In the village of Somerset, England, stands a 12th-century cathedral dedicated to Saint Andrew. Famous for its intricately carved West Front entrance and its (disputed) claim of housing the world’s oldest working clock, the Wells Cathedral is noteworthy for its role in one other piece of English heritage: Cheddar cheese.
Though Cheddar is now produced across the English-speaking world, tradition for many centuries required that it be made within 30 miles of Wells Cathedral. Caves near the cathedral provided an ideal aging environment, and Cheddar remained a regional specialty until the 19th century.
What is Cheddar Cheese?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires only that cheese labeled as “Cheddar” be at least 50% milkfat and no more than 39% moisture.
A wide variety of Cheddars exist, but what links them all together...
a series of production steps that give rise to the unique attributes that make Cheddar desirable in so many applications.
How is Cheddar Cheese Made?
Like most cheeses, Cheddar undergoes acidification by bacterial cultures, after which the enzyme rennet is used to solidify the milk into curds, which are then cut and drained.
At this point, Cheddar deviates from the standard path. Its hard, dry texture is due to “scalding” the curds at around 100 F to force out additional whey.
To further release moisture, cheesemakers subject the scalded curds to a unique process known as Cheddaring, which involves piling many curds together into thick slabs that must be flipped repeatedly.
This process expels excess moisture, making the cheese less prone to spoilage and very durable under transport. Afterward, in a process called “milling,” machines cut the Cheddared slabs to rice-sized pieces.
In order to stop the fermentation process so the cheese does not over-acidify, the curds are heavily salted before being formed into wheels or blocks for aging.
Why is Cheddar Cheese Orange?
Some Cheddar is colored orange to mimic the historical properties of Somerset milk. Cows from this area produced milk with high quantities of beta-carotene: the same yellow-orange pigment found in carrots, cantaloupes, and sweet potatoes.
When local breeds of cow, like Jersey and Guernsey, ingested plant material containing beta-carotene, much of it stayed dissolved in their milk fats, giving the milk an orange tint.
In the 17th century, some cheesemakers realized that they could sell cream skimmed from their milk for extra cash, although this lowered the quality of their cheese.
However, the beta-carotene pigment is fat-soluble, so it left the remaining milk without its characteristic orange hue after they removed the cream. To disguise their fraud, these cheesemakers looked for ways to mask the whiteness of their milk.
They tried saffron, carrots, and more before finally settling on the ingredient that is still in use today: annatto, which comes from the seeds of the Brazilian achiote tree. Although the fraud was discovered long ago, the tradition of coloring Cheddar continues since customers have come to expect a brightly-colored curd.
Different Kinds of Cheddar Cheese?
Aged 2-3 months, mild Cheddar is smooth, creamy, and easy-melting. This is the kind of Cheddar you are likely to find in your grocery store cheese aisle.
Aged anywhere from 6 to 9 months, sharp Cheddar melts very well but has begun to develop a buttery flavor and a crumbly texture.
Aged 18 to 24 months, this cheese is full of calcium lactate crystals and has a very intense flavor.
With similar textural qualities to Extra-Sharp Cheddar, Premium Cheddars may age for 2-10 years and develop extremely robust flavors. They also grow some tyrosine crystals, which contribute to a savory depth.
Also called bandaged or bandage-wrapped Cheddar, this style passes through a long aging process after being wrapped with a porous cloth and sealed with butter or lard. The fabric protects the cheese’s outer layer while still allowing air to penetrate the cheese, which helps it develop a tough rind.
Unlike clothbound Cheddar, waxed Cheddar is covered in an impermeable wax that does not allow air to penetrate. Because of this, it does not develop a rind. It also ages for fewer months, so its flavor is less intense.
Traditionally made only in the English counties of Somerset, Dorset, Cornwall, and Devon, true West Country Farmhouse Cheddar is PDO (Protected Designation of Origin)-recognized. Production must occur on the same farm from milking to aging, which should last for at least nine months.
Cheddar Cheese Substitutes?
For sandwiches, which often call for young Cheddar, look for other cheeses which slice easily, melt consistently, and have a mild flavor. Good choices to try might be:
For Mac & Cheese or casseroles, look for cheeses that grate easily and don't release too much moisture. Often, a slightly sharper-tasting cheese is desirable here, making Gouda the first choice.
What does Cheddar Cheese Taste like?
Young Cheddar is mild and creamy, seeming buttery on the palate and with a slightly oily residue. As Cheddar ages, its flavor intensifies, and its texture becomes harder and more crumbly.
Aged Cheddar is very sharp and savory, often containing crystals of tyrosine and calcium lactate that provide crunch and melt on the tongue to create a burst of umami intensity.
Cheddar Cheese Pairings
Young Cheddars are excellent with bright, tart fruits, such as green apples. They pair well with sourdough bread and crisp beers.
Aged Cheddar supports more complex flavors; figs, nuts, and dates are good choices. Crusty rye or bread or crackers makes a good base for older Cheddars, and they are robust enough to stand alongside red wine.
Best Cheddar Cheese Brands
Several accessible Cheddars represent the categories above.
The Slow Food Movement recognizes the following three “Presidium” Cheddars--those most reminiscent of the style in its original form. Each producer makes only 10 to 20 wheels per day, but they are worth a try if you can get your hands on one!
- Montgomery Cheddar from Manor Farm in North Cadbury
- Cheddar from Westcombe Dairy inEvercreech, Somerset
- Pitchfork Cheddar from Trethowan's Dairy in Hewish, North Somerset
Where to Buy Cheddar Cheese?
Online, both Igourmet.com and amazon.com have excellent selections of Cheddar in all categories. A local cheesemonger or upscale supermarket cheese counter is also likely to offer a selection of aged, clothbound, and waxed Cheddars. Find young Cheddar in any supermarket cheese aisle.
How Long Does Cheddar Cheese Last?
Like other hard cheeses, an unopened package of Cheddar will last for four to six months in the fridge, but only about six weeks in the refrigerator once opened.
You will know when the cheese is no longer suitable to eat because it will begin to harden and crack, and it darkens in color.
Mold may begin to grow; if a few mold spots appear without any other signs of aging (darkening, breaking, stiff texture), simply cut them out and repackage the cheese.
How to Make Cheddar Cheese?
Cheesemaking.com offers step-by-step instructions for homemade Cheddar cheese. Before you embark on this adventure, beware: this process uses advanced cheesemaking techniques!
Beginners should not attempt this recipe without previous experience with less complex cheeses.
Calories in Cheddar Cheese?
Cheddar cheese has around 110 calories and 8-9 grams of fat per one ounce. Each Cheddar will vary nutritionally depending on its degree of aging, moisture level, and the milk from which it originated.
Well, there you have it 🙂
One of the most common cheeses of our modern world broken down into its constituent parts. We hope you enjoyed learning about this unique cheese.
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