Milk: Pasteurized/Raw Cow's Milk
Age: 1-10 years
Price: Varies largely
It's amazing that I've taken this long to get here, reviewing the most ubiquitous of all cheeses: cheddar. In truth, though I felt the need to validate Swiss cheeses, cheddar is perhaps the most maligned of all. I can't even begin to think about the sort of dyed, ultra-processed cheese products that either go under the name of cheddar or are seeking to capitalize on its famous yellow color.
I'll start off with that, the yellow color of cheddar. It's a natural dye called annatto. Though it is a completely harmless natural substance, it contributes nothing to the cheese. "White cheddar" is just cheddar without annatto. So what defines cheddar? The name cheddar is actually a reference to a unique process called cheddaring, where the curd is cut, stacked and turned to help expel whey.
It is no surprise that cheddar is so well loved in this country. Its flavor, a mixture of caramel-like sweetness and saltiness, is perfectly suited to the American palate. Though some could argue that is a carryover from the English palate, with their ploughman's lunch.
There is also the matter of sharpness to address. In cheddar, I define sharpness as the amount of acidity in the flavor of the cheese. This acidity increases as the cheese ages. A young cheddar, aged 1 year or less, will be very mild, sweet and salty, with a mellow flavor and softer texture. I, personally, find 2 to 3 years to be the perfect balance of flavors, though some love the added punch of additional aging. I've even found cheddars that are as old as 8 to 10 years, a bit excessive in my book.
Speaking of the English, I should mention the sub-classification of cheddar, the English-style cheddar. In this case, though there are still some (in my opinion, substandard) English cheeses encased in wax, the cheese is traditionally wrapped in cloth and sometimes rubbed in lard while it ages. The end result contains a certain earthiness; a mustiness imparted by the cloth. I feel this is a far more complex and interesting flavor than the famous Vermont or Wisconsin cheddars.
When it comes to pairings, I'm a bit of a purist and consider wine nothing short of heresy. Cheddar is an English cheese and should be enjoyed with one of the country's favorite drinks: beer. If you want to get really authentic, a pint of Pale Ale is the only way to go.
If you're looking for good cheddar, here are two I can heartily recommend:
Keen's Cheddar: An English cheddar and probably one of the best and if not the best cheddar I've ever had. In fact, I'd put it amongst my top 10 cheeses. It has all of the characteristics of an English cheddar, which I described above, along with a perfectly balanced acidic bite.
Cabot Clothbound Cheddar: Produced by cheddar giants, Cabot (you know, those folks who supply the shrink-wrapped cheese in the supermarket), this limited production cheddar is then aged in fellow Vermont residents, Jasper Hill's, caves. Like the English cheeses, it's also wrapped in cloth and has an amazing crunch and toffee like sweetness. It won American Cheese Society 'Best in Show' in 2006. I've seen customers fight over the last piece of this cheese.
What are your favorite cheddars? Do you like the bite of the aged Grafton Village offerings? Do you like to feed your conscience, as well, with the organic farmstead cheeses of Neighborly farms? Let me know in the comments.