Cheese

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Cheddar

It can be so much more than an orange block at the grocery store.

September 28, 2021
Photo by Marissa Mullen

In memory of Anne Saxelby—the cheesemonger sadly died in October 2021 at the age of 40.


Even if you know nothing about cheese, you’ve definitely heard of cheddar. As the most popular cheese in America, cheddar is a staple on cheese plates and sandwiches alike. Cheddar was first crafted in the 12th century, hailing from Cheddar Village in Somerset, England. As a cow’s milk cheese, a young cheddar can be smooth in texture, while an aged cheddar can be a bit crumbly. Unlike Manchego and Parmigiano-Reggiano, two cheeses protected by DOP guidelines, cheddar can be made anywhere in the world.

“The thing that defines cheddar as cheddar is the actual cheesemaking process, not the flavors added to it,” said Anne Saxelby, founder of Saxelby Cheesemongers in Manhattan. “Most people don't know this, but cheddar is actually a noun and a verb—when cheddar cheese is made, the curds are cheddared.” Saxelby explained that this process involves cutting the curds into slabs, stacking them, flipping and restacking them, then milling them down into small pieces. “These small pieces are cheddar curds or ‘squeaky cheese,' which is usually served deep-fried or over poutine,” Saxelby added.

Because of this layering technique, a well-aged cheddar has natural breaking points and a crumbly texture. When styling cheddar on a cheese plate, I like to embrace that texture and create rustic crumbles: Take a knife, stick the sharp tip directly into the edge of the block, and twist your wrist. The cheddar will break off in a unique crumbly shape.

“Historically, cheeses were named for their origin rather than method of production, and it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, when producers in England, Canada, and the United States began collecting and comparing their best cheesemaking practices, that cheddar became codified,” notes Gordon Edgar, author of Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge in Saveur. “In the mid-19th century, cheddar became the most widely produced cheese in the U.S., and so it remained for 150 years.”

As more countries and cheese producers developed their own cheddar-making techniques, different styles began to populate grocery store shelves. Although they’re all made from cow’s milk in a similar fashion, the tasting notes and texture behind each style can vary due to the aging process and rinds.

Photo by Marissa Mullen

Cheddar Throughout The Ages

Cheddar can be enjoyed all throughout the aging process. “Young cheddar tends to be buttery, creamy, mellow, and less nuanced, while aged cheddars take on a more sharp, powerful, and complex flavor profile,” noted Saxelby. “Depending on how the cheese was made and aged, those flavors can be very different, but to me aged cheddars can taste oniony, fruity, and/or peppery.” To get a better understanding of a number of types of cheddar flavors and textures, Saxelby actually makes an American Cheddar Flight.

  • Mild: Aged from 1 to 3 months. This style is creamy, slightly sweet, and mellow.
  • Semi-Sharp: Aged from 3 to 6 months. The cheese at this point starts to develop a sharp tang.
  • Sharp/Matured: Aged from 6 to 12 months. This style becomes drier and more crumbly, yielding a robust and pungent flavor.
  • Vintage: Aged from 12 to 24 months (or even longer!), this cheddar is strong, savory, and crumbly, with small calcium lactate crystals throughout, for a subtle salty crunch when bitten.

How long can you actually age cheddar for? Saxelby said the limit does not exist—with a few caveats. “Cave-aged cheddars would never last for 10 years, because the natural rinds would deteriorate. Block cheddar that is aged in Cryovac plastic can be aged for a very long time...I remember trying a cheddar that was 20 or 30 years old that someone's father had aged in their garage fridge.” Ultimately, there’s a breaking point: “Once it gets past 5 or 6 years, it begins to taste more like peanut butter and less like cheese.”

Cheddar Rinds + Styles

Rindless (or Block) Cheddar

This is the type of cheddar you’ll find typically vacuum-sealed in plastic at the supermarket. This is the most common way cheddar is produced, as it’s become the easiest and quickest way to package and preserve. During ripening, the cheese is not exposed to air, making for a smooth and sometimes moist exterior. “The anaerobic aging impacts the flavor, making it sharper and more zingy on the palate as well as the texture, which is dense and fudgy,” said Saxelby. Some of my favorites include Milton Creamery’s Prairie Breeze, Seaside Rugged Mature English Cheddar, and Kerrygold Dubliner.

Clothbound Cheddar

Clothbound cheddar is essentially what it sounds like: a cheddar wheel wrapped in cotton cloth. Cloth became a popular method to limit moisture loss and form a hard rind, better protecting the aging wheels of cheese from the unpredictable weather. This method yields a drier and more crumbly texture than plastic- or wax-wrapped cheddars. However, the flavor is complex, earthy, and sometimes slightly sweet. Because of the recent developments in cheese production, clothbound cheddars are less common in mass quantities. My favorites include Neal’s Yard Dairy Montgomery’s Cheddar, Jasper Hill Cabot Clothbound, and Quicke’s Mature Clothbound Cheddar.

Orange or Yellow Cheddar

This style is the one you may be the most familiar with. The cheddar is dyed with annatto, a common food coloring derived from the achiote tree. Back in the early days of cheddar cheesemaking, the cows grazed on a diet high in beta-carotene, which created an orange tint to the milk. The orange dye was adopted later in the U.S. to keep the cheese the same color throughout the year. While the color is typically quite similar, the cheese’s flavor still depends on its age. Some of my favorites include Hook’s 12-Year Sharp Cheddar and Roelli’s Red Rock.

Waxed Cheddar

Waxed cheddar is aged in a pliable wax coating, made to prevent mold growth while retaining moisture during the aging process. The wax gives the cheese a distinct appearance and can be presented on a cheese plate with or without the wax. Some of my favorites are Shelburne Farms 2-Year Cheddar and Plymouth Artisan Cheese Original.

Flavored Cheddar

With the evolution of cheddar over the years, cheesemakers have started to add different flavors and notes to create new and exciting takes. One of the most popular is smoked cheddar, where the wedges are cold smoked for a few hours. The result is a woody and robust cheese perfect for fall. When it comes to other flavors, the sky’s the limit: Think sage, chile, or maple, to name just a few. My favorites include Grafton Village Truffle Cheddar and Cabot Garlic Herb Cheddar.

Of course, cheddar can also be sold shredded, in slices, and in sticks, but watch out for extra preservatives, which can mute the flavor and diminish any natural textures—I always prefer to buy blocks whole and shred them myself.

What’s your favorite type of cheddar? Let us know in the comments!

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Marissa Mullen is a Brooklyn-based food stylist, recipe developer, photographer and cheese lover. She is the founder of That Cheese Plate and creator of the Cheese By Numbers method. She is also the author of the best-selling cookbook, That Cheese Plate Will Change Your Life, a step-by-step styling guide for crafting beautiful and delicious cheese plates as a form of creative expression. Featured on The Today Show, The Rachael Ray Show, Business Insider, Vox among others, Marissa is dedicated to bringing people together through creativity, food and entertainment.

3 Comments

Kt4 October 3, 2021
Does making cheddar yellow change the flavor?
 
Gammy October 4, 2021
Did you read the article? The answer is, "No." "The orange dye was adopted later in the U.S. to keep the cheese the same color throughout the year. While the color is typically quite similar, the cheese’s flavor still depends on its age."
 
Kt4 October 4, 2021
If you don't have something positive to contribute, you don't have to say anything at all.

"Gammy", Yes, I read the article. Your reply is snarky & less than helpful. Goodbye