Cheddar takes its name from a village in southwest England's Somerset County, where production of this cheese began and can be traced to at least the end of the 16th century. Today there are a precious few British farmstead cheddar cheesemakers left and most of this cheese is factory produced in the U.K. and elsewhere. Unlike the names of many European cheeses, that of cheddar is not protected. And the truth is, the word "cheddar" no longer refers to just the name of the English village, but rather to the pressing process by which the cheese is made. With this technique, known as cheddaring, slabs of partially drained curd are stacked on top of each other and turned and restacked every 10 to 15 minutes for up to 1½ hours, which ensures that all slabs are evenly pressed. This produces a cheese with the characteristically smooth, tight texture of cheddar, cheshire and lancashire. Cheddar is now the most widely made cheese in the world, with production in myriad countries including Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden and the United States. Though factory-produced cheddars abound, there has been a renaissance of traditional cheesemaking in the U.K., United States, Australia and elsewhere. Cheddar can be made from raw or pasteurized cow's milk and can range in texture from semihard to hard. This cheese comes in a variety of sizes and shapes including rectangles and small wheels. Factory-produced cheddar is typically rindless and comes wrapped in plastic or covered with wax; the interior can range from off-white to orange. Farmstead cheeses have rinds that can range in color from golden brown to grayish brown; the paste varies from ivory to pale yellow. One signal of handmade cheddar is that it's wrapped in cloth. Another is that it isn't dyed orange with annatto. Texture-wise, cheddar is smooth and tight. Factory-produced cheeses are typically slick and can be slightly gummy; those that are handmade are generally somewhat crumbly or flaky. The flavor of factory cheddars can range from bland to sharp, while farmstead versions are full and complex with notes of caramel, fruit, nuts and spice. On the whole, mass-produced cheddars are second-rate compared to traditional handmade versions. In general, cheddars are labeled with four ripening designations: mild (about 2 to 4 months), medium (4 to 8 months), sharp (9 to 12 months), and extra-sharp (aged over 1 year). That's a very broad spectrum, however, and aging times for cheddars can vary widely, depending on the producer, many of which openly indicate the length of time the cheese has been ripened.
From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.