Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Cheddar

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Cheese making is a fascinating process. Part science. Part art. Makers and mongers have to 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 also, they have to 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 seasonal, stinky, almost intimidating washed rind Winnemere to the affable, approachable cheddar (our cheese of choice in this post) there is history, craft and deep affection in every bite.

A Brief History of Cheddar Cheese

While many scholars believe that the Romans developed the techniques for making cheddar-type cheeses, the first written records of cheddar production date back to the 12th century in England. Cheese making was a common farmhouse practice, developed to use up and extend the shelf-life of fresh milk. The caves of the town of Cheddar in modern-day England were uniquely qualified to supply the constant temperature and humidity necessary for aging the cheese to its sharp-flavored perfection. The cheeses that came out of them gained a reputation as a superior product.

The extended aging process not only developed the taste of the cheddar, it made for a cheese that keeps and travels really well. In a time when cheese making was a local endeavor, cheddar was ordered by the King Henry II even before it was made and shipped across the country to reach him. It was carried on royal expeditions. The pilgrims brought cheddar over on the Mayflower.

Here in America, cheddar was made much in the same way it was in England. It remained part of the routine on family farms; usually the work of the woman of the house. The process was arduous. The cows had to be milked, the cheese processed and then the wheels tended patiently and meticulously as they aged. Along the way, any number of factors - over fermentation, heat, humidity, pests - could render the cheese inedible. This might be a cause for another run to the grocery store for the modern head of household, but in the days when families relied on their own food supply to get through the harsh winters it could mean a significant dent in the larder.

During the 1800s a push to remove some of the vagaries of cheese production was underway on both sides of the Atlantic. In England, Joseph Harding set out to introduce uniformity and hygienic practices to the process. He invented technology, such as a mechanized whey cutter, that modernized the making of cheddar cheese, taking it off the farm and into the factory. His goal of creating a uniformly consistent product set the stage for the industrial facilities that produce the bulk of our cheddar supply. In the United States, the first cheese cooperatives and creameries were formed to pool the milk resources of neighboring farms and turn the production over to a designated "cheesemaker" to perform the alchemy of turning it into cheddar.

Cheddar making took another sharp turn during World War II. As a way of stockpiling milk and rationing food, the government of the United Kingdom took control of the liquid milk market and set to producing "government cheddar." Without a fresh milk supply, the majority of local cheddar producers went out of business. The number of cheddar makers shrank from 3,400 to under a hundred. In the United States, cheddar making continued on a trajectory of consolidation that, as Gordon Edgar describes in his book "Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America's Most Iconic Cheese," is emblematic of our agricultural system as a whole - a dwindling number of producers responsible for increasing levels of supply.

California has sadly anchored much of its milk production in factory farming and focuses largely on volume production. Wisconsin prides itself on being "The Dairy State" and has a long and illustrious cheddar making history. But for many eaters, farmhouse cheddar brings Vermont to mind and it has its share of traditional cheddar makers nestled in its rolling hills.

In recent decades, a growing community of cheesemakers across the country have taken up the challenge of creating traditional, handmade cheddars. As part of an inspiring return to authentic food production methods, these cheesemakers have reunited eaters with time tested tastes and traditions that yield superior flavor and quality.

Factual Nibbles 

  • 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.
  • A cheese connoisseur is called a "turophile."

The Cheddar Making Process

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.

Cheddar Making Facilities

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 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. 

Environmental Impact of Cheddar Production

Dairy production faces many of the same challenges as raising meat animals. Farms that feed their animals a natural 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 Characteristics

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.

Some producers choose to age their cheeses in wax. The coating protects against moisture loss and provides a natural barrier against contamination.

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. 

How to Select the Best Cheddar for What You Need

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, Edgar 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." 

Cheddar Nutrition

Each ounce of regular cheddar cheese has 113 calories, with 82 from fat. Of the 9g of fat per ounce, 6g are saturated fat. That same serving size contains 29mg of cholesterol. A serving of regular cheddar cheese has no carbohydrates or fiber, but does have 7g of protein. Cheddar cheese is one of the best sources of calcium, with 20 percent of your recommended daily value in one serving. It has fourteen percent of your daily value of phosphorus, seven percent of your daily value of sodium, six percent of your daily value of vitamin A, six percent of riboflavin and four percent of vitamin B12. 

According to Jo Robinson, author of "Why Grass-fed is Best!" animals raised on pasture produce meat, milk and eggs that are higher in Conjugated Linoleic Acid and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.

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.

What to Do with Cheddar and How to Cook It

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. 

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.

Omelet

Cheddar pairs so easily with other ingredients you could add veggies, meats or just leave it to the cheese to make this breakfast (or anytime) treat even treatier. 

Pimento Cheese

This southern standard is a lovey twist on English pub cheese.

Cheese Grits

Why have grits when you can have cheese grits?

Poutine

French fries and gravy topped with fresh, unaged cheddar curds and broiled to loveliness. (How fresh are your curds? They should squeak when rubbed together.)

Cheddar Biscuits

Always a hit or try cheddar and chive biscuits, cheddar and bacon biscuits, cheddar and dill biscuits...

How to Store Cheddar Cheese

Cheddar keeps, properly stored, for several weeks in the refrigerator. Wrap it tightly in cheese paper that allows some air flow but not so much that the cheese dries out. Or you can wrap them in plastic if you change the wrap regularly to avoid moisture from building up, which will lead to mold developing. Cheddars can be waxed for long term storage. Blocks of waxed cheese are often available. Home waxing must be done with extreme care and attention to detail. 

Recipe: Holiday (or Any Day) Cheese Ball

When I was growing up and we wanted to bring out the fancy a cheese ball was always one of the star attractions of the table. "Port wine" was the key ingredient and its lurid streaks of purple were alluring and exotic. Today, cheese still looms large in my entertaining, usually at the end of the meal as part of a cheese course. But once in a while, I like to make one of these. It's a little upgrade on the plastic wrapped violet cheese bombs of my childhood, but has all of the nostalgia to make it taste just right.

Ingredients:

8 ounces of good quality cheddar, shredded

4 ounces of cream cheese, room temperature

1 ounce of dry Sherry

1 tablespoon minced chives

1 cup crushed pecan pieces

Method:

In a food processor, or using a wooden spoon, combine all ingredients except the nuts. Form into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for one hour. Unwrap, roll in pecan pieces and serve or rewrap, refrigerate and store for up to five days. Bring to room temperature before serving.