A Domestic Affair: American Cheddar is Hard to Define, But Easy to Love
I did not grow up in the great cheddar metropolises of New York, Vermont, or Wisconsin. Where I was raised, the cheddar was Cracker Barrel; it came in eight-ounce rectangular blocks from the supermarket, available in white or yellow (orange, really), and was offered in mild, medium, sharp, or extra sharp. When I got to working in the cheese world, I discovered “English” or clothbound cheddar, as opposed to the block American sort. The two seemed radically different to me, and clearly they are to most consumers, as the question I’m frequently asked is, “What makes a cheddar a cheddar?” I thought I knew the answer, but diving into FDA regulations and conversations with American cheesemakers has taught me that it’s a lot more complicated than I had realized.
As I always explain first, “cheddar” is a verb, and cheddaring is a specific step that can be taken during cheesemaking. Cheddar cheese begins with the basic steps common to all cheesemaking: acidification, coagulation, cutting, and stirring. It’s the cheddaring, or formation of curd slabs, that makes this cheese different. As whey is drained from the vat, islands of cheese curd are exposed and begin knitting together into a solid mat. Sometimes this occurs at the bottom of the vat, and other times on a nearby tabletop. The warm curd-mat is then cut into smaller slabs that are stacked, unstacked, and restacked with the intention of pressing out additional whey and delivering a firmer, drier curd. Simultaneously, acidity develops during the cheddaring process, and when it reaches a ballpark pH of 5.2 to 5.5, the slabs are milled—run through a sausage grinder of sorts—into finger-sized batons. The milled curd is salted, which slows the development of acidity, and then formed and pressed for aging.
This traditional method is named for the town of Cheddar in Somerset, England, where the cheese originated. (The earliest recorded mention of cheddar appears in the account books of the English King Henry II, who purchased 10,240 pounds of cheddar in 1170 at a farthing a pound, or about £2 per ton.) Plentiful salt supplies and an abundance of moderate to high-acid milk meant that the English cheese did not require the intensive curd cutting and high-temperature cooking necessary for Alpine cheeses such as Gruyère and Comté. Unlike those aged cow’s milk cheeses, cheddar took on a sharper, saltier flavor with a texture not so much smooth and bendy as firm and chunky.
The Americanization of Cheddar
The durable and long-lasting Somerset cheese that was well suited for transportation to London’s urban markets was also a natural food for the burgeoning American colonies. Although the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony began importing cows to Massachusetts in 1623, it was the arrival of the Puritans and the 1629 establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that established cheddar as the dominant American cheese. As land prices escalated and farmers moved north and west, the cheese of Somerset followed. Before the 20th century advent of processed cheese food known as “American cheese,” cheddar was the national standard.
Although it’s effective, traditional cheddaring is slow and labor intensive, making the process expensive and less scalable for factories interested in producing increasingly larger amounts of cheese. Very few American cheesemakers still cheddar and mill their curd; notable exceptions include Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Seattle, Washington, Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vermont, and Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese in Modesto, California. These days, most cheddar is made using a process called “stirred curd.”
Curd stirring is a quicker, more “efficient” cheesemaking process wherein the classic stacking and unstacking methods, followed by milling, are replaced by the practice of draining curd slabs on an open table. The curds are then cut and stirred to remove whey, reach target acidity, and prepare the curd for forming. Before I learned about stirred curd, my definition of cheddar included the requirement that the cheese be cheddared. The FDA however, has a very different definition. Its allows a cheese to be labeled cheddar if it merely conforms to prescribed levels of moisture and milk fat. And those levels can be reached with two different cheesemaking techniques.
Whether a cheese has been cheddared and milled or stirred is invisible to the end consumer. What is visible is the style of aging: as a block or in a cloth. There is the cheddar I grew up with, which I think of as “American” or “block” cheddar. It is often made into blocks as enormous as 500 to 600 pounds that are aged in vacuum-sealed, plastic Cryovac packaging. Later, these blocks are cut down into smaller pieces, and the lasting result of anaerobic (oxygen-free) ripening is the smooth, rindless cheese well loved for snacking or grating. Block cheddar can be mildly milky or fiercely sharp in flavor, bone white or cantaloupe orange in color.
