It’s both a melty mac ’n’ cheese staple and a crystalline alternative to aged Gouda or Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s equally tasty melted into grits, enchiladas or apple pie. This cheese chameleon? Cheddar, of course.
Cheddar is the second most popular cheese in the U.S. after mozzarella. Though it’s named for the English town where it was originally made, Cheddar doesn’t enjoy protected status in any country, unlike Asiago, Roquefort or Manchego. (“West Country Farmhouse Cheddar,” however, is a UK designation given to cheese made in four counties with local milk and traditional methods.)
This isn’t necessarily a negative, says cheese expert Gordon Edgar, author of Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015).
“What I love about Cheddar is the diversity of flavors encompassed by the name,” Edgar says. “As a cheese monger, I can get people to explore cheese by giving them tastes of three Cheddars that have totally different flavor attributes.”
For maximum flavor, Edgar recommends Cheddars aged at least nine months.
So if Cheddar has no legal definition, what is it?
“Cheddar probably derives from Cantal, a French cheese that’s less dense and dates back almost 2,000 years,” says Edgar. “Other cheeses from England are similar, such as Cheshire. American-derived cheese like Monterey Jack and Colby share historic lineage, but Cheddar is generally more varied and complex.
“In the U.S., the Code of Federal Regulations defines Cheddar in a very unromantic way: ‘The minimum milk fat content is 50% by weight of the solids, and the maximum moisture content is 39% by weight.’ That’s why so many cheeses that look and taste very different can be called Cheddar.”
“Sharp” is an unregulated term. An “extra sharp” Cheddar from one company may be less sharp than someone else’s “sharp.”
He continues: “Probably the easiest way to draw a line is between ‘traditional’ and ‘block’ Cheddar. Traditional is made in a wheel, bound in cloth, rubbed in lard, butter or oil and aged. It has to be cared for, rubbed, flipped and brushed until ready.
“Block Cheddar is, by far, what’s usually eaten in the U.S., encased in plastic before aging. This seal is more efficient in reducing the amount of care needed during aging, but there are taste differences. Block can achieve a sharpness usually lacking in traditional Cheddars, because they can age longer in plastic and still be edible 20 years or more.
“But traditional clothbound Cheddars are more complex, often meaty, earthy, dank, more acidic and crumbly.”
Pairing Wine and Cheddar Cheese
When pairing with aged Cheddar, don’t be shy. The dense texture and concentrated flavors of fruit, nuts and earth call for pairings with power. In the same way that Cheddar cheese and apple pie work to enhance richness and complexity (also see: salted caramel), look for prominent fruit and even a bit of sweetness.
Roasty, malt-driven beers are fantastic (stouts, porters, brown ales), as are dry ciders and gently sweet white wines like demi-sec Vouvray or Jurançon. Bigger, tannic reds, which don’t work with young or creamy cheeses, are also terrific. The wine balances the Cheddar’s fat and protein, which soften the tannins in the wine and accentuates the fruit.
“Definitely go with a big red if you’re serving a clothbound Cheddar,” says Rachel Freier, beverage director for Murray’s Cheese Bar, the restaurant that adjoins Manhattan’s famous Murray’s Cheese shop.
Some great food affinities with Cheddar:
Apples, pears, onions, corn, tomato, cauliflower, green chilies, steak
For the sweetness and grassiness of a Cheddar like Flory’s Truckle, Freier says, “go for a red with lots of fruit and earth like the Tamarack Firehouse Red, a 10-grape blend from Washington State. And the Merlot-heavy Bordeaux blend Clos de la Cure Saint-Émilion Grand Cru 2014 pairs perfectly with Cabot Clothbound’s earthy and umami notes.”
For melted Cheddar dishes, Freier suggests thinking in terms of contrast.
“We use Cheddar in our mac ’n’ cheese blend, and I like pairing something melty and gooey with a sparkling wine with some fruit, as the bubbles help cleanse your palate between bites,” she says. Freier recommends Cleto Chiarli’s Lambrusco and Adami’s Garbèl Prosecco.
Gordon Edgar’s Cheddar Recommendations
Quicke’s Vintage Cheddar. “Made in the traditional Cheddar region of England on a 500-year-old farm, this is the longest-aged clothbound Cheddar commercially available to buy, and it’s amazing. Big, complex, earthy, sweet, milky, nutty and worth seeking out.”
Flory’s Truckle. “From Missouri, this is much sweeter than a traditional clothbound Cheddar. Crumbly and almost like grassy cheese candy!”
Fiscalini Bandage Wrapped Extra Mature Cheddar. “Probably the most English of the clothbounds made in the USA, it is made in California by Mariano Gonzalez, the cheesemaker who helped bring clothbound Cheddar making back to the USA after it was abandoned for a couple of decades.”
The yellow-orange color of many Cheddars is from annatto seed or paprika extract, and they contribute virtually no flavor. It was originally used to simulate cheese made from the prized raw milk of Jersey and Guernsey cows raised on beta carotene-rich grass.
Grafton 2 Year Aged (and beyond). “From Vermont, this is regional Cheddar at its finest. Raw milk, grassy, sulfurous and bitter sharp. This is what you expect a Cheddar to taste like if you are from New England.”
Widmer’s 2 Year Aged Cheddar. “From the town of Theresa, this is from a multi-generation cheesemaking family in the factory below where generations of the family grew up. It doesn’t get more Wisconsin than this.”
Prairie Breeze. “From Milton Creamery in Iowa, this is a new-school Cheddar combining starter cultures usually found in other cheeses to make a crystalline, sweet and sharp cheese. Once people try this, they often can’t go back to anything else.”
Some of our favorite Cheddar dishes from around the country:
Beef tartare with smoked Cheddar and chestnut
Savory éclair with pork belly and Cheddar
Grilled Cheddar on cranberry-walnut bread with truffle honey & a duck egg
Gnocchi “al telefono” with eggplant, tomato, basil and Cheddar curds
Kimchi, bacon & Cheddar scone
Cheddar agnolotti, sweet peas, country ham
Black-and-white savory cookies with apple and Cheddar
RECIPE: Easy Welsh Rabbit
There are as many recipes for Welsh Rabbit (the term “Welsh Rarebit” came later) as there are cheese lovers. But no matter the recipe, this zesty cheese-on-toast is always satisfying. This version has especially intense Cheddar flavor. By not melting it into a béchamel, this dish comes together quickly and—in the spirit of Welsh Rabbit being a quick use for leftovers—doesn’t even dirty any pans. Try red wine or Port in place of beer for a uniquely colored “English Rabbit.” You can also alternatively melt this mixture gently over low heat (being careful not to boil) and pour over toast.
- 12 ounces very sharp grated Cheddar cheese
- 6 tablespoons flat brown ale, porter or stout
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard (English mustard powder)
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 3 egg yolks
- 4 1-inch slices sturdy whole-wheat bread
- Butter, to taste
Preheat broiler and put double layer of sturdy aluminum foil about 5 inches from heat. In a food processor, purée cheese, beer, mustard, Worcestershire and yolks (or mix into paste in bowl).
Lightly butter one side of the toast. Broil until well-toasted, 1–2 minutes (watch carefully). Turn bread over, and cook for about 30 seconds. Divide cheese mixture equally among slices, covering to the edges. Return to broiler. Cook until cheese is bubbly and brown in spots, about 2 minutes. Serves 4.