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Why Is Cheddar Cheese Orange Sometimes?

There are some questions that we go through life never even asking: How do candles burn? What is freezing rain? Is it “daylight saving time” or “daylight savings time”? When is Mercury not in retrograde? And since when is it normal for cheese to be orange?

Picture a cheeseburger, a grilled cheese, a bowl of macaroni and cheese, or a box of Cheez-Its. The cheese is orange, but why? It’s not as if cheddar cheese is made from orange milk, right?

Well, back in seventeenth century England, it sort of was. Cheddar cheese was produced from cows whose grass diet was high in beta-carotene, which lent an orange pigment to their milk. That hue came to be a marker of high-quality cheese, which meant that producers of lower-quality, lower-fat cheese learned to game the system by adding pigment from saffron, marigold, and carrot juice.

The technique moved to the U.S. with cheesemakers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, who wanted to ensure a uniform color throughout the year (since the color of cheese changes depending on whether the cows are eating beta-carotene-rich grass in the spring or hay in the winter) and to distinguish their product from the typically white cheese made in New England and New York. Over time, the color orange became associated with cheese itself, which explains why American cheese—and also cheese snacks like Cheetos—are orange, too.

Today, the color most often comes from annatto, a food coloring and condiment made from the seeds of the achiote tree, and/or paprika. Since the color doesn’t noticeably affect the flavor or texture of the cheese, pick whichever cheddar you prefer. What’s far more important is how long the cheese has aged: Younger cheese is sweeter, milder, and softer—it will melt more readily. The longer the cheddar is aged the harder, more acidic, and more piquant it becomes.

But whether you’re buying orange or white, pre-shredded cheese is a no-no: Not only is it more expensive, but it contains additives to stop the cheese strands from clumping that inhibit smooth melting. And your gratin can’t have that.

Why is cheddar cheese orange? It's because an orange color used to be a signifier of high-quality cheese made from grass-fed cows.

Why is Wisconsin Cheddar Orange?

  • 10-Year Cheddar, Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point
  • 6-Year Cheddar by Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa
  • 4-Year Cheddar by Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle

Published by cheeseunderground

11 thoughts on “ Why is Wisconsin Cheddar Orange? ”

According to international cheese expert, Steven Jenkins,(a.k.a. “Cheese God”, “Cheese Guru” “Cheese Wizard”):

“wisconsin cheddar is orange because ALL american cheddars started out orange — the early immigrant cheesemakers (300 years ago) were dying their milk with annatto or achiote because it was english farmhouse CHESHIRE that created the market (in london) for english farmhouse CHEDDAR from somerset. ALL cheesemakers wanted their cheese to look like CHESHIRE! and cheshire looked that way (orange) because of the vein of iron in the sub-stratum of soil beneath the pastures of cheshire. the grass that grew was infused with the vitamin D from the grass and the soil, and it tinted the milk and the subsequent cheese a natural, very light ORANGE. cheshire-makers were so proficient at cheesemaking, i.e. their cheeses tasted so good, that their cheeses ruled the london market and fetched the highest prices. the customers became inured to seeking the orange-est cheeses. “

A bit more in regard to “orange-izing cow milk”
In regards to dying fluid milk….the Babcock test (which test the true level of butterfat in the milk ) was developed in Wisconsin over one hundred years ago because farmers were paid for their milk based on how “orange/buttery” the milk was, denoting how much butter was in the summer milk. Before the routine use of the Babcock test honest farmers were not getting fair compensation for their milk and dishonest farmers learned how to simmer carrots on the kitchen burner and strain off the liquid, adding it to the fluid milk which dyed the butter fat a pale orange.
The jersey cow milk that I use from grass fed cows makes for a beautiful creamy orange cheese, at least until the killing freeze, then the milk goes into a deep ivory color once the grass stops growing or once the animals are switched to hay, which, ironically, is when the butterfat is typically the highest.
Sad to think that Wisconsin commodity cheddar market is based on the practie of “duping” the customer.

Really interesting, I’ve heard the first idea in the post most often. I remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books where her family would add annato or carrot juice to the butter in winter months when the milk was white- to brighten it up.
I think it’s a mix of your first explanation and some of Mary’s too. Paying homage to Cheshire via emulation.

My understanding was along the lines of MLT’s quote – that situation occurred in England. But what do I know. Oh – I do know that my 3 year old prefers orange cheese to white!

Mary’s comment on Cheshire is accurate.

And also note from the Minutes of the Eighth Annual Meeting of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association in 1900: “We have the vat ready to set, so if colored cheese is to be made, this is our first step. In cheesemaking we must make the product to suit the various markets. The Southern market requiring a high color, while the Chicago and Western markets mean either a light straw color or white cheese.”
Even in 1900 Wisconsin was producing cheddars of various colors to meet customer demands.

There are an awful lot of ‘old wives’ tales’ talked about cheese, often by self styled “experts”.

Cheshire cheese is NOT naturally orange or yellow – it is near white and that is the colour (in UK) of the vast majority of it in the shops.

When you do find yellow or orange versions it is due to the addition of colorants, just as per cheddar and other coloured cheeses.

Look up Cheshire cheese in Wikipedia

All Cheddar was not orange in America when we were a colony. Farmers from all the colonies that had dairy herds large enough or those who bought the milk made cheese white cheddar as that was the primary color from their homeland England that all recognized and knew. Also Cheddar cheese from England was being imported all the time.
There could have been a few who tried to copy a Cheshire Cheddar which was light orange for the wealthy who knew and cared about it, and could afford it..
The others were all white.
However in the 1770s as tensions grew between Great Britain and the 13 colonies many colonists made a conscious effort to buy local and boycott all British products including English Cheddar.
Now as there was no way to differentiate English made Cheddar and Colonial made Cheddar as they were both white the Colonial Cheese makers realized that they would lose money.
In the true tradition of Early American business decisions they decided to differentiate their Cheddar from English Cheddar by dying their American Cheddar with Annatto so it would be orange in color and not be confused with the English white Cheddar under boycott thus insuring sales as usual. Today we say buy USA, Made in American.
Orange colored Cheddar is still around today as it has been around a long time. However White Cheddar has been coming back for over my lifetime from The Kraft Co-op in 50-60s to Cabot later and today in Vermont.

cows that graze on open pasture and eat nothing but grass produce milk that has a yellowish orange tint. this is due to the beta carotene in the grass. it is much healthier for the cow and thus healthier for the humans who consume the milk. Almost all cows are grain fed most of the year and even some grass fed cows are finished on grain. not sure about the iron under the pasture, beta carotene is associated with dark yellow to dark orange vegetables.

The last Anonymous has it right. Try reading up on history before the colonies since not much originated here in America but was brought over from Europe. It ends up being greed that now requires the addition of food coloring to make cheddar orange. Read the following: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/11/07/243733126/how-17th-century-fraud-gave-rise-to-bright-orange-cheese. This article follows the same story from Food: Fact or Fiction?

I had always heard that in the Midwestern states, with their changing seasons and feed sources, that annatto was used as a colorant for consistency.

I had always heard that in the Midwestern states, with their changing seasons and feed sources, that annatto was used as a colorant for consistency.

Vitamin D has no color and can only be obtained from animal sources, so is not and has never been in any grass of any kind

There's no law that says Wisconsin cheddar has to be orange, but much of it is. While most cheddars coming from Vermont and New York are white, the majority of Wisconsin cheddar is colored. Why? No one knows for sure, but two prevailing theories suggest it's all about marketing. First of all, what makes cheddar… ]]>