In the past ten years “English” cheddar (also known as “clothbound” or “bandaged” cheddar) entered the American food lexicon. Radically different from block cheddar in appearance, texture, and flavor, clothbound cheddar is formed into cylinders, generally weighing 15 to 50 pounds, that are wrapped in permeable cheesecloth and aged in temperature- and humidity-controlled cheese caves. (The first English cheddars were actually aged in subterranean caves that dot the Somerset countryside). The resulting wheels arrive at market in cloth wrapping the color of potato skins, with a drier, more crumbling paste than the moist pliability of block cheddar. The flavors are never as mild as that of young block cheddar, nor do they approach the aggressive prickle many Americans know as “extra sharp.” Instead, they are celebrated for their earthy aroma, not unlike that of a root cellar, and rustic flavor profile, which can be vegetal or toasted, nutty or downright candied.
With two different cheesemaking techniques, either of which can lead to two different types of cheddar, I found myself increasingly unable to answer the question, “What makes a cheddar a cheddar?” So I called up Ray Dyke, vice president of technology at Cabot Creamery. Cabot was the only cheesemaker to receive awards at the 2009 American Cheese Society Conference for both block and clothbound cheddar. The first distinguishing step, Ray emphasized (as did other cheesemakers I asked subsequently), is the culture blend. Cheesemakers rarely disclose their proprietary culture cocktail, primarily because much of the final flavor of the cheese is created by these bacteria that start cheesemaking by converting lactose into lactic acid.
A miracle of the right culture blend, however, is that the work of its bacteria continues far into the aging process. Various strains of bacteria are activated at different temperature and acidity levels, which are impacted by the passage of time. While one strain might be primarily responsible for initial acidity, the work of another adjunct culture (or nonstarter lactic acid bacteria) can kick in at two months and impart fruity flavors, or at twelve months and impart butterscotchy notes.
At Cabot Creamery, a different milk supply is used for block cheddar than for the clothbound. There is a lock-and-key interplay between the milk (with its specific fat and protein make-up and flavor profile) and the three-culture blend used for ripening. Both cheeses are made using a stirred curd process, and so, until aging, it is only the milk and cultures that distinguish the block and the clothbound. In this way, cheddar has an identity and flavor predetermined by a cheesemaker, before any of the making and aging even begins.
Nowhere was the miracle of culture blends more apparent to me than in a vertical tasting of various block cheddars. I laid out a spread ranging from one to twelve years to taste what happened over time. I’d been told to expect that more age equates to more sharpness, so I prepared for a biting assault as I moved down the line. What a vast oversimplification! I found that the flavor evolved but “sharpness” was only one step in the development of block cheddar. The youngest of the cheeses, Bravo Farm Premium White Cheddar (from Traver, California), was smooth and buttery in texture, with a simple, mild milkiness more like cheddar curd than the cheese itself.
At two years old, Bravo Farm’s Special Reserve tasted like what I’d expect from aged block cheddar: an oddly moist and pliable mouthfeel, accompanied by a biting intensity that set my tongue prickling. Others in the same age range—one- and two-year orange cheddars from Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Wisconsin, and a Two Year Sharp Cheddar, made by Hook’s Cheese Company in Mineral Point, Wisconsin—shared the “typical” zip that makes your mouth water.
It’s worth noting that Hook’s two-year is unusual for a Wisconsin cheddar, because it’s white, not yellow. Though New York and Vermont cheddar is typically white, Midwestern cheesemakers use the plant-derived coloring annatto for a sunny orange hue. (Ray Dyke mentioned that he’d heard this coloring developed during the Revolutionary War, when American cheesemakers wanted to clearly distinguish their products from comparable English cheeses.)
Next up was the four-year-old Widmer’s cheddar. A miraculous shift had occurred since the two-year benchmark. The texture became dense and chewier, the flavor rounded and meaty. By eight years the taste was more akin to that of aged Gouda, with persistent butterscotch notes and some crunchy crystallization.
The Hook’s cheddars remained white at age six, with typical cheddar sharpness and well-balanced, bright lemony notes. By 10 years the cheddar was colored orange and displayed complex chive flavors. By 12 years, there were intense crunchy patches of tyrosine (protein) throughout the smooth, sweet paste.
