Cheddar Cheese: A history, overview and varieties

Cheddar cheese is a versatile cow's milk cheese that is enjoyed by people with simple tastes and those who appreciate a complex cheese.

Written BY

Tanya Sillitti

My love language is cheese

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September 5, 2022

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Cheddar cheese is one of our favorite cheeses because it can be mild enough for kids to eat it up, but also complex and tangy for the sophisticated cheese lover.  

Cheddar is made from cow’s milk. It’s a relatively firm cheese that is white/very light yellow unless colored orange with annatto, a natural food coloring derived from the seeds of the achiote tree.

cheddar cheese
The orange color that often makes cheddar cheese instantly recognizable comes from a natural food coloring called annatto.

A brief history of cheddar cheese

Cheddar was originally created in an English village called – you guessed it – Cheddar. Back in the 12th century, local farmers would keep their milk cool in nearby caves. As legend has it, one day a milk maid forgot some milk in one of these caves and returned to find it had solidified into what we know now as cheddar cheese. Hundreds of years later, in the 19th century, Joseph Harding used science to create methods for making wheels of cheddar cheese in England, while the first cheese factory opened in the US. This factory was in upstate New York and it rolled out large quantities of cheddar. Today, cheddar is beloved around the world and is used in cooking, as a stand-alone snack and as a pairing with wine, jams, cured meats and much more.

Cheddar today

According to Statistica around 3.93 billion pounds of cheddar cheese was produced in the United States in 2021. Luckily for me (and anyone who wants to ‘sample’ different cheddar cheese varieties along with me in this article), Wisconsin produced the most cheese (3.47 billion pounds) in 2021 … and I live close to the border.

Types of Cheddar

Different resources will categorize cheddar cheese as mild/medium/sharp or mild/sharp/vintage or other similar combinations. What it’s called matters less than how long it’s aged, as the older the cheddar, the sharper it is.

cheddar cheese on a charcuterie board
Cheddar cheese is a great addition to a charcuterie board.

Mild cheddar

Starting with the mildest, creamiest variety of cheddar, we take a look (and taste) of this ‘starter’ variety. Mild cheddar has a relatively high moisture content, which makes it soft, easy to slice, and a dream to melt. It’s outstanding in pasta dishes, melted on bread or mixed into dips. Its milder zing is typically preferred by children and people who don’t appreciate a strong cheese. It’s great on top of a Ritz Cracker or paired with fruit for a creamy and sweet combo. It can also sit proudly among other sophisticated flavors on a charcuterie board. Paired with cured meats, water crackers, jams and chutneys, it is a fan favorite of just about anyone who enjoys cheese.

Medium Cheddar

Medium cheddar cheese is made the same way as mild but is aged for 2 to 3 months. During this time, the cheese develops a slightly sharper flavor. It still retains quite a bit of moisture, so it’s still creamy, soft and melts well. Medium cheddar is great for mac and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches and any other recipe that calls for some melty, gooey, cheesy flavor.

For charcuterie boards, it’s again a well-loved favorite of kids and adults who don’t enjoy strong cheeses. It’s tasty paired with most crackers and jams. Because it’s not as strong as a sharp or vintage cheddar, it’s also good paired with strong condiments like mustard. Like it’s younger sibling, mild cheddar cheese, it’s also delicious with sweet fruits and wine as well.

Sharp Cheddar

Sharp cheddar cheese is aged from as little as six months and as long as about 2 years. Some would say sharp cheddar is defined as any cheddar that has been aged over six months, but I like to call cheddar aged over 2 years a vintage cheese. Sharp cheddar is still great for melting onto bread or into pasta dishes to add a creamy, zesty punch, but it takes a bit more heat because it has a lower moisture content than mild or medium cheddar cheeses.

Sharp cheddar cheese has a distinctive flavor that isn’t as palatable to some picky eaters. It’s salty, pungent and has a distinctive ‘zing’ to it. It’s delicious paired with sticky sweet foods, like honey, jelly, chutney or fruit.

Cheddar cheese with honey
A simple and delicious snack- cheddar cheese drizzled with sweet local honey.

Vintage Cheddar

Continued aging further sharpens the flavor and changes the texture of the cheese, too. Older cheddars become dryer, flakier and they start to form crystals that add a bit of a crunch to the cheese. These crystals are made of calcium lactate, which is created when the lactic acid and calcium in the milk combine. I remember hearing ‘crunchy crystals in cheese’ and thinking ‘nope!’ I’m here to tell you, it’s amazing. While these bits of crunch would probably be strange in a creamy mild cheddar, when they’re sprinkled around a dry, flaky, super sharp vintage cheese, they’re outstanding.

Vintage cheddar is not likely to be found in many grocery stores, but those with specialty cheese sections may have one that’s been aged a few years. As I mentioned earlier, I live close to America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin. I have many stores close by that just sell cheese or just sell dairy products. That’s where I picked up this tasty block- a seven-year aged cheddar.

7 year aged cheddar cheese
A vintage cheddar aged 7 years is flaky, sharp and an delectable paired with something sweet, like fruit or a sweet wine.

Like sharp cheddar, vintage cheddar cheese is perfect on its own or paired with something sweet. One of my favorite simple snacks is a dry, crumbly, sharp vintage cheddar with a little bit of honey drizzled on top. Keep in mind these well aged cheeses aren’t going to melt well and are best enjoyed cool.

Cheddar is a great cheese for its versatility and distinctive flavor. If you’re a sharp cheddar fan, I encourage you to find a well-aged 7 or 10 year block and experience the cheese (in my opinion) in it’s finest state.

Further Reading
Charcuterie Definition: What is Charcuterie Really?
The definition of charcuterie actually has quite the historical timeline, even though the term has become extremely trendy as of recently. Essentially, the charcuterie board isn’t new, it’s a modern spin on a very traditional and historically rich way of sharing a meal.
January 21, 2023
The Best Options for an Oak Charcuterie Board
Oak is a beautiful wood choice! That’s why an oak charcuterie board is a gorgeous base for styling meats, cheese, or even desserts.
December 16, 2022