From California to Vermont, cheesemakers are producing some top-tier cheddars by hand.
Published Sept. 23, 2022.
I grew up on the border of Wisconsin, so I love cheddar and always keep a block (or two) in my fridge. Even so, I was an adult when I realized how vast the world of cheddar is. I was a new cheesemonger tasked with cutting big 40-pound blocks and smaller wheels of cheddar into individual pieces. When I cut into Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, an artisanal cheese from Vermont, I realized it was covered in strips of fabric that had to be peeled away. It’s obvious in retrospect—clothbound means “wrapped in fabric”—but I’d never seen anything like it. The cheese’s crumbly texture, caramel sweetness, and earthiness were also a pleasant, eye-opening surprise.
Although most of us have a clear idea of what cheddar looks and tastes like, it’s a difficult cheese to define succinctly. “It is all things to all people,” as The Oxford Companion to Cheese (2016) puts it. It’s available in an incredible variety of shapes, sizes, flavors, textures, colors, and ages. We’ve written before about sharp cheddar and extra-sharp cheddar. For this story, I focused on artisanal cheddars—that is, those that are made by hand—so I went to Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vermont, to shadow head cheesemaker Helen Cowan and observe the process firsthand.
The milk used to make cheddar can be raw—as it is at Shelburne Farms—but it’s typically pasteurized. The milk is heated and then specific strains of cultures are added for flavor. To tint the cheese bright yellow or deep shades of orange, makers sometimes add annatto (a flavorless dye derived from the seeds of the achiote tree). Enzymes or rennet are added to make the milk thicken and form a gel the consistency of soft yogurt. The gel is cut into cubes that are drained, heated, and allowed to fuse together into curds.
Next comes the step that gives the cheese its name: cheddaring. The curds are drained, pressed together, and cut into rectangular slabs. To remove moisture and ensure that the eventual cheese has a uniform and elastic texture, the slabs are stacked and turned at regular intervals. At Shelburne Farms, Cowan and cheesemaker Sam Zinner methodically flipped over each slab of curds and also alternated its position in the stack. They then fed the slabs through a machine that resembled a wood chipper, producing curds roughly two inches long. Finally, they salted the curds and packed them into stainless-steel forms that were pressed to remove still more moisture. For aging, the cheeses are removed from the forms and moved to underground caves or large walk-in refrigerators. Depending on the size and style of the cheddar, aging lasts months or even yea...
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Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.