Whether you believe in climate change or not, there will be a few days this year where the weather actually gets cold. On those days, our thoughts inevitably turn to comfort foods. Few things are more satisfying and winter-appropriate than warm, melted cheese. We can all agree that dishes featuring oozing cheese are glorious things; however, such delights can go wrong if you lose sight of these few key guidelines.
1. Choose the right cheese for your dish.
Different cheeses will behave differently under the application of heat, depending on its texture, age, and production method. If you’re making a fondue, you’ll want a cheese that will more readily liquefy (eg. Gruyere); if you’re making a pizza, a little bit of give and stretch will be welcome (eg. Mozzarella).
Generally, depending on the size of the wheel, the best hard cheeses for melting will be ideally around 6-12 months old. Think Raclette, or younger Cheddars and Jacks. With a higher moisture content than their older counterparts, these cheeses will run and ‘flow’ when heated, incorporating well into fondue, baked ziti and the like.
Much older, drier cheeses such as 18-24 month Parmigiano-Reggiano won’t achieve this same quality, and will do best grated as a topping. However, if you love its flavor (and who doesn’t?) even if it’s not quite right for your recipe, you could mix it with other younger and milder cheeses to attain the desired melting effect.
In essence, you want cheese of an age that will melt – where the cheese is far enough along in its maturation that some of the proteins are broken down, but not so aged as to be devoid of most of its moisture. High moisture cheeses have less tightly-bound proteins, and will more readily melt.
2. Grate, shred, shave or slice the cheese.
This step may seem self-evident, but it’s vital enough to be worth mentioning: before you attempt to heat the cheese, make sure you either slice, grate or shred it down. This will allow the cheese to heat through properly and make for quick and even melting.
Of course, the exception to this rule is if you buy and bake a whole wheel of a soft-ripened cheese such as Vacherin Mont d’Or or Camembert—in which case, we salute you!
3. Keep an eye on the cooking time and temperature.
Here’s a rule of thumb – be gentle with the heat! If you’re cooking on a stove top, make sure you’re stirring constantly or very regularly. If you’re melting in the oven, don’t leave the dish in there too long or at too high a temperature—otherwise the cheese will overcook, losing fats and moisture, and toughening up completely.
* Pro-tip: if you’re somewhere without access to an oven or a burner, you can still enjoy the luscious texture of runny cheese by asking our mongers for their ripest soft cheese —try Harbison or Oveija Amanteigado. Cut off the top rind to expose the paste beneath, then dip some bread or veggie sticks in it for a quick and satisfying snack! *