One of the great flavors of fall is an underappreciated collection of cheeses that we generically call “cheddar.” There’s something about their tangy yet mellow flavor that just says “autumn” — at least it does to me.
That may partly be because cheddar and crackers were a favorite after-school snack in my youth. More than once my mother came home from work to find a knife in the refrigerator. She knew to go retrieve the cheese from the knife drawer.
But that’s a tale for another day.
Back to that cheddar, which unfortunately is so commonplace that it’s taken for granted and rarely given the respect it deserves.
True Cheddar is an aged hard cow’s milk cheese that, like French and Italian cheeses, takes its name from its place of origin, in this case the village of Cheddar in Somersetshire, a county in the Southwestern corner of England.
It has a deep history in Savannah because, like Parmesan and a few other hard cheeses, it was a good traveler, so it was one of the most commonly imported cheeses in our Colonial era.
Today, the variety of cheddars in our markets is dizzying. The reason is that unlike Brie, Camembert, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Roquefort and the like, its name wasn’t regulated and has been carelessly used. So what we usually find is a “cheddar-style” cheese that may be a true hard cheese or only a semi-hard one, it might be smooth and creamy or hard and crumbly, mildly tangy or arrestingly sharp.
Because of that, most cheddars are labeled descriptively: “mild,” “sharp,” “extra-sharp,” and so forth, and a few good cheesemakers will tell you how long the cheese was aged.
The reason age matters is that while there are a number of things that contribute to a really good cheddar, proper aging is how it gets its character. It’s what sharpens and deepens the color and flavor. It also changes its texture, since a part of the aging process is a loss of moisture. Mature hard cheeses become less creamy and more dense and crumbly.
A really fine, properly-aged cheddar will have the same straw-yellow color and dense texture of a good Parmigiano-Reggiano. If allowed to age long enough under the right conditions, it also develops a natural rind and may be flecked the same white protein crystals that are the mark of a well-aged Parmigiano.
So, why are most of the cheeses that go by that name in our country not yellow but either orange or white and never have a rind?
Most any cheese is milk-white when it’s new. Only when it’s allowed to age over a long period does its color deepen and its outer surface harden and mold.
Except for small, artisanal cheesemakers, commercial cheddar is aged in blocks, the process is tightly controlled and often accelerated, and is rarely long enough for the color to develop on its own. Most of them get no deeper than creamy off-white.
The environment is so tightly controlled that a rind doesn’t really develop, or if it does, it’s removed.
The cheddar we grew up with was orange not because it was aged but because of a centuries-old practice of imitating the color of a well-aged cheese by adding annatto, a natural vegetable dye made from the seeds of the tropical achiote tree.
Over time it became so common that, eventually, most Americans came to expect cheddar to be orange. Today, few artisanal dairies still add annatto, but most commercial dairies add it to at least some of their cheeses, since many cooks, myself included, still prefer that orange color in certain traditional dishes.
For many of us, our old cheesy favorites like cheese straws, pimiento cheese, and baked mac and cheese just don’t look right made with a white cheese.
That said, there’s no taste difference, so if appearances aren’t an issue, you can use orange and white cheddars interchangeably. While annatto does have a flavor, there’s not enough in the cheese for even a discerning palate to notice.
How to choose
So, how does a person choose from all those blocks of orange and white in the market? Read the label.
A good cheese will have no more than four ingredients (unless it’s flavored with wine, herbs or spices): milk, cheese culture, salt and enzymes.
Source is another indicator: Look for cheese-makers in places that have developed a time-honored reputation for good cheddar, such as New York state, Vermont, Ireland or, if you’re lucky enough to find it, England.
Cost is not a fool-proof indicator, but is helpful. If the cheese is inexpensive, you can bet it’s not going to be good. I look for a reliable brand on sale and stock up. It keeps indefinitely when properly stored in the refrigerator.
What you never want is anything labeled “American cheese.”
What, you may well ask, is “American cheese?”
That’s a very good question, since most things that go by that name are cheese in name only. It’s simply an orange-colored, unaged cheese-like product that was meant to vaguely imitate cheddar, but in reality has nothing in common with it other than salt and orange dye. Sometimes it doesn’t even contain enough milk to be called a dairy product.
Try substituting a good cheddar for that stuff in your next grilled cheese or on your next cheeseburger or patty melt. Trust me: You will never go back to it.
Cheddar on the Board
You don’t need a recipe to serve and enjoy cheddar at its best. You barely even have to touch it. Just plop it onto a knife-friendly surface (wood or bamboo), stick a hard-cheese knife in it, and surround it with crackers or a crusty bread that won’t fight with its flavor.
Experts and tastemakers recommend serving most cheeses at room temperature. But I actually prefer cheddar a little cooler — especially a younger one that’s still somewhat creamy: Not straight from the fridge cold, but still not quite room temperature.
You can make other additions to the board as they suit you. Cheddar is great with almonds, pecans, walnuts and peanuts, and really shines with all autumn-season fruit, from apples and pears, to late plums, figs and grapes.
If you want to do a full cheese board, try it with a creamy blue such as Gorgonzola or Roquefort, a mellow soft-ripened cheese such as Camembert, Brie or St. Andre, a mild semi-soft cheese such as Havarti, or a plain log of goat cheese.
