The famous bandage-wrapped cheddar made at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London is aged for a full year before anyone cuts into the clothbound cheese. Two years ago in Wisconsin, a stockpile of 40-year-old cheddar was found in the back of a refrigerator at a small-town grocery store. Rather than call in the Health Department, the accidently long-aged cheese was sold off for $10 an ounce. According to the Chicago Reader, it was “surprisingly creamy,” despite its age, and it was “mined with tiny bits of pinkish-orange crystallized amino acids, like flavor bombs that send chills down the back of your legs when you crunch into them.” At Washington State University, Cougar Gold cheddar, a canned cheese product, has developed a cult following since the 1940s for its end-times-like ability to be stored indefinitely; WSU says customers have aged cans for more than 30 years before opening them.
These long-lasting cheeses may all be cheddars, but they’re also all made without any preservatives. Save for the can that helps preserve Cougar Gold, these cheeses are made the way that cheese has been made for decades, if not centuries.
Which is why last week’s recall of a batch of Velveeta that was distributed to Walmart stores across the Midwest is ironic—the processed cheese is being pulled off shelves because it doesn’t contain enough of the preservative sorbic acid. Without a sufficient dose of it, the Velveeta might not make it to its printed sell-by date: Dec. 17, 2014, less than a year from now. In other words, properly preserved Velveeta spoils more quickly than it takes for a wheel of Neal’s Yard cheddar to age.
What goes into a block of Velveeta is quite different from what goes into a round of clothbound cheddar. And the process of making processed cheese goes a long way toward explaining the discrepancy in shelf life. Whereas Neal’s Yard starts with fresh, unpasteurized cow’s milk that’s transformed into cheddar by the use of naturally occurring bacteria and animal rennet—as old-school as it gets—Velveeta starts with cheese itself, and things pretty much go downhill from there. Scraps of various cheese products are melted into a slurry and emulsified with saturated oils, food coloring, and plenty of preservatives. Thanks to this process (thus giving processed cheese its name), a product like Velveeta might not have all that much cheese in it and thereby has less ability to not only not spoil, but to get better with age.
So if the Velveeta in your fridge falls under the recall, maybe go for the preservative-free cheese next time around—you won’t have to worry about the sell-by date.