Cheddar cheese is probably one of the most popular, and well-known cheeses in the world. It originated in the English town of Cheddar, and although it is no longer produced there, the name remains. In reality, the word “cheddar” is both a noun and a verb; Cheddar is the type of cheese, while “cheddar” or “cheddaring” refers to the process of making the cheese, which diverges from the traditional methods of cheese production (see Cheese 101: How Cheese is made for information on the basic process).
After the milk is curdled, cheddar curd is cut into cubes of about 3/8 of an inch, and then heated to 100 degrees to further extract whey from the curd. After the whey is drained, the curd is gathered together to the sides of the cheese vat, and allowed to start knitting together (fusing) into mats. Once the mats are formed, they are then cut into slabs about 12″ long and about 6″ high. The slabs are turned over about every 15 minutes to facilitate draining and further matting, until the proper level of moisture and acidity is reached. The slabs are then stacked on top of each other, allowing the weight of the curd to further drain the whey. The curd is restacked (top slab to the bottom, next slab on top, and so on) periodically, until the moisture content and the acidity level of the curd has reached the point desired by the cheesemaker. The cheese blocks are then milled into pieces the size of french fries, and salted. The size of the milled curd depends on the cheesemaker’s desired end product.
After the curd is milled and salted, it is packed into cheesecloth-lined cheese molds. The curd is pressed in the mold to force out more whey, and to compact the curd. The cheese is kept in the press for time varying from several hours to several days, depending on what the cheesemaker is trying to accomplish. Once the pressing is done, the cheese is removed from the mold and set to age. Cheeses can lose about half their weight in the molds. It takes about 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese.
After being removed from the molds, cheddar cheese is sealed in some type of enclosure to prevent mold or bacteria from reaching the cheese. The flavors that develop in cheddar come from the microbials that were in the milk (especially raw milk cheeses) or that were introduced by the cheesemaker. Unlike cheeses that use mold or bacteria as part of their flavor development (like brie or Muenster), cheddar flavor relies on the biological changes that occur in the natural components of the milk. The common methods for sealing the cheese are to vacuum pack the cheese in plastic, coat the cheese in wax, or to wrap it in cloth, then seal the cloth with fat.
Mild cheddar is aged for 2-3 months before being packaged to sell. Premium cheddar is typically aged for 12-24 months, but can age for much longer. Some reserve cheeses are aged for 3-4 years; recently, a Wisconsin cheesemaker reportedly sold a quantity of cheddar that had been aged for 15 years. During the aging process, the cheeses are turned periodically – several times a week in the beginning – to ensure proper flavor development.
Once aged, the cheeses are then ready for market. Large blocks of cheese that are destined for products such as pre-packaged shredded cheese, processed cheese products, or to be incorporated into foods such as Cheez-its, are shipped in large blocks to manufacturers. For consumer use (such as what you purchase from the supermarket), the blocks are cut down to smaller sizes, vacuumed packed, then shipped for distribution.
Clothbound cheddars are often the most flavorful, and are the most representative of the original craft of cheddar-making. Clothbound cheddars are large wheels of cheese that range from 20-80 pounds per wheel. After pressing, clothbound cheeses are wrapped in cheesecloth or linen, then covered with fat – this can be lard, butter, or other fat – which seals the cheese and contributes to the development of the flavor profile. For those who keep a Kosher or Halal diet, it is very important to identify what was used to seal clothbound cheeses. This is sometimes included in the ingredients list, but to be certain, contact the cheese producer directly.
The term “cheddar” is not a protected term. Any cheese that is manufactured using the cheddaring process can be labeled as cheddar cheese. The European Union has recognized one designation for Cheddar Cheese, called West Country Farmhouse Cheese. Cheese carrying this designation must be produced in one of four English counties: Somerset, Dorset, Devon, or Cornwall. Three excellent cheddars from this area are Quickes, Keen’s, and Montgomery’s. Another cheddar-type cheese that is quite good is Lincolnshire Poacher, made in Lincolnshire, UK.
Other cheddars to try are Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, and Jasper Hills Clothbound Cheddar, Grafton Village Clothbound cheddar (the previous three from Vermont), and Beechers Flagship Reserve, from Washington State.