There’s a lot – a whole lot, evidently – to know and tell about Cheddar. It’s an icon in America, though it’s an unfortunate fact that many Americans associate this noble cheese with blue, pre-shredded plastic packets and processed bricks made by faceless companies, tons at a time.
And while those cheeses have their place, that place isn’t Scardello, where Rich Rogers procures and sells the best cheeses he can find on this earth. Rich was kind enough to have a chat with us to clear some things up about Cheddar – and you might want to get comfortable; there’s a lot to say about it.
So we’ll start at the beginning. What is Cheddar?
Actually, Cheddar’s an interesting word because it really can mean a lot of different things, both as a noun and a verb. For instance, I can have Cheddar on a plate. But then it’s also a place: Cheddar, England, which is where it got its name. But people would also go to Gorge of Cheddar, which was a natural attraction, and they’d come home with cheese. People would say “where’d you get cheese?”
“Gorge of Cheddar.”
And then Cheddar’s a verb; to cheddar, which describes the cheddaring process. And that’s what we’ll start with.
Like all cheese, Cheddar starts out with milk in a vat. The cheese maker then adds starter culture – which is the bacterial cocktail that gives the cheese its ultimate flavor and starts the cheese-making process –and they add rennet, which is an enzyme which helps to quickly coagulate the milk.
Then, when the curd is formed, they cut it and stir it. The point of cutting the curd is to release the milk solids from the liquid – the curd from the whey. After they cut and stir the curd, and it’s where it’s supposed to be, they start the cheddaring process.
To start the cheddaring process, the cheese makers will form large loaves of cheese curd, and then they stack those on top of each other in the vat. The weight releases more whey, and the acidity level in the curd rises. When the acidity gets to the right point, they run those loaves through what’s called the cheddar mill, which is like a wood chipper for cheese; it creates finger size pieces of cheese curd, which is then salted to stop the acidification process. The reason they do it that way is if you salted those large loaves the acidity level in the center of those loaves wouldn’t be affected. So, if you’ve ever been to Wisconsin and had squeaky curd, what you’re eating is Cheddar cheese curd.
And that curd has already been salted?
Yeah, it’s been salted; otherwise it would be horrible. That’s the point in the process where they stop and sell fresh curd.
The next step in the cheddaring process, though, is where they put all those pieces of curd into a form or hoop. They then put that on a special table where they stack the forms on top of each other and they press it; that releases more whey because with traditional Cheddar, you want to get rid of as much liquid as possible so that it can age longer.
The next step is for them to take the cheese out of its hoop or form and wrap it in cloth, which is where you get the term ‘cloth bound’ or ‘bandage wrapped’ Cheddar. And then they slather that cloth with lard or olive oil or butter – what that does is protect the cheese as it’s being aged. The lard or oil or butter doesn’t really get into the cheese too much, though; it’s really more of a protective layer – it’s the rind that’s created. And so then that cheese goes into an aging room. Typically with a traditional cheese it will age for a year or more.
After it’s been in the aging room, they take care of the cheese; it’s not just put it in a dark room and left alone. The cheese maker will flip it, brush down the mold that grows on the outside, and then it’s ready.
So a lot of times people, there’s a misnomer where you hear the term ‘well, I like white Cheddar.’ Um, really what people are typically referring to is traditional Cheddar, English farmhouse-style Cheddar. The bandage-wrapped Cheddar. Typically those Cheddars do not have the color agent annatto added to them. Those Cheddars are typically sharper because they’ve been aged and because of the cultures that are used. That’s why people say white Cheddar- because it’s not the processed yellow Cheddar. Even Kraft makes a white Cheddar, but basically what they’ve done is they’ve made their typical processed Cheddar – they just haven’t added the coloring and they’ve used the cultures that make it sharper.
So where did the coloring come from? Why did it start?
There are three long-winded theories about this, and I’m going to give them to you – remember, you’re in for a treat today: you said Cheddar, and there’s a lot to tell about Cheddar.
The first theory rests on the thought that color denotes age. For instance, if you’ve ever had a very old Gouda, you’ll notice that it has a dark, caramely color, versus a young Gouda, which is going to have a light yellow color. So the theory there is that cheese makers would add annatto to their cheese to make it seem as though it were older, therefore fetching a higher price.
The second theory is that color also can denote summer milk. There’s a big difference in color between cheese that’s been made by cows that are eating fresh grasses and flowers versus cows that are eating dried-out hay, which is more of a white color because there is not the beta-carotene transfer from the grass to the milk. So summer milk is more flavorful, and again, fetches a higher price. If somebody added the coloring to pretend it was summer milk, they would get more money.
My favorite theory, though, is that there was a woman in England making a particular cheese, and doing quite well with it, until some imposter started making a similar cheese and was claiming it was hers – kind of like those guys on the street corners of New York with the handbags. So to differentiate her cheese from the competitors, to let people know it was the real deal she added the annatto to it to foil her imposter’s competition.
So the annatto doesn’t affect the flavor?
Annatto does not affect the flavor. It’s a natural coloring. And there are some traditionally made cheeses that use annatto. For example, Red Leicester and Cheshire are both cloth-bound, traditionally-made cheeses, but a lot of times when we see that coloring we think about processed Cheddars like Tillamook or Kraft.
Is it the specific process that makes it Cheddar cheese?
