Beef Rice and Chili Casserole

Cheddar cheese is cheddar cheese, right? Wrong! Like most foods available in our supermarkets, there are variations in quality and taste. Cheddar cheese is among them.

With so many choices facing you – shredded, solid, yellow, white, sharp, extra sharp, mild, expensive, cheap, imported and local – knowing a little about what cheddar is helps when deciding which cheddar cheese to use when melting cheddar cheese. While some are nutty and full of flavor, others are mild and won't overtake the flavors you're trying to achieve.

Made in England

Along with the Pilgrims who immigrated to the New World, so did cheddar cheese. Originally made in Cheddar, England and still produced there, American cheddar made its debut as soon as the farmers had cows giving milk. It remained a farm product until 1851 when the first cheddar factory started commercial production in upstate New York, and that was the beginning of the commercialization of cheddar.

Choosing Your Cheddar

The first lesson of cheddar, especially if you're going to use it as a base for easy cheese sauce, is to buy it in a block, not already shredded. Look closely and you'll see that those bits in the bag of shredded cheese have a slight coating on them. That's an added ingredient to prevent the cheese strands from clinging to each other and caking.

Look at the color. Most manufactured cheddar has the same yellow color. That's another added ingredient to create a uniform look and make it appear more appetizing. Natural cheddar is white or off white, and the color intensity varies, as does the intensity of the flavor.

Preparing the Cheese

If you're making macaroni and cheese or nacho cheese dip, middle-of-the-road mild cheddar will do the job. It'll give you the cheesy taste you want, but it isn't overpowering. The sharper the cheese, the more difficult it is to shred. You'll get lumps, not shreds, and it will get gritty when melted. Mild cheese is easy to work with, but it is indeed "work" because you're the one doing the shredding.

Don't use room-temperature cheese. It won't shred; it will clump. Put it into the freezer for a few minutes or chill it in the refrigerator for several hours before shredding it. A 6-ounce block of cheese should yield 1 1/2 cups. Once shredded, put it aside and prepare the cheese sauce base.

Melting Cheese for Sauce

Cheese sauce is one of the easiest sauces to make. All you need is butter, flour, milk and cheese. You can customize your cheese sauce by adding salt, jalapenos, French or American mustard, cayenne pepper or chili pepper – whatever your taste desires.

The best way to melt cheese on the stove is to start with melted butter. Add flour and whisk. Add milk and whisk until the mixture starts to bubble and the sauce thickens. Take the pot off the heat. Now is the time to add the cheese, a little at a time. If it doesn't melt thoroughly, return the pot to the heat but don't let the sauce burn. Pull it off the heat and stir in your special flavorings. Voila! Easy cheese sauce is ready for your macaroni and cheese or nacho chips.

Finish your dish with some cheese bits scattered over the top. The temperature to melt cheese in an oven is 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Watch it carefully so the cheese sauce doesn't bubble up over the sides and the cheese shreds don't burn.

Melting Shredded Cheese in the Microwave

The microwave is an option for making easy, creamy cheese sauce. Use the same quantities as you would for stove top melted cheese and heat the sauce in stages.

Start by placing the butter, flour and milk into a glass bowl and microwave on high until the butter has melted. Add the cheese, whisk and cook for another 15 seconds. Whisk again. Continue at these intervals until the milk turns into creamy cheese sauce.

Gluten-Free Cheese Sauce

For those on a gluten-free diet, cheese sauce can be made without the flour. Just melt the butter and add milk to a pan on the stove top. Add the cheese and then the hot cooked pasta. Stir until all are blended. It's not as thick as if you'd used flour, but the cheese flavor dominates, and that's really what you want.