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 orange? All cheese is naturally white, or off white, or even a golden yellow, depending on the type of milk used. But you’ll never find a cow that gives orange milk. The color instead comes from the flavorless Annatto seed, which gives Wisconsin cheddar that pumpkin orange hue.
Sid Cook, fourth-generation owner of Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle, Wis., believes the state’s cheddars were tinted orange as far back as the late 1800s. In the early days of Wisconsin cheesemaking, cows dined on carotene-rich pasture, and their milk naturally produced a cheese with a rich golden color. Gradually, some dairies moved their cows off pasture and onto dry feed, with the resulting milk yielding paler cheese. Because consumers already associated the gold color with quality, cheesemakers used Annatto to bring back the color.
Another theory holds that Wisconsin cheesemakers wanted to differentiate their cheddars from those coming from New York, so they used Annatto seed and turned their cheddars orange, using it as their own claim to fame and capturing a portion of the market.
No matter the color – white, yellow or orange — Wisconsin cheddar rules. Today, a handful of the state’s cheesemakers are even turning back the clock and crafting Bandage Wrapped, or Cloth-Bound Cheddar, the way cheddar was made in England before the days of refrigeration. Two of my favorites:
  • Eagle Cave Reserve, made by Meister Cheese near Muscoda — crafted in 6.5 pound “mini” truckles, and aged 6-9 months, this new cheese on the market is one to watch.
  • Cave-Aged Bandage-Wrapped Cheddar by Willi Lehner, Bleu Mont Dairy, near Blue Mounds. A perennial favorite and award-winner. Can’t go wrong with this one.
Both of these cheddars are a natural whitish color and you can find both varieties at Fromagination in Madison. If you’re looking for a good aged cheddar, Wisconsin has the corner on that market — my favorites are:
  • 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
All of these cheddars are orange and are widely available in specialty cheese shops. No matter the color, it’s hard to go wrong with Wisconsin cheddar.

11 thoughts on “Why is Wisconsin Cheddar Orange?

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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