Officially, to be a Cheddar, it does have to go through the Cheddaring process, so yeah, that’s really what defines it, though there are some hybrids. For instance, one of our most popular cheeses is Beeches Flagship Reserve, and with Flagship, you won’t see the word Cheddar anywhere on the label. It does go through the Cheddaring process, but what differentiates it is rather than using Cheddar cultures, the cheese maker uses Gruyere cultures. And so, what happens is you end up with some really wonderful sweet notes in the finish. Um, versus some of the tell-tell sharpness you find in a more traditional Cheddar.
Speaking of Tillamook and Kraft, do you think Cheddar has a fair reputation in America today?
I think the unfortunate part is that when most people hear the word Cheddar, they think of a processed cheese that’s great for their kids’ quesadillas, but maybe not great for sitting around with friends after a meal and snacking on, or as an appetizer. I don’t think everybody knows that there’s an entire world of great, flavorful handmade cheese out there. I think people are starting to seek out well made hand crafted Cheddars. You know, I love Cheddar cheese because it is so accessible. If you take a nice Cheddar to a group of people, almost everybody’s going to like it, and a lot of them are going to be wowed with just how flavorful it is. Real hand-made Cheddars are typically a little more expensive because there’s a lot more labor and time involved. There’s so much more flavor, so it’s something you can use less of and get more enjoyment from, and there’s a bunch of great Cheddar producers throughout the United States. There’s great Cheddar being made in Vermont, California, even here in Texas. And of course Wisconsin. It’s deservedly a very popular cheese and when it’s made right, it’s stunning.
Of all the cheeses in the world, why did Cheddar get so big in America?
I think part of it is that America – and I don’t know if this is a good thing – started the very first cheese factory in the world in New York. And part of that was really to supply the UK with more cheese. They weren’t able to produce enough and we were producing Cheddar and sending it back over to the UK for consumption. And I think that that’s probably one of the reasons that Cheddars got so big. Another thing about handmade Cheddar is the texture is completely different. I mean it’s, you’ve got this kind of crumbliness you can see, you know, in a piece of Cheddar you can literally see where those pieces of cheese curd that have kind of fused together, you can see the lines in a Cheddar. That’s one of the ways you can always pick one out if it wasn’t labeled. You could look at it, go, okay that’s Cheddar cheese by the way it crumbles and kind of how it looks.
So are sharp, mild, Colby, are those recent terms, traditional terms, and what do they mean?
I don’t know the origins, but I would imagine those are large processors’ terms to help differentiate the strength of flavor of the cheeses. When it comes to handmade Cheddars, a lot of times it just depends on the producer, and the age of the cheese. Montgomery’s Cheddar, which has been made by the Montgomery family for more than 500 years, is about as traditional as you can get. Their two-year-old Cheddar is going to be really sharp and grassy whereas something like Cabot, which is cloth-bound from Vermont has got some sharpness to it, but it’s really got more of a sweetness in the finish. Part of that’s because it’s 10-12 months old versus 2 years and, of course, the different terrior.
Do you have a favorite right now?
Cabot is kind of my go to Cheddar. What’s cool about Cabot is that they make a whole lot of vacuumed-sealed grocery store cheese, processed Cheddar. But a number of years ago they approached one of the smaller cheese producers in Vermont at the time, Jasper Hill Farm, and said ‘look, we want to make a handmade Cheddar. But we obviously can’t age something that’s going to get really moldy in the type of facility we have.’ So they approached Jasper Hill about aging their cheese there. One of the stipulations that Mateo and his brother Andy put on the process, though, was that it couldn’t be pooled milk. They were going to need to use the milk from just one of the co-ops. So they did that, and at three days old, once it’s been taken out of the form and wrapped in cloth, it goes to Jasper Hill. And because of Cabot’s popularity and the awards that it’s won, Jasper Hill was able to create the premier aging facility in the United States; it’s an amazing facility for aging cheese, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Cabot.
Can you describe the flavor?
It’s grassy, there’s a certain earthiness to it, but there’s a wonderful sweetness as well. To me, it’s like the perfect amount of sharp. It doesn’t zing you in the mouth, you don’t get that real big bite, but there is a bite there. It’s also a really pretty Cheddar; Cabot’s usually got an amazing slightly yellow gold color depending on its age. I always love to rip off all that cloth and make a gigantic mess and pop a new wheel open. That’s always a fantastic day at the shop.
What are some Ideal uses for a good Cheddar, say in this instance the Cabot?
Well, obviously it’s good just to eat. It’s a phenomenal snacking cheese and it looks great on a plate. A lot of people think about using Cheddar to melt on things and it’s good for that – it would be good on a burger or what have you – but because it’s not a cooked and pressed cheese like a mountain cheese, when Cheddar melts it tends to throw a certain amount of oil as it’s melting; traditionally made Cheddars don’t melt super smoothly. A fantastic use that the Brits came up with is melting a little Cheddar on an apple pie – that’s phenomenal. Cheddar is great to eat with pickles – pickles and Cheddar just seem to be phenomenal pair, whether it’s cornichons, butter pickles or spears. And it is a good cooking cheese – I’ve done mac and cheese with the Cabot, and that’s phenomenal stuff.
So would you ever be caught with a bag of Kraft Shredded Cheddar Cheese?
Well, we do usually have processed Cheddar in our house, but we try to get something that’s a little bit more flavorful, so usually we’ve got a block of Tillamook. Tillamook makes a good processed Cheddar, and I mean, if I’m going to make quesadillas for the kids, I’m probably not going to use Beecher’s, because they’ll be fine with the Tillamook. But for snacking purposes, traditional Cheddar is where it’s at.