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Cooking with Cheddar

Fine Cooking Issue 57
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Photo: Scott Phillips
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In addition to being a popular companion to the cracker, sharp Cheddar is ideal for cooking because it melts smoothly without losing its body. We had lots of sharp Cheddar left in the test kitchen after one of our blind tastings, so we made Baked Potato & Leek Soup with Cheddar & Bacon one day for lunch to use some of it up. It was so satisfying, we thought we should share the recipe. For more of a tangy bite, you can use extra-sharp Cheddar instead of sharp, but it may not melt as smoothly because it has a lower moisture content.

When is sharp extra-sharp?

During our Cheddar tasting, we were taken aback by how much the cheeses varied in degree of sharpness, some seeming more like a mild Cheddar than a sharp. As it turns out, there are no federal standards for how to define the degree of sharpness in a Cheddar. For our favorite in the tasting, the manufacturer ages it anywhere from five to eight months (Cabot has two tasters who gauge when a batch has reached its desired sharpness). Other manufacturers can only promise that their cheese was aged for at least two months. (Some use certain enzymes that accelerate the aging process.)

Nor are there federal rules for how a Cheddar is made. Originally made in Cheddar Gorge, England, Cheddar is traditionally made by packing coagulated milk curds into slabs, and then stacking and turning them repeatedly to expel as much liquid (whey) as possible (a process known as “cheddaring”). Most mass-market American brands stir the curds, press out the whey in machine-operated vats, and age the cheese in plastic. The result is often a less complex tasting, more homogeneously textured cheese.

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