The flavor evolution over 12 years of Wisconsin cheddars was very apparent in the changes tasted in Flagship from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese at various ages. The one-year cheddar is considerably sharper than the four-year. The nontraditional inclusion of Swiss cultures means that in months 18 to 24 sweet notes come forward, making Beecher’s aged Flagship caramelly and candied in a way its younger cheeses will never be. It’s worth noting that Beecher’s consciously excludes “cheddar” from its cheese names because the company believes that consumers have preconceived notions about what cheddar tastes like.
Brad Sinko, cheesemaker at Beecher’s , cautioned me that when dealing with culture blends and flavor development in block cheddar, aging temperatures make a major impact. Beecher’s ages Flagship at a comparably colder temperature than most cheddar makers: 42°F to 43°F rather than the typical 48°F to 49°F. This preference relates back to the unique culture blend; the presence of Swiss cultures would lead to overactive ripening at warmer temperatures, which in turn would results in off-fruit flavors.
If time and culture blends transform block cheddar without the aid of oxygen, clothbound cheddars begin to assume their full glory during 9 to 14 months in the open air of aging caves. By the time Cabot Clothbounds leave the creamery for maturing at the Cellars at Jasper Hill, they’ve been cooled for two to three days and pressed into a fine cheesecloth with a weave like muslin. At The Cellars the first step of aging is a brushing with melted lard. (Beecher’s uses melted butter for its Flagship Reserve.) For the next thirty days the wheels are flipped daily to ensure even moisture distribution and the beginning formation of a rind.
The wheels are then deposited on pine shelves in an enormous aging room kept at precisely 52°F and a relative humidity of 88–92%. In the aging room, the thin layer of lard acts as both a semipermeable membrane, allowing some moisture evaporation, and a food supply for ambient molds that colonize the rind. Over time, the molds dapple each wheel in an abundance of gray, brown, white, and ocher fluff, continuing to break down the exterior of the cheese and enabling more air exchange. These naturally developed rinds also attract cheese mites, which feast upon molds and impart a honeyed aroma to the dank cave smells. Although diatomaceous earth is approved for the control of cheese mites, most American artisan cheddar makers choose to manage these microscopic pests by brushing the wheels regularly, a tedious and costly undertaking.
On a recent walk of one of the larger caves at The Cellars—it holds 32,000 wheels at maximum capacity—I tasted cheddars as young as five months and as old as 14, where the mercurial development of clothbound cheddar flavor was laid out before me. Wheels made as little as one week apart yielded wildly different flavors. The two primary flavor directions were sweet— toffee and butterscotch, with a candied intensity that approached that of aged Gouda—and a more savory complexity that, at its best, approximated hard-boiled eggs, generously buttered toast, and homemade, well-salted chicken stock.
The sweet wheels were better in youth, with hints of sucker candies, while the savory wheels were rough and sharp, with high, tart notes. The sweet ones had shorter legs for long-term aging and were best around nine months, while the savory wheels at 12 months yielded a perfectly balanced taste I can only liken to the elusive satiation known in Japanese as umami.
What was especially instructional about tasting 17 batches of developing clothbound cheddar was the opportunity to compare Cabot Clothbound with rounds of Cabot cheddar, almost two years old, that had originally been ripened in Cryovac. Unleashed from their plastic those wheels had begun to develop a molded rind, but the texture retained its moist pliability and the taste begged for grating over nachos. It lacked the earthy complexity of the wheels designed as Cabot Clothbound from inception. In other words, cave time and a prettily speckled rind alone do not a clothbound cheddar make. So what makes a cheddar a cheddar? Once the answer was simple; according to English tradition only cheeses made within 30 miles of Wells Cathedral were considered authentic cheddars. Certainly that definition no longer applies, nor does the classic cheesemaking technique of cheddaring. If anything, what matters most is the milk profile and culture blend that are present from the beginning. After that, it’s up to the individual intention of cheesemakers, which is what makes American cheddar a fascinating and expanding landscape worth tasting through again and again.
Written by Liz Thorpe, vice president of Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York City and the author of The Cheese Chronicles
Photography by Bill Milne