle. This tangy quality develops as cheese ages and complex flavors have time to emerge.
Generally, the longer a cheese is aged, the sharper it becomes. Mild cheeses are young with a smooth, creamy texture and subtle flavor. Sharp cheeses are matured for months or even years, intensifying their taste.
How Aging Affects Sharpness
All cheeses are made by adding bacteria cultures to milk, which causes the milk proteins to curdle and separate into curds (solids) and whey (liquid). The curds are collected, shaped, and drained to create cheese.
At this initial stage, cheeses have a very mild, subtle flavor. But as cheese ages, natural biochemical processes transform and intensify its taste. Here's an overview of what happens during aging:
- Moisture loss - As cheese ages, some of its moisture evaporates. This makes the texture firmer and more crumbly.
- Flavor development - Bacteria and enzymes break down milk sugars and proteins into acids, alcohols, esters, and other tangy, savory compounds.
- Crystal formation - Clumps of amino acids and calcium lactate crystallize, adding a satisfying crunch.
- Ripening - Molds and yeasts may be encouraged to grow, producing earthy, pungent flavors.
These changes allow more nuanced, complex flavors to emerge in aged cheese. The longer the aging period, the more pronounced the sharp, tangy qualities become.
Sharp Cheese Examples
Many cheese varieties can develop sharpness when properly aged. Here are some of the most popular sharp cheeses:
Cheddar is the world's most widely consumed cheese. Traditional English cheddars are aged for 1-2 years to produce a sharp, robust flavor. The natural orange color develops as the cheese matures. Popular brands of sharp cheddar include Cabot, Cracker Barrel, and Tillamook.
Gouda originates from the Netherlands. While young gouda is mildly sweet, aged gouda has a sharp bite from the breakdown of milk sugars into organic acids. Beemster and Reypenaer are two excellent aged goudas.
True parmesan is Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy. It's made from raw cow's milk and aged for at least 12 months. The crumbly texture and sharp, nutty, salty flavor comes from slow ripening. Pre-grated parmesan lacks this complexity.
Blue cheeses like Roquefort, Gorgonzola, and Stilton have a salty, funky sharpness. As they age in humid caves, blue mold grows to create pungent flavors and crumbly veins. The Penicillium roqueforti mold imparts a trademark tang.
Aged Goat Cheese
Goat cheeses become sharper as they age. Chevre and feta are mildly tangy when fresh. Aged goat goudas and cheddars have a bold, grassy flavor. Cypress Grove Midnight Moon is an excellent aged goat gouda.
What Sharp Means For Different Cheeses
While aging is the main driver of sharpness across all cheese types, the specific flavor profile depends on the style of cheese. Here's how aging impacts taste for different cheeses:
Aged cheddars develop a sharper version of their inherent nutty, buttery flavor. Established cheddar producers like Cabot calibrate their sharpness labels based on aging time. Mild cheddar ages for 2-3 months, sharp for 9-12 months, and extra sharp for at least 15 months.
Aged swiss cheeses like Gruyere have a robust, fruity sharpness. The longer aging allows more assertive nutty and caramelized flavors to emerge alongside the characteristic swiss sweetness. Young swiss is much milder in comparison.
Gouda becomes sharper and more salty as it ages. Young goudas have a very mild, slightly fruity taste. Aged goudas take on intensified butter, caramel and toasted nut flavors with a crystallized texture.
For blue cheese, sharpness means increased saltiness and funk. As blue mold ripens, it produces more ammonia-rich compounds that add to the signature pungent aroma. The salty, spicy bite grows over months of careful aging.
In parmesan, aging amplifies the salty umami flavor. Nutty and fruity hints develop over years of aging. True parmesans have a crumbly texture with crunchy tyrosine crystals. Pre-shredded parmesan lacks this complex sharpness.
So in summary, sharpness indicates an intensified version of the original cheese's base flavor. The specific flavors depend on the milk source, aging conditions, and cheesemaking traditions.
Key Takeaway: The flavor profile of "sharp" cheese aligns with the original style but more robust. For example, aged cheddar has an enhanced nutty taste, while aged swiss has more prominent fruity notes.
How To Choose Your Desired Sharpness
With so many options, how do you select a cheese with your ideal sharpness level? Here are some tips:
- Taste different ages - Try mild, medium, and sharp cheddars side-by-side. This lets you identify your flavor preferences.
