Cheddar, the most popular cheese in the United Kingdom and second-most popular (behind mozzarella) in the United States, is a hard, somewhat sharp-tasting natural cow's milk cheese that originated in the English village of Cheddar in Somerset. Now widely produced throughout the world, cheddar-style cheeses may also use goat's, sheep's, and even nondairy milk, although they only approximate the classic. Cow's milk cheddar is a good source of K vitamins, which are important for heart and bone health.
- Origin: England
- Texture: Semifirm but creamy
- Flavor: Mild to increasing sharpness as it ages
- Uses: Popular as a melting cheese for burgers, casseroles, grilled cheese sandwiches
What Is Cheddar?
Modern cheddar cheeses differ quite a bit from the traditional recipes first developed in England. Because the process easily adapted to industrial-scale production, cheddar is now one of the least expensive cheeses in the United States. Grocery store cheddar shreds, slices, and melts well, making it a versatile refrigerator staple. Artisan cheddar cheeses that are made using traditional methods have much more complex flavors, though.
Cheddar naturally develops a dry, hard rind similar to that found on Parmesan, but many producers prevent it from forming by covering the cheese with wax, or they cut it off before packaging the cheese for sale.
Yellow/Orange Cheddar vs. White Cheddar
The color of milk can range from white to deep yellow depending on what the cows were eating, the breed of cows it came from, and even the ratio of cream remaining in it. Cheese producers started adding vegetable dyes to their milk as far back as the 17th century to control the consistency of color in their cheese. Nowadays most New England cheddar producers favor the natural white, whereas cheesemakers in the Midwest and elsewhere tend to use annatto, a plant extract of the achiote tree, to give their cheese the characteristic orange color many Americans associate with cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, and, of course, macaroni and cheese.
Annatto does not alter the flavor, texture, or aroma of the cheese, so a sharp white New York cheddar can match a Wisconsin-made deep orange version in every way but appearance.
How Cheddar Is Made
The process of making cheddar cheese is distinctive enough that cheesemakers coined a verb, cheddaring, to describe it. Production starts with the basic method of adding cultures and rennet to milk to acidify and curdle it. Once the curds form, they're cut up and pressed together into slabs. Those slabs then get stacked and flipped repeatedly, further compressing the curds and squeezing out any lingering whey. The process continues until most of the moisture drains away, leaving a drier cheese with a dense, crumbly paste.
Types of Cheddar
The sharpness of cheddar cheese depends on the length of aging. Mild varieties age two to three months, while premium extra sharp cheddars are left to mature for one to five years. Medium and sharp fall in between. The longer the cheese ages, the more intense the flavor becomes. Long-aged cheeses develop a crumbly, crystallized texture.
It's easier to substitute for a mild cheddar called for in recipes than on a cheese board, where the distinctive flavors of different varieties matter more. Cantal, a French cheese considered a cousin to cheddar, provides the closest match. Edam, a semifirm but still creamy cheese from the Netherlands that slices, shreds, and melts well, can also stand in for a mild to medium cheddar. To replicate the sharper end of the cheddar scale, look for an aged Gouda.
America loves its cheese and cheddar shows up in so many dishes: cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, nachos, macaroni and cheese, and many pasta-based dishes and potato-based casseroles. Chili aficionados can't imagine eating a bowl without shredded cheddar on top. A warm slice of apple pie with a hunk of sharp cheddar is a country classic.
Pre-shredded cheddar cuts down on prep time, but the packages in the dairy section of the grocery store contain cornstarch to prevent clumping. The flavor and meltability of the cheese will be better if you do the work yourself with a box grater or food processor.
Everyday dishes aside, extra sharp cheddar pairs well with robust red wines like pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, while mild cheddar goes great with merlot or a dry white wine such as chardonnay.
Opened blocks of cheddar store well in the refrigerator wrapped in parchment or wax paper and then covered with plastic wrap. Kept this way, the cheese should be good for up to a month after you bring it home from the store. If you see mold, cut it away with a 1-inch margin all around, and the remainder of the cheese should be fine. Packaged sliced or shredded cheddar should be used within a week of opening. If you see mold in it, discard the entire package.
You can freeze cheddar in the original unopened store packaging or tightly wrapped in plastic; for best quality, use it within six to eight months. Thawed cheddar works better for cooking as the texture changes in the freezer. For ease of use, shred the cheese beforehand and package it in recipe-sized portions.
Like most cheese, the flavor improves when you bring cheddar to room temperature before you eat it.
Choose cheddar whenever you want a gooey, melty cheese topping for your dish.
Can You Eat the Rind?
You may see a brownish silvery natural rind on a wheel of artisan cheddar, but you won't find it on packaged grocery store cheddar or most of the blocks in the deli cheese case. Natural rinds such as those that may develop on cheddar are edible and can contribute earthy flavors to the cheese, but the texture may make them unpleasant to chew and impossible to swallow, depending on how long the cheese aged.