Real Food Encyclopedia | Cheddar Cheese

Cheese making is a fascinating process. Part science. Part art. Makers and mongers must pay meticulous attention to the chemistry of the product — the pH, temperature, the humidity level, the vibrancy of good bacteria, the abatement of pathogens. But they also must have a knack for the funk of the stuff. The ripeness that can’t be determined by a meter or the date on the calendar. The feel that can’t be measured but relies, even in the most modern facilities, on the evaluating touch of an experienced cheese maker. For all the best cheeses, from the stinky, to the mild (like approachable cheddar), there is history, craft and deep affection in every bite.

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Fun Facts about Cheddar Cheese:

  • A giant wheel of cheddar cheese was presented to Queen Victoria of England for a wedding gift back in 1840. It weighed over one thousand pounds.
  • In 2015, around 3.4 billion pounds of cheddar cheese were produced in the United States.
  • It takes 1.16 gallons of whole milk to make one pound of cheddar cheese.

What to Look for When Buying Cheddar

Cheddars can vary greatly in flavor and appearance depending on how the cheese was produced and aged, the quality of the milk, the diet of the cows and any flavorings or colorings that are added. The taste will vary from creamy and mild to biting and sharp. Bitter or bland flavors indicate inferior quality.

Cheeses that are commercially produced and come pre-packaged from a large quantity of pooled milk are going to be the most consistent. Such cheeses are labeled to indicate where they fall in the range of mild, sharp to very sharp. They usually have a tender texture and are the best melters.

Much of the hand cut cheddar you will find at natural food markets and cheese counters comes from forty pound blocks that are broken down on site for retail sale. Such cheese is aged in plastic and may have subtle variations from block to block that reflect the many shifting factors of milk quality, the cheese maker’s hand and the aging facility.

Hand-crafted, aged farmhouse wheels can look quite moldy and old on the outside. Pay that no mind. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. Such cheddar is hard, compact and crumbly. The aging process allows its flavors to develop into rich notes of caramel and hazelnut. The flavor will show the widest variation from year to year and even wheel to wheel.

Hand-made cheeses can have a bit of rind, even the imprint or a piece of cloth that was used to bind them left on the rind. Most cheddars, however, have no rind. Examine cut pieces closely for any sign of white patches which indicate mold blooms caused by improper storage.

Cheddar gets its natural golden hue from the beta carotene found in the milk of grass-fed cows. The color will range from creamy white to a warm, hay color. Colorings were originally added to cheddar to disguise inferior cheeses whose beta carotene rich cream had been skimmed off by unscrupulous producers. The eye-catching color was adopted by commercial producers and dominates the grocery shelves to this day. Among smaller producers, the tendency is toward the more natural, uncolored version, though there remains a strong, regional preference for orange cheddar in the Midwest.

When you’re selecting cheese, keep in mind how you’re going to use it. A two-year cloth bound cheddar is a gorgeous thing, with a unique texture that you will only be able to enjoy as it is sold. Reserve such selections for the cheese plate. Younger cheeses are what you want for cooking.

Regarding taste, Gordon Edgar, author of the book, “Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese, offers the following advice: “Finding the right cheddar depends on what kind of cheddar you want to find.  If you like sharp verging towards bitter, get one from Vermont. Creamy and sharp? Go for Wisconsin. Crumbly and acidic? Go English. Sweet and crunchy? Look for one with crystallization. Complex, earthy and big? Get one with a natural rind. And if you go somewhere where there’s a cheesemonger behind the counter, just ask.”

Sustainability of Cheddar

Dairy production faces many of the same challenges as raising meat animals. Farms that feed their animals an all-grass diet, allow them to spend time in the fresh air and sunshine and don’t administer prophylactic medications or chemicals to boost their milk production yield are better for the animal, the environment and you. Such dairy products are often labeled “pasture-raised” or “grass-fed.”

The National Organic Program stipulates that cheeses labeled “organic” follow a third party inspected protocol that ensures certain quality measures are in place. Such cheese may not be made from the milk of animals fed Genetically Modified Organisms or administered artificial hormones or antibiotics.

Because cheddar is widely produced across the United States, it’s often easy to find a producer that is in your region. Consider eating locally produced cheese to support your regional farmers and to reduce food miles.

