Cheddar was (and still is) one of the most popular types of cheese in early cheesemaking. In the nineteenth century, it was especially common for the dairywoman to make cheddar for her family on the subsistence farm.
To do so, she would heat milk on the stove to a temperature of 82 to 86°F. Rennet, curdled milk containing the enzyme rennin, would be added to the milk. The dairywoman would stir the mixture until it thickened and formed a solid cheese curd. She would then poke the curd with a finger, lift it to the surface, and determine whether it broke cleanly from the whey. If this occurred, and the separated whey was translucent without “milkiness”, the curd was ready to be cut.
The curd knife was an important piece of equipment in early cheesemaking. Cutting the curd allowed the whey to drain more easily and quickly. This separation of the curds and whey allowed the curd to shrink and condense. Ideally, the curd would be sliced into 3/8-inch to 1/2-inch cubes, which were promptly agitated until they formed an outer membrane. This “skin” prevented the cubes from adhering to one another. The dairywoman would then complete the cheesemaking process, which included heating the curd, cheddaring, grinding, salting, pressing, and eventually aging.