There are two barriers to initiating an outsider into the cult of Cougar Gold, the celebrated cheddar made at Washington State University. The first is talking them out of the snobbish notion that cheese in a can can’t be good. The second is finding a can — Cougar Gold’s fans may mostly be confined to Washington’s borders, but they are passionate, and they love their cheese.
Cougar Gold, if you don’t know, is a white cheddar cheese made from cow’s milk sold in 30-ounce cans. Its texture changes with age, transforming from a creamy, firm cheese to one that’s crumblier the longer you wait. It continues aging in the can, and the older a can is, the more it’s prized — some people sell their vintage cans on eBay. It’s sharp, bold, nutty, and exceptionally flavorful.
“Once people taste it, they like the sharper flavor,” says John Haugen, who started as a student employee at the WSU creamery in 1990 and worked his way up to university staff as the creamery manager. “They like the tradition of it and appreciate that student employees are getting this experience.” Its manufacture takes place entirely on the WSU campus: agriculture students milk the cows at the dairy and food science program students make the cheese at the creamery.
The recipe for the canned cheese was developed in the 1940s thanks to a grant from the American Can Company, which was working on ways to transport cheese to U.S. soldiers without the cheese spoiling. “They were trying to get cheese to the troops,” says Haugen. Sending cheese in a can seemed like an obvious solution, but because cheese naturally releases carbon dioxide, it required a special formula to prevent the cans from exploding. A food science professor at WSU at the time, Norman Shirley Golding, developed a special adjunct culture to add to the cheese that would outcompete the gas developing in the can. “It also happened to create amazing flavor,” says Haugen.
The can helps to preserve and age the cheese, which continues to be a selling point. “If we package cheese in plastic, we get some amount of mold loss,” says Haugen. “ In the can, as long as the seal holds, we don’t have that issue.” And that means cans of Cougar Gold can sit in the fridge for decades.
According to Haugen, the allure of Cougar Gold started to catch on when the creamery opened in September 1948, but it wasn’t the main focus at the time. The creamery provided milk for the dining halls on campus and cheese and ice cream would be made on school breaks. Haugen says the need for so much milk changed in 1975. Once the university could buy milk at a lower cost, the creamery switched to producing cheese year-round. By then, the small volume of cheese being produced early on had turned it into a coveted product.
That demand has continued to increase, with 260,000 cans of cheese being sold each year, 80 percent of which is Cougar Gold. It’s sold primarily at Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe on the university campus, which is operated by student employees. “We’d rather have people come to interact with WSU in some way,” says Haugen. The cheese can also be purchased by online order, and there are some retailers within Pullman and around Washington that have it in stock — though these retailers tend to sell out fast.
Once a can is purchased, some hungry fans can’t wait to open it right away, while others prefer to save it. Haugen says he’s heard of customers holding onto 40-year-old cans. However, his suggestion is to eat it after seven to 10 years of aging, whether on its own or, one of his favorite uses, on a grilled cheese sandwich.
Spokane resident Evan Pollock says his father would get a can of Cougar Gold every year and they would eat it on special occasions. Now he enjoys it in his own home. “I like sharp cheeses, and aging the can in the fridge does that,” he says.
Sharon Caton Brunson, WSU class of 1990, always has at least one can on hand for a variety of uses including macaroni and cheese and omelets. “Anything with Cougar Gold is going to be my favorite recipe. It makes any dish better,” she says.
Yakima chef, restaurateur, and former MasterChef contestant Shawn Niles discovered Cougar Gold 12 years ago and was immediately hooked because of its versatility. “If you were patient, you could let it sit for a long time, where it’s going to become crumblier, and then you could put it in salads or pair it with any number of different cured meats,” he says.
Niles suggests pairing the cheese with fresh apples if you can’t wait to dig in upon buying it.
The “buying it” part, however, can be a little tricky. You can order it online, but note that it’s mailed in cold packs and shipping costs can run high. The Cougar Gold that’s available for retail is rolled out each fall before the holiday season, but it’s often gone by December. Otherwise, you’ll need to make the drive to Pullman to pick some up firsthand. If you’re going to buy a can this year, it’s best to think ahead and buy two.