Cheddar Production

Cheddar is a cow’s milk cheese. The milk is scalded, cultures are added and coagulant is added that causes the curd to separate from the whey (the liquid part of the milk). The curd is repeatedly cut and stirred to reduce it to smaller particles and release more whey. As the cheese becomes more solid, the process of “cheddaring” begins. It’s a relatively modern production technique, appearing only in the last couple centuries of cheddar making, but one that has been adopted industry wide. The cheese is cut into blocks that are stacked, cut and stacked repeatedly to press out even more whey. The blocks, sometimes called “loaves,” are then shredded and salted to flavor the cheese and control the fermentation. The cheese is then pressed into forms and pressure is applied to release the last of the whey. The cheese is then wrapped in plastic, dipped in wax or bound in cloth and coated in fat to protect the cheese and reduce volume loss as it ages. Cheddar is aged anywhere from a few months to years. Some of the oldest and rarest examples are aged for decades.

The scale of cheddar cheese production runs the gamut. On one side of the spectrum are very small farm-based operations where the everything is done on site. The cows are raised and milked and the cheese is produced and aged all on the same property. Such operations are often given distinctive labels to convey the individualized process. By English standards, such cheeses are called “farmhouse.” In the United States, the American Cheese Society (ACS) stipulates that such cheese is labeled “farmstead.” According to the ACS, “artisanal” is the term used to describe handcrafted cheese that is made from purchased milk from more than one farm.

The majority of cheddar producers operate on a much larger scale. But big doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Family owned operations and dairy cooperatives pool the milk from surrounding farms, often imposing guidelines for sustainable animal husbandry and giving small herds a reliable market for their milk. Even large facilities may still use the same cheddaring methods of cutting the curd, separating out the whey and aging the cheese, at least for some months, to allow its flavor to develop. They distribute their products on a regional level, reducing transportation costs and food miles. While their cheese may not have the nuance of a farmstead selection, such creameries pay careful attention to quality and flavor that allows them to produce a consistently high quality and affordable product.

At the far end of the large-scale spectrum, however, are producers that are using oils and fillers to produce cheddar-flavored “cheeses.” These “filled cheeses” are completely unrelated to properly made cheese. Such items are frequently labeled “cheese food” or “cheese product,” but don’t be fooled; cheese they are not.

Eating Cheddar

Storing Fresh Cheddar

Cheddar keeps, properly stored, for several weeks in the refrigerator. Wrap it tightly in cheese paper, which allows some air flow but not so much that the cheese dries out. Or you can wrap cheddar in plastic if you change the wrap regularly to avoid moisture from building up, which will lead to mold developing.

Cooking with Cheddar

Is there anything that isn’t better with cheddar? It is a kitchen staple for many, a reliable ingredient that adds a layer of deliciousness to any recipe or is happy to take center stage all by itself. Here are some ideas:

  • Mac and cheese: Cheddar alone or with a combination of other cheeses, it’s a classic. Don’t be afraid to add stuff. Steamed broccoli, peas, ham, cooked bacon, sautéed spinach, sliced tomatoes on top are all elevators of this standard dish.
  • Frico: Make these lacy little cocktail nibbles.
  • Queso: Keep it mild or spice it up for this crowd-pleasing dip.
  • Cheese straws: Not hard to make and great for entertaining if you can keep your kids out of them.
  • Broccoli and cheddar soup: This soup is full of broccoli, of course it’s virtuous!
  • Twice baked potatoes: Oozy, melty cheddar in crispy potato shells. Game on!
  • Grilled cheese: Serve it straight up or layer in thinly sliced apples, pears, ham, tomato, bacon, sautéed greens, sliced olives and more.
  • Quesadillas: A great disguise for any leftovers you have on hand. Slide them in between the tortillas and heat until you reach gooey perfection.
  • Pimento cheese: This southern standard is a lovey twist on English pub cheese.
  • Cheese grits: Why have grits when you can have cheese grits?
  • Cheddar biscuits: Always a hit! Or try cheddar and chive biscuits, cheddar and bacon biscuits, cheddar and dill biscuits…

Cheddar Nutrition

Cheddar is high in calories, saturated fat, cholesterol and protein. Cheddar cheese is one of the best sources of calcium, with 20 percent of your recommended daily value in one serving. It is also high in phosphorus, Vitamin A and B complex vitamins. Animals raised on pasture produce meat, milk and eggs that are higher in conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids, so look for cheese from grass-fed cows. Reduced fat and fat free cheeses often added ingredients such as flavorings, coloring and preservatives that are not in whole milk cheeses and significantly more sodium.

Top photo by MSPhotographic/Adobe Stock.