What Makes Cheddar Orange? Or, When I Met Annatto in Jamaica

The most common question I get in my classes besides “when did you become so obsessed with cheese?” is …

 What makes cheddar orange?

From the neon-orange blocks chilling on grocery store shelves to the farmhouse wedges like Fiscalini‘s bandage wrapped cheddar in gourmet shops, cheddar ranges in hue from vivid tangerine to creme brûlée. But the majority of the cheddar that Americans grew up with was as orange as the Vermont leaves tourists flock to view in autumn. 

An extra-aged Roelli Red Rock Cheddar

Let’s take a brisk stroll down the path to orange-dom.

Back in 17th century England, a few thrifty cheesemakers dyed their cheddar orange to imitate the hue of aged cheddar made with the milk of cows who grazed summer pastures. If animals are eating the best of summer fields- herbs, grasses, and wildflowers- the high doses of beta-carotene in what they’re munching on turns their milk a buttery hue. When aged, their cheese turns deep yellow. Because English Jersey and Guernsey cow’s milk from which Cheddar was originally made is especially rich and beta-carotene sticks to butterfat like a five-year-old does an ice cream cone, sometimes that cheddar turned orange!

When English cheesemakers realized they could make higher profits by skimming the cream from milk, using the cream for butter, then making the leftover low-fat milk into cheese that resembled delicious summer cheese if they added orange dye, tricksters did it. It sold. Many American cheesemakers followed suit. But slowly, consumers realized something was missing- butterfat and flavor- and sales dropped. Though the success of the heist wasn’t long-lived, the effect of the coloring was.

Dying cheddar-milk stuck, and most big American companies continue to dye their cheese to this day. To add a little extra spin, Wisconsin cheesemakers often dye their cheddar, they say, to differentiate their wedges or curds from cheddar around the rest of the country.

But what exactly makes cheddar orange? 

Annatto.

Among all the natural dyes available, annatto quickly became the fave. A tropical bush or short tree, annatto loves growing in humid, hot, damp locals close to the equator.

Have you ever seen the plant in person? I hadn’t until recently. Yup, that meant when I told students that annatto made many cheddars orange, I had no idea really the fruit looked like.

This all changed when I went to visit a friend working in Jamaica (she worked, I vacationed) and we went on a eco farm tour to a working coconut farm that grew mainly native Jamaican plants so tourists could see what the land was all about. I’d highly recommend Sun Valley Farms ecotourism tours- think nutmeg and banana trees, coconuts, vanilla, jicama, soursop….. and yes, you get to taste most of the them.

And just like that, I met annatto.

Annatto is awesome. With the power to stain skin as easily as cheese, annatto can also used  as a lipstick, or to tint cheeks. The farmer made his fingers red simply by rubbing the seed. I can see why the power of the seed quickly popularized.

The pulverized powder is known in Mexican cuisine as achiote and can be found gracing dishes like the red-skined achiote-rubbed pork, and to add vibrancy to chorizo. Eaten solo, it’s a bit peppery and sweet. Mixed in with cheddar, it’s either undetectable or slightly… annatto-ish (ahem, sorry).

Now most smaller producers who dye their cheddar use annatto, and larger ones do their own thing (another type of natural cheddar dye that some bigger commercial creameries use is here). 

Long live cheddar, and may all of us one day have the opportunity to rub our fingers on the annatto plant.