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The Rules of Melting Cheese

Guidelines for success prevent a stringy mess

by

from Fine Cooking
Issue 83

Melted cheese has given us many beloved dishes. From Italy, Switzerland, Mexico, and Great Britain we have inherited our lasagnes, fondues, quesadillas, and Welsh rabbits. America is nothing if not a melting pot—of cheeses, as well as ethnicities. But melted cheese has also given cooks many headaches. Sometimes it just doesn't melt the way you want it to. You'd like it to be smooth and saucy, and instead it turns stringy, or it separates, or maybe it won't melt at all.

Getting your desired results isn’t always easy because cheese doesn’t melt in quite the same way that simpler substances do. But by following three simple rules you can increase your odds of success.

Rule No. 1

Use the cheese the recipe calls for, if you can.

This might sound obvious, but I mention it because I know how tempting it is to substitute a little bit of this for a little bit of that when you’re cooking. With cheese, that’s not always a good idea.

There are well over a thousand distinguishable cheeses, and it’s no exaggeration to say that they are made by a thousand different methods. This embarrassment of variables guarantees that no two cheeses will have exactly the same properties -- they’ll differ in appearance, flavor, and texture; and, alas, they’ll differ in their melting behavior, too.

Over time, various cultures have created dishes that show off the unique qualities of their local cheeses. You’re better off sticking to the tried and true -- you’ll never be able to make a saucy Swiss fondue from a stringy Italian mozzarella (just try to dip a piece of bread into it).

But what if you don’t have the exact cheese specified in a recipe or what if you just want to throw together a cheese toast, a vegetable gratin, or a quesadilla? You’ve been cooking for at least (fill in the blank) years, and you know your way around the kitchen. So, is there room for creativity instead of the unquestioning use of every recipe’s chosen cheese? Sure there is, if you follow my second rule:

Rule No. 2

Choose a cheese that’s known to melt the way you want it to.

The problem is, when you’re shopping for cheese, you can’t necessarily predict its melting behavior by scrutinizing its appearance or the nutrition information label. Cheeses melt in lots of ways, and you can’t depend on seemingly similar cheeses to melt identically. One semisoft cheese might behave quite differently from another for reasons that are as complex as the cheeses themselves.

But there’s no need to plow through dozens of scientific research papers on the properties of melted cheese. All you really need to know is that cheeses fall into three broad melting categories: stretchy and stringy, smooth and flowing, and non-melting. When you want to get creative, check the lists below, choose a cheese that has the melting characteristics you want, and you won’t go far wrong.

Now, one more rule:

Rule No. 3
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Photo: Amy Albert

Be gentle with the heat.

Choosing the right cheese is important, but that’s not the only secret to success. You must also treat the cheese kindly during cooking. Even if you’re using the perfect cheese for a dish, too high a temperature or too much heating time can make its proteins tighten up, squeezing out both water and fat. Result: rubbery globs of protein awash in a pool of grease. When this happens to pizza (and it often does because pizza is baked in such a hot oven), it’s not the worst thing in the world, but when it happens to a cheese fondue, you’ve got a flop on your hands. And, unfortunately, these changes aren’t reversible. But there are a few steps you can take to keep your cheese from meeting this sad fate:

Shred it. By shredding cheese, you increase the surface area that’s in contact with the heat source, which reduces the amount of time the cheese will take to melt.

Give it a head start. Bringing cheese to room temperature before you hit it with heat also lessens the amount of time the cheese needs to be exposed to heat before it melts.

Use low heat. Although not all recipes call for it, cheese prefers low heat. At higher temperatures, the proteins in the cheese are more likely to seize up and squeeze out fat and moisture. So if you need to finish off a cheese topping under the broiler, keep a watchful eye on it and take care to expose it to the heat only long enough for the cheese to melt.

The melting categories of cheese

The names of the cheeses in this table are generic, because cheeses go by many names and may have many variations. One farmer’s artisanal Swiss may not be the same as the Swiss made by another farmer on the Alp down the road.

Stretchy and stringy melters —

These are the cheeses we love on pizza, in panini, and stuffed into croquettes. They stay pretty much where we put them, without running all over the place, and they can form extremely long strings when pulled.

Smooth and flowing melters —

This category claims the largest number of cheeses. Some are viscous when melted, while others have little body. These cheeses are great for making toasted sandwiches; topping soups or vegetable tarts; stuffing into vegetables; adding richness to baked pasta dishes; and folding into biscuit, scone, and bread dough. They also blend smoothly into other dishes, such as polenta, mashed potatoes, risotto, and soufflés.

Asiago
Cheddar
Emmentaler
Fontina
Gruyère
Havarti
Monterey Jack
Muenster
Gouda
Blue cheeses(they melt around the mold)
Soft-ripened cheeses like Brie and Camembert (the rind will not melt)
*Parmigiano-Reggiano

Nonmelters —

These cheeses can actually be grilled, fried, or baked; though they may soften when heated, they won’t lose their shape and flow. There are a few possible reasons that some cheeses don’t melt: The cheese might be extremely high in salt. Or it might be low or high in acid, or it might contain high levels of whey proteins (during the cheese-making process, whey is removed from most cheese).

Halloumi
Fresh Mexican cheeses such as queso blanco, queso fresco, ranchero, cotija
Indian paneer
Cottage cheese
Ricotta
Fresh goat cheese
Feta
*Parmigiano-Reggiano

*What about Parmigiano? — Very hard, aged cheeses like Parmigiano don’t fit cleanly into these categories. If you finely grate them and add them to a sauce or a dish with moisture, they will melt smoothly, but due to their own lack of moisture, they won’t melt very well alone.

Photos: Scott Phillips (cheese sandwich) and Amy Albert (burger)

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