Of the more than 2,000 varieties of cheese made around the world, one rules supreme: cheddar. It’s more than just a New England farmstead staple; it’s the most popular variety of cheese worldwide, and also the most studied—more than 1,400 scientific publications mention it in their titles. If any cheese holds a key place in the academic world, it’s cheddar. Here’s what you need to know about what you might call the cheese of ideas.
In the United States, where each person consumes an average of 32.6 pounds of cheese a year (still far behind Greece, say, where people eat more than twice that amount), cheddar was long the number one seller. But the most popular variety in the United States for the past few years has been mozzarella, mainly due to the increasing popularity of pizza and string cheese. Production of mozzarella first surpassed that of cheddar in 2001 and has stayed ahead every year since 2006.
First produced in Cheddar, Somerset County, in the 12th century, cheddar is today made not only all over England, but also in countries including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, and in such American states as Wisconsin, California, and Vermont. Where it is no longer made is in Cheddar itself, though some is still aged in caves at Cheddar Gorge, a picturesque limestone gorge near the village.
Cheddar is distinguished from most other cheeses by a process—cheddaring—in which slabs of curd are stacked on top of each other, then later flipped over to squeeze out the whey.
Without added color, cheddar is a creamy pale yellow. Studies have shown that color affects our expectations of the flavor of food; some people perceive orange cheddar to be richer than yellow cheddar, though their fat contents and flavors are identical. Orange cheddar is colored with annatto, which comes from the achiote tree found in Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America.
Usually, cheddar is aged up to 15 months, though older cheeses are sometimes sold as well. In 2012, some cheddars that had been accidentally aged in wooden boxes for 28, 34, 39, and 40 years were discovered in the back of a cooler in Wisconsin, and were found to be very sharp but creamy.
Most hard cheeses are enlargeable, unlike softer varieties that would collapse when you removed them from a form. The largest cheese prior to the 20th century was a 22,000-pound cheddar made in Perth, Ontario, for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. A even larger cheese—more than 34,000 pounds and 14 feet across—was made for the Wisconsin Pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York. The current record holder is a 56,850-pound cheddar made in Oregon by the Federation of American Cheese-makers in 1989.
The sharper the cheese, the more flavor compounds it has; a young cheese often has just a few. According to professor Robert McGorrin of Oregon State University (and formerly of Kraft Foods), cheddar cheese has from 750 to 1,000 volatile compounds, with about 250 of them being significant contributors to flavor.
Experts have developed a specific lexicon of words to describe possible flavors in cheddar; these include bell pepper, brothy, catty, cooked, cowy, fecal, fruity, milkfat, moldy, nutty, floral, scorched, sulfur, waxy, and yeasty. Ideally, the texture is firm and slightly crumbly; possible body and texture defects include corky (dry and hard), crumbly (falls apart), curdy (rubbery), gassy (eyes or holes), mealy (grainy), open (spaces in the interior), pasty (sticky), short (flaky), and weak (soft).
Michael H. Tunick is a research chemist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the author of “The Science of Cheese” (Oxford University Press), from which this article is adapted.