Skillet Cheddar Beef and Macaroni
The same idea as “Hamburger Helper” this one-pan dish is also called “cheeseburger macaroni.” Take the time to do fresh onions and garlic and to grate your own cheese. Make it a one-dish meal by adding 2 cups of green peas in step 4 before adding the macaroni and beef. Serves 4.
• ½ pound elbow macaroni
• Canola or olive oil
• 1 pound ground beef
• Whole black pepper in a mill
• 1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and chopped
• 1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh or 2 teaspoons crumbled, dried oregano
• 2 cups whole milk, heated
• 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold milk
• 2 tablespoons tomato ketchup
• Worcestershire sauce
• 8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar, coarsely grated (about 2 cups)
1. Bring 2 quarts water to rolling boil over medium-high heat in large, deep, heavy-bottomed 12- to 14-inch skillet. Stir in macaroni and 1 tablespoon salt and cook until almost tender, a little more than half package’s recommended cooking time. Drain into colander and set aside.
2. Film bottom of same skillet with oil and return to heat. When warmed, crumble in beef and brown lightly, breaking it up as it browns. Season with salt and pepper and transfer with slotted spoon to macaroni. Gently toss to mix (this will help keep macaroni from sticking together).
3. Spoon off all but 2 teaspoons fat from pan and add onion. Sauté, stirring often, until translucent and pale gold, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and oregano and stir until fragrant, about 15-20 seconds. Stir in milk and let heat through. Stir cornstarch and cold milk solution and add to pan, stirring constantly until sauce thickens.
4. Stir in ketchup and few dashes Worcestershire. Fold in macaroni and beef and simmer until macaroni is tender and beef is cooked through, about 3 minutes. Fold in cheese and stir until until it melts completely and sauce is creamy. Taste and correct seasonings and Serve at once.
Cheddar Potato Bake
The same idea as twice-baked potatoes without the long double-bake and fuss of scooping out and re-stuffing the skins. You may also make it really rich by substituting ¾-1 cup of sour cream for the milk and butter. Serves 4.
• 2 pounds russet baking potatoes
• 3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in bits
• About ½ cup whole milk, warmed
• 3-4 scallions, washed, trimmed, and thinly sliced (about ½ cup)
• 1-4 slices crumbled crisp-cooked bacon, optional
• Whole black pepper in a mill
• 1½ cups (6 ounces) extra-sharp cheddar, coarsely grated
1. Scrub potatoes well under cold running water. Do not peel but cut into 1-inch chunks. Put in heavy-bottomed 3-quart pot and add water to completely cover. Bring to boil over medium-high heat. Add large pinch of salt and adjust heat to medium. Cook until potatoes are tender, about 6-8 minutes, depending on potatoes.
2. Meanwhile, position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375° F. Butter a 2-quart shallow casserole or gratin dish. When potatoes are tender, drain well and return to pot. Add 2 tablespoons butter and using potato masher, mash potatoes skins and all, mixing well with butter. Add more butter to taste, then slowly add milk to consistency of mashed potatoes.
3. Fold in scallions and bacon if using. Season lightly with salt and pepper and stir in 1 cup cheese. Taste and adjust salt and pepper and stir well. Turn potatoes into prepared casserole and smooth top. Sprinkle remaining ½ cup cheese over all and bake until lightly browned on top, about 30 minutes. Let stand 5-10 minutes before serving.
Gratin of Butternut Squash, Fall Greens and Bacon
• 1 large (about 2-2½ pounds) butternut squash
• ¼ pound fresh young kale or collard leaves
• 4 slices extra-thick cut applewood bacon, cut into large dice
• 1 cup sliced shallot or yellow onion (about 3-4 shallots or 1 medium onion)
• 1 clove garlic, crushed, peeled and minced
• 8-10 fresh sage leaves, thinly sliced
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
• ½ cup chicken broth or water
• 1 cup coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar (preferably orange variety)
1. Peel squash. Cut off long neck where it begins to flare. Split squash in half, remove and discard seeds, and cut into 1-inch chunks. Wash greens, drain, and remove tough stems. Roll up and cut into ½-inch strips. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350° F.
2. Put bacon in large, ovenproof lidded skillet, sauté pan, or braising pan (preferably cast iron) that will hold squash in single layer over medium heat. Cook until browned and fat is rendered. Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons fat and add onion. Sauté, about 4-5 minutes. Add greens and raise heat. Toss until wilted and bright green, then add squash and toss until glossy and hot, about 1 minute. Add garlic and sage, and season with salt and pepper. Toss well and add broth. Bring it to boil, cover, and transfer to oven. Bake until squash is tender (easily pierced with fork or toothpick but still firm), about half an hour to 45 minutes.
3. Remove from oven and raise heat to 400 degrees. If liquid is not reduced and thickened, uncover and place back over direct medium high heat and cook, stirring frequently, until liquid is evaporated. Turn off heat. Taste and correct seasonings and add ½ cup cheese. Gently mix, level top, and sprinkle with remaining ½ cup cheese. Bake, uncovered until top is golden, about 20 minutes longer. Let rest 5-10 minutes before serving.