Guidelines for Melting Cheese
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by Robert Wolke
Use the cheese the recipe calls for, if you can.
Its tempting 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; they are made by a thousand different methods. This guarantees that no two cheeses will have exactly the same properties: they’ll differ in appearance, flavor, and texture; and, they’ll differ in their melting behavior, too.
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? 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:
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 fall into three broad melting categories: stretchy and stringy, smooth and flowing, and non-melting. When you want to get creative, (SEE THE LIST BELOW), choose a cheese that has the melting characteristics you want, and you won’t go far wrong.
You must also treat the cheese kindly during cooking. 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 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 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 temp 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. At higher temperatures, 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.