Cheddar, the world’s most widely enjoyed cheese, originates from the tiny village of Cheddar in Somerset, in southwest England. Cheddar’s history dates back to the 12th Century. According to legend, a milkmaid forgot a pail of milk in a cave, only to come back for it and discover that it had transformed into a delicious cheese. King Henry II was a big fan of cheddar, and Queen Victoria received a gigantic wheel for a wedding gift.
British colonists who came to America brought their cheesemaking traditions and techniques along with them. By 1790, Americans were exporting cheddar to Britain. In 1851, the world’s first cheese factory opened in upstate New York—the plant specialized in producing cheddar.
According to the USDA, cheddar is the second-most popular cheese in the U.S., with consumption in 2019 reaching just over 10 pounds per person (right behind mozzarella, the nation’s most consumed cheese), accounting for 26% of total cheese consumption. The variations of shapes, textures, strengths and flavors are nearly endless.
Cheddar was born in England but it came of age in the U.S. If Americans were to vote for a national cheese, the winner would almost certainly be hearty, historic and delicious cheddar. From our vast array of flavored and rubbed cheddars, to our many cheddar hybrids, cheddar realizes its true potential in the hands of cheesemakers from Vermont to Wisconsin to New York.
How Cheddar is Made
The beginning of cheddar’s cheesemaking process resembles that of most cheeses: milk gets cultured by adding a starter bacteria, which acidifies the milk. Then, rennet is added to enable the milk to form into curds. The watery whey gets drained from the curds. Then, the concentrated curds are heated to about 100 degrees F to release even more whey and start to meld together.
This is where the paths diverge, and cheddar becomes unique; the process is actually called cheddaring. The cheesemakers make big slabs of curds that are piled together and repeatedly flipped over. As they get flipped again and again, they continue to release whey, becoming even more dense and knitting together. Then the slabs are broken up again into small curds, through the help of a mill, before being pressed into molds to drain further and age. Cheddaring contributes to the final taste and texture, helping to create a cheese that is distinctive.
The recipe developed and honed in the 1800s was an efficient method that lent itself well to industrialization. Cheddar is a practical cheese to produce on a large scale: it can be sold both young and old, it suffers from few defects and travels well. “Cheddar, in many ways, is the IPA of the cheese world, relatively easy to make and easy to screw up,” explains Steven Millard, cheese and specialty food consultant and former senior vice president at New York-based Murray’s Cheese. Cheddar might be ubiquitous, but discovering a delicious cheddar is still a major win.
The descriptor ‘sharp’ gets thrown around a lot when it comes to cheddar. The label isn’t officially defined or regulated, so designations can be inconsistent across brands. In general, cheddars’ flavors intensify as they age, starting out mild and getting increasingly intense, with deepening and incredible complexity. Texture also changes with age—going from smooth and creamy to firm and crumbly. Some cheddars develop small crunchy crystals called calcium lactate. Mild cheddars may be aged two or three months, sharp cheddars around six to nine months, and extra-sharp wheels for a year, two, or in some cases even longer.
At its best, cheddar is rich and full of depth. Flavors may include meaty bacon, fresh cream, tangy pineapple or lemon, and roasted hazelnuts. Its play of sweet and savory flavors makes a slice of quality cheddar irresistible.
Why are some cheddars yellow and others white? An all-natural vegetable food coloring called annatto gets added during production to give cheddar its sunshine hue. Without annatto, the cheese remains a creamy white color.
Cheddars to Know and Fall For
Joe Widmer’s grandfather came to America from Switzerland in 1905 and learned to make cheese as an apprentice. “In 1922, he purchased a cheese factory in Theresa, WI, and made cheddar, brick and colby cheeses,” says Widmer, the third-generation owner of Widmer’s Cheese Cellar. “That’s where we still make the same cheeses to this day. Our cheddar cheeses are still the authentic recipe that my grandfather used and carried down.” Widmer’s cheddars have won over 20 awards in various competitions since 2002, and range from a mild, young variety to huge-flavored 15-year aged cheddar.
