In Defense of Orange Cheese

Posted by Emilia D'Albero on

When discussing "American cheese," many so-called cheese aficionados turn their nose up at the concept, citing the assumed orange color as an indicator of low quality. But not all American cheeses are artificially colored orange, and the color itself is not inherently connected to the quality of the cheese or even exclusive to cheese made in the United States. Cheeses like French Mimolette and English Red Leicester famously boast the orange hue, and have been for years prior to the popularization of cheesemaking in America. So what exactly gives orange cheese its striking color, and how did the tradition start? May is American Cheese Month, so it seems like the perfect time to learn the true history of this long-standing cheesemaking technique. 

The orange color is a natural pigment derived from annatto seed, which comes from the achiote tree that is indigenous to South America, Asia, and Africa. The pigment is generally added to milk during cheesemaking, and does not impart any flavor onto the final cheese. But not all cheeses that appear to be colored are treated with annatto - for example, a rich yellow paste may denote a cheese made with grass-fed milk rich in betacarotene, the pigment that makes carrots orange. Some deep yellow cheeses may even be colored with saffron, a tradition that is popular in southern Italy. Some orange cheeses you may be familiar with include aged Gouda, Double Gloucester, Cheshire, Cheddar, and even Colby, a Wisconsin original. 

The history of coloring cheese dates back to 16th century England. Annatto was historically used to make British cheeses stand out at the market, as the vivid orange color called to mind the rich yellow color of the presumed higher quality cheeses made with the milk of pastured cows. It was also used to create consistency in cheese across the seasons - because cows can graze on fresh grass during the summer, their milk made deeper yellow-colored cheese. Cheesemakers would add annatto to their milk during winter to adjust the paler color of milk produced by cows grazing on hay during the winter, which does not contain betacarotene. Today, it is a stylistic choice, sometimes used by cheesemakers to help preserve traditional British territorial cheese recipes like Red Leicester, farmhouse Cheshire, or blue Shropshire

Cheeses colored orange with annatto are also not the same as softer, stinkier cheeses with orange rinds like Taleggio or Epoisses - this pungent pigmentation is a result of the activity of the microbe brevibacterium linens on the rind. And to complicate things even more, some cheeses like Langres and Brebirousse are annatto-ripened, meaning annatto is used to color the rind to make it appear washed.

At Formaticum, we believe that every cheese has unique needs, and deserves to be treated with a level of respect and attention to detail that mirrors the care that the farmers, cheesemakers, and affineurs put into producing the cheese. Formaticum offers a comprehensive range of tools and storage products that ensure your cheese is served and stored properly, so that you and your guests can experience the flavor at its most authentic. So, use this handy guide the next time you want to showcase orange cheese (or any cheese!) on a board or plate. 

- Soft cheeses like Langres or Brebirousse should be cut with a Professional Soft Cheese Knife, as the hollow blade will prevent the knife from sticking to the cheese, ensuring a clean cut every time. Soft-ripened or bloomy-rinded cheeses should be wrapped in our plant-based Cellophane Sheets, which are more porous than our other wrapping materials, allowing these delicate rinds to get the oxygen they need to thrive. Washed-rind cheeses like Taleggio should be wrapped in plastic-free and compostable Formaticum Zero Sheets, which are greaseproof to better contain a slicker, smellier rind. 

- Harder cheeses like Mimolette, Cheddar, or Red Leicester should be cut with our sturdy Professional Cheese Knife - the long blade and specially-designed handle make it ideal for cutting those hard-to-handle denser cheeses. Wrap any leftover pieces of these cheeses in our Classic Cheese Storage Sheets or Bags to maintain the right level of humidity and keep them fresher longer than parchment paper or plastic wrap. 

- Blue cheeses like Shropshire should be cut using our Professional Blue Cheese Knife, which was designed with a blade thin enough to make clean cuts through an otherwise crumbly cheese without disturbing the paste. Wrap blue cheeses in our Reusable Cheese Storage Sheets, which are sturdy enough to be leakproof, but won't give your cheese the blues by suffocating it. 

Browse our entire collection of cheese storage products and tools on our website, and don't forget to give orange cheese a chance!  

 Do you still have questions? Email us at!

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