While age used to be the hallmark of a good (and expensive) cheddar, mongers and foodies alike are now looking at how a cheese is aged to help gauge a cheddar’s quality. The delicious result? A newfound appreciation of the traditional clothbound method for aging cheddar.
Born in the middle ages in the town of Cheddar in Somerset, England, cheddar cheese is a decidedly UK invention. However, clothbound cheddar has a foggier, more disputed history. Previous theories state that just as the English invented the cheddar family, they also came up with the clothbound aging process. More recent historical evidence, however, presents a different story.
The idea of early US colonists inventing the clothbound method is one that has gained more traction in recent years. Utilizing one of early America’s bountiful natural resources, cotton was suddenly available for production purposes, and wrapping the cheese in cloth became a popular method to limit moisture loss and form a hard rind, better protecting the aging wheels of precious cheese from the unpredictable New World weather.
However, with the advent of wax coated cheddars, clothbound cheddars eventually fell out of favor. Wax fully sealed the cheese and shielded it from outside elements, meaning that cheesemakers didn’t have to carefully monitor the aging process. Additionally, coating cheddar in wax essentially eliminated evaporation and shrinkage, which left cheesemakers with more cheese to sell at the end of the aging process than the traditional clothbound method. However, the taste of wax coated cheddar does not compare with the clothbound version, which has a much more condensed, developed flavor and drier texture.
Today, clothbound cheddars are typically made by smaller producers, due in large part to the lengthy, labor intensive process of aging it appropriately. While that means that clothbounds may cost a little more, it also means that they are often made of higher quality milk from healthier cows from more sustainable producers.
How it’s Made
All cheddar, regardless of aging style, starts in the same way. Cheesemakers heat milk before adding starter culture and rennet and allowing curd to form. Once the curd has been cut into pieces and those curds have settled, the whey is poured off and the curds are allowed to drain in cheesecloth. As the curds drain, they begin to knit together into a solid mass. This mass is sliced into smaller loaves and stacked on top of one another. ,The weight from these curdy towers helps to drain off whey from the curds.
After repeating this stacking process (called “cheddaring”) several times over, the loaves form a long, dense curd structure. These loaves are broken back to curd form by hand or by machine, then salted and pressed to whatever shape the cheesemaker desires—though traditional clothbound cheddars are usually formed as a wheel. After the shape has set, the wheel is coated in some type of fat (typically lard), and wrapped in cotton cloth before being aged in a cool, humidity-controlled environment. The aging process can last anywhere from a few months to several years, depending on personal taste.
By the time the aging process is complete, bacteria has completely consumed the lard coating, leaving a flavorful rind in it’s place once the cloth is removed.
How to Eat it
Clothbound cheddars have a drier, crumblier texture than their wax or plastic wrapped cousins. But what it lacks in body, it makes up for with a round, earthy, and balanced flavor. However, not all clothbounds are created equal: Flavors can vary depending on age and the dairy animal’s diet, so always taste a new clothbound before purchasing the whole wheel.
In a glass: To balance its earthy flavor, clothbounds are best enjoyed with sweet, fruit forward wines or strong, medium-dry ciders.
On the cheeseboard: Smoked nuts harmonize with the full-bodied flavors of cheddar, while apple-pepper jelly adds a surprising twist. Include crusty french bread or neutral flavored crackers to avoid interfering with the other items being served.
In the kitchen: Clothbound cheddar melts beautifully in warm dishes, but let it be the star of the meal instead of a side player. Try it in Cheddar Corn Souffle, Inside Out Grilled Cheese, or Cheddar Polenta with Pan-Roasted Mushrooms.
Still stumped about how to find the right cheddar? Find tasting notes for over a dozen clothbound cheddars in our Cheese Library.