In this series, the First We Feast crew investigates the truth behind highbrow products saturating the food world. We consult experts to figure out how to navigate all the snobbery and decide whether they’re really worth all the hype.
This week we’re talking about clothbound cheddar, one of the most common upgrades popping up on menus across the country. You’ll find it blanketing haute burgers, gracing cheese plates, or melted in those “you fancy, huh?” grilled cheese sandwiches. But is it really worth the three to four extra bucks that restaurants tend to charge for it?
Murray’s Cheese Director of Education Sascha Anderson, who not only “consumes 98% more cheddar than the average American,” but also used wheels of clothbound cheddar to decorate her wedding.
Clothbounding goes way back. While cheddar is said to have originated in Somerset, England, Anderson points out that clothbounding actually started stateside—or, more accurately, colony-side. Seventeenth-century colonials started wrapping curds in one of their most readily available natural resources: cotton.
The process requires more labor and money than aging cheese in plastic molds. Cheddar aged in plastic reduces evaporation and doesn’t require any special attention—cheesemakers can just “set it and forget it,” says Anderson. Clothbound cheddars carry a higher price tag because they loose weight and shrink as they age, meaning the producer has less product to sell. They also require more attention: Wheels must be brushed of natural occurring bacteria and turned frequently to ensure even maturation.
Cheddar tastes different depending where it comes from. Like wines, good cheeses tend to reflect the place where they’re made. Anderson points out that factors like a cow’s diet, whether a cheese is made from the milk of a single herd or multiple herds, and the location of the farm can all affect a cheese’s flavor. In other words, not all clothbound cheddars are the same, so don’t expect the same consistency of taste you get from yellow American cheese slices.
Always ask to taste. Trying different varieties is really the only way to figure out the flavors that appeal to you (nutty, sharp, milky, tangy), which in turn will help the cheesemonger help you find something you’ll like. While you’re being all high-minded about your cheese choices, you should also ask where cheddars come from and who makes them.
Pay attention to the cheese’s age. Cheeses have a peak age after which they may become overly acidic, salty, or downright bland. Trust your taste buds. Buy healthy looking curds (not overly molded or anything that looks past its prime) and don’t be surprised by variations from wheel to wheel.
While some establishments clearly take the piss with the price tag they put on clothbound cheddar, we’re convinced that it is, indeed, a cheese that justifies spending a little more than you normally would. Because of its labor-intensive production process, it tends to be made mostly by smaller-scale producers, which often brings along other benefits as well: healthier cows, more sustainable practices, and the like.
That said, just because it is a good cheese doesn’t mean it needs to go on your burger. Like Stilton and blue cheese, clothbound cheddar can be too flavorful, and you don’t want to completely drown out the flavor of the meat. If you’re working with a robust, dry-aged steakhouse burger that can stand up to some sharpness and tang, go for it. But think twice before blindly accepting that the swaddled curds on the menu will make your burger $4 better.