Who does not like Cheddar? It is one of the most well known and yes, probably the most ubiquitous type of cheese that appears on your grilled cheese sandwich, cheese tray, mac’n cheese and even cheddar flavor popcorn. And for some of you, it is hard to imagine life without cheddar cheese. It is the most widely purchased and eaten cheese in the world, mostly made from cow’s milk. Cheddar is tangy with sweet undertones and has a unique sharp taste with a crystal crunch that many cheese lovers seek. That unique texture in this type of cheese gives it a really uniquely personal taste that perhaps is universally loved? I think both. Just talking about that texture of cheddar, I know that some like it creamy. Some like it crumblier, drier with crunch crystal bits.
So let’s look at the history of this cheese. Cheddar is originally an English cheese. It has been made since the 11th century around the village of Cheddar, England. It was typically a farm-made product. England was used to be the only place where Cheddar cheeses were made. Today, many countries all over the world manufacture Cheddar. Since it is not a protected name, any cheese producing company or any of the artisan manufacturers in any corner of the world can label the cheese produced by them as Cheddar.
In England, traditionally cheddar is shaped like a drum, 15 inches in diameter, has natural rind bound in cloth while its color generally ranges from white to pale yellow. However, some Cheddars may have an addition of annatto that gives that warm yellow-orange color. In other parts of the world, such as United States, Canada, New Zealand, Cheddar is aged in vacuum sealed plastic with sizes up to 40 pounds.
I once tasted Montgomery cheese from Somerset, a truly amazing English Cheddar, which costs about $40/lb. I can only concur that Joseph Harding, the “father of Cheddar cheese” who invented modern cheese making techniques described the ideal quality of original Somerset Cheddar as “close and firm in texture, mellow in character or quality, rich with a tendency to melt in the mouth and has a full and fine flavor somewhat like hazelnut!” It is indeed one the most refined Cheddars with a finish of umami of roast beef. This Cheddar is hand-formed into 60 pound cylinders by James Montgomery. Each cheese is wrapped with linen and rubbed with lard before aging. I have to thank my teacher in Vermont, Peter Dixon, who introduced me to this majestic Somerset Cheddar.
The clothbound cheddar, which is more of the traditional style of English cheddar, basically went extinct in the U.S. for some time until it was brought back. The people who are making those traditional style clothbound cheddars are: Grafton makes one, Cabot clothbound aged in Jasper Hill, the Flory’s Truckle from Missouri, the Fiscalini from California. They are the most amazing cheddars made in this country. Clothbound allows cheese to release moisture and concentrate its nuanced flavor with a little less sharp but more complex flavor generally. It is a challenging process but results in a more complex flavor. That explains the higher price point.
Most of time, likely in United States, we find a 40 pound block type cheddar that has a very different taste and texture profile. American style Cheddar cheeses from New York are more sharp/acidic with creamy texture. The aged cheddar from Wisconsin is sweeter. They both are creamier due to the fact of aging process that American Cheddars have: larger sizes using plastic that inhibits the loss of moisture. The creamier American Cheddars are much more suitable for cooking. There are some really amazing non-clothbound Cheddars because of the quality of the milk.
Today, American-style cheddar (block cheddar) is formed into large blocks that can weigh 600 pounds apiece. They are generally coated in wax or plastic to protect them while they age. This method results in flavors that can range from mild to extremely sharp depending on the length of the aging process.
Because plastic is airtight, these cheddars don’t lose moisture the way that a clothbound cheddar would. Generally clothbound cheddars are aged 12 months on average because the longer it is aged, there is risk of cheese of becoming too dry and cracked.
Back to plastic-aged cheddar or block cheddar. This type can age for an incredibly long time. Typically you can find average 3 years cheddar to 8 years cheddar at Reverie’s cheese shop or other shops. But there are 12-year-old cheddars and some records of cheddar being aged to 40 years.
So what is Sharpness in Cheese? I have to quote what Gianaclis Caldwell (cheese maker and well known author of cheese making books) said, “Sharp” is a colloquialism. Typically we don’t use it when judging or grading cheese, and it has no legal definition. You’ll hear it most often in the context of cheddar, where it’s sometimes synonymous with “aged.” For example, young cheddars are called “mild,” while those over a few months old might be called “sharp” or “extra sharp.”
Of course, sharp for one may taste less sharp of bitterness or even mild for others. In comparing the clothbound and block cheddar, in my opinion, there is no better one or lesser one. It is personal preference and how any person is more accustomed to one style or the other. They are just different and they must be respected and enjoyed in a different light. They both can be delicious. For example since clothbound cheddar can be pricier and dryer in texture, I would not put a slab of it in grilled cheese sandwich. It is probably best to be one of the darlings in cheese board. On the other hand, because block cheddar can be creamier and sharper, I thoroughly enjoy using it as one of the ingredients in my cooking or as snack by pairing it with local quince paste from Johnson Estate Winery, apple or with apple pie. Whichever you like, cheddar surely wins everyone’s taste bud!