During his time at Murray’s Cheese, Millard helped develop Murray’s Cavemaster Original Stockinghall Cheddar, which won Best of Show at the 2019 American Cheese Society awards. The cheese is a collaboration between Murray’s Cheese and Cornell University, crafted with milk from Old Chatham Creamery. (Cornell has a dairy plant available to anyone in New York looking to develop a new dairy product, whether that is cheese, yogurt or ice cream. The university grants access to the milk of their own cows and experts that are available to help with things like pasteurization or assisting in regulatory matters.)
“When I got into cheese in the late 90s, there was only one clothbound cheddar maker of note in the U.S., Fiscalini,” Millard remembers. “The American clothbound cheddar scene really changed in 2006 when Greensboro Bend, VT-based Jasper Hill took home the ACS Best in Show with its Cabot Clothbound Cheddar.” The Vermont cheddar is still a sought-after favorite, with a balance of sharpness, nuttiness and a caramelized sweetness. The cheese is made from the pasteurized milk from a single herd of Holstein cows and aged in Jasper Hill’s own cellars.
Jasper Hill’s cellars also mature Cabot Clothbound, a natural-rind cheddar made by Cabot Creamery with milk exclusively from the Kempton family farm in Peacham, VT. When it arrives at the Cellars, each wheel is coated with lard and wrapped in an additional layer of muslin, to encourage growth of its natural rind while protecting the cheese within. Clothbound is matured in the open air of the Jasper Hill vaults until 10-13 months of age.
Trends and Change
Some cheesemakers see cheddar as a sort of blank canvas on which to experiment. “There are new trends such as Alpine cheddars that use select cultures to give the cheeses a European type flavor,” says Widmer,“as well as cheddar with different flavored ingredients such as hot pepper, horseradish, cranberry, dill, bacon, garlic, buffalo wing and even more.”
One of these flavored cheeses is Henning’s Hatch Pepper Cheddar. Master Cheesemaker Kerry Henning is the fourth-generation cheesemaker behind Henning’s in Kiel, WI, which specializes in flavored and aged peppers, including everything from Peppercorn Cheddar to Blueberry Cobbler Cheddar. Henning’s Hatch Pepper Cheddar uses the authentic Hatch Chili Peppers from Hatch, NM, to create a creamy, smooth cheese packed with punchy heat. In Vermont, Cabot makes cheddars in flavors including everything bagel, hot buffalo wing and roasted garlic.
Roelli’s Dunbarton Blue Cheese, another Wisconsin original made in Shullsburg, is a unique white cheddar with blue veins. Fourth generation cheesemaker Chris Roelli is a certified Master Cheesemaker, and this spin on a traditional cheddar shows just how adept he is at this craft. Roelli cave ages the cheese on wooden boards to develop a well-rounded cheddar base with distinctive blue veining and an earthy flavor, a potent yet approachable treat.
Marketing, Merchandising and Digging In
“Kraft was the first American company to realize the importance of consumer-friendly packaging when they rolled out their wooden boxes that contained 5 pounds of cheese,” Millard believes. “Innovation will continue to push packaging, and these days you can find cheddar available in cubes, slices, small blocks, big blocks and snack trays.”
Cheddar lends itself to creative merchandising. In Millard’s experience, “Block cheddar works in both a flat deck case or an upright case, so long as the label is facing up or out so that the consumer can tell the various similarly-colored and shaped cheeses apart.” Cross merchandise with crackers, nuts, dried fruits or cured meats.
“During the pandemic, cheeses that are versatile and hold up well in the home refrigerator have sold very well,” says Millard. “Cheddar, whether it is a block cheddar or a clothbound cheddar, makes for an excellent meal when you don’t want to cook yet another meal at home.”
He likes to make himself a grilled cheese with thick-sliced sourdough bread, pickles, a dab of Dijon mustard and cheddar. “At home, I use my cast iron pan and Dutch oven to press the sandwich; it works wonderfully.”
Widmer enjoys his sharp cheddar with a Cabernet Sauvignon or with a stout. He cooks a killer “homemade mac and cheese with one-year cheddar in the noodles, with four-year or older cheddar grated and sprinkled on top.”
Other perfect pairings for cheddar include apple butter and fruit jam, ripe pears and tangy chutney. Savor a slice with a bitter ale, Oloroso Sherry or an off-dry Riesling, and ponder the very tasty reason this cheese has such a central place in the canon of American cheese. DB