- Read the labels - Look for context on aging time, like "aged 12 months." This gives you a sense of sharpness before tasting.
- Ask your cheesemonger - Tell them how sharp you like your cheese. They can suggest optimal varieties and aging levels.
- Match intensity to purpose - Mild cheese pairs well with delicate flavors. Sharp cheese can stand up to bold ingredients.
- Follow personal preference - There's no right or wrong! Choose based on your unique tastes. Start mild and work your way sharper.
The most important thing is trusting your own palate. With experimentation, you'll discover which intensities you enjoy most.
How To Use Sharp Cheese
Once you've selected your favorite sharp cheese, how do you make the most of its robust flavor? Here are tips:
- Highlight, don't hide - Sharp cheese should shine. Avoid complicated dishes with lots of ingredients.
- Pair with assertive foods - Match intensity levels. Sharp cheddar is great with pickled beets, spicy mustard, or chutney.
- Use small pieces - A little sharp cheese goes a long way. Shred or crumble it as a topping or mix-in.
- Skewer for appetizers - Bread and sharp cheese pair perfectly. Make bites with apple slices and aged swiss.
- Finish dishes - Add crumbled blue cheese to dress up pasta, salads, and soups right before serving.
- Sample on a cheeseboard - Display wedges with fruit, nuts, and wine. Let the cheese flavors speak for themselves.
Embrace and flaunt the tangy sharpness you've chosen. Avoid overpowering it with other competing flavors.
How To Make Cheese Sharp At Home
While most sharp cheeses require lengthy aging processes, there are some ways to develop more pronounced flavors at home:
- Use flavorful milk - Raw or non-homogenized milk has more complex flavors that intensify during aging.
- Add calcium chloride - This helps firm the curds for better moisture removal.
- Press firmly - Remove excess moisture by pressing curds at high pressure.
- Salt heavily - Salt pulls out additional moisture and promotes flavor development.
- Age longer - Let cheese ripen in ideal conditions for 3 months or more.
- Use mold cultures - Blue or white mold spores introduce pungent notes.
With the right techniques, you can achieve satisfying sharpness without years of aging. But note that home-aged cheeses may still be less complex than traditional versions.
What does "extra sharp" mean?
Extra sharp indicates a cheese has been aged significantly longer than a normal sharp version. For cheddar, extra sharp aging times start around 15 months.
How should I store sharp cheese?
To maintain flavor and texture, store sharp cheese properly:
- Keep refrigerated at 35-40°F. Avoid temperature fluctuations.
- Wrap tightly in wax or parchment paper. Do not cover with plastic wrap.
- Place in a sealed container if storing for extended periods.
- Keep away from foods with strong odors that may transfer.
- Let cheese come to room temperature before serving for best flavor.
Can I make a mild cheese sharp?
Unfortunately, you cannot reverse-age cheese to make it sharper. The biochemical processes that create sharpness only occur over time as the cheese ripens. However, you can use sharp cheeses to add punch to milder cheeses in recipes.
What is the sharpest cheddar cheese?
Among major cheddar brands, Tillamook Extra Sharp, Cabot Seriously Sharp, and Cracker Barrel Extra Extra Sharp are some of the sharpest options. They age over 15 months to produce deep, tangy flavor. Small local creameries may make even sharper aged cheddars.
Is Parmigiano-Reggiano a sharp cheese?
Parmigiano-Reggiano is considered sharp due to its extensive aging. Traditional Parmesan cheeses age for at least 12 months to develop the signature crumbly texture and rich, nutty umami flavor. The sharpness comes through mostly as a savory, salty taste.
Can I eat very sharp cheese plain?
Definitely! With its intense, complex flavors, extra sharp cheese is perfectly enjoyable to eat plain. Sharp cheddars, aged swiss, and blue cheeses hold up well on a cheeseboard alongside fruit, nuts, and wine or beer. Let the flavors shine through.
Understanding cheese sharpness allows you to choose exactly how much tang and bite you want in your cheeses.
Sharpness develops naturally through aging processes that transform texture and intensify flavor.
Look for sharp versions of your favorite cheeses to experience the deeper, more subtle tastes.