Bread and cheese: what food could be easier than this and yet so perfect for sharing? Possibly a cheese dip in which to dunk pieces of leftover bread. In other words,fondue, the quintessential winter comfort food of illustrious Swiss origin and worldwide popularity.
At first sight, there is nothing complicated in melting cheese, so much so that many people view fondue as an “emergency” dish, something to rustle up at the last minute for an improvised dinner party. In actual fact, if this dish is prepared without due care, what is intended as a gourmet experience could go badly wrong.
To prevent a fondue from becoming watery, tasteless or even burnt, we need to put our trust in science and what it has to teach us about cheese and its melting process.
What cheese melts the best?
First of all, let’s start by taking a look at the ingredient itself.
Cheese is mainly composed of water, fats, milk proteins and salt. The percentages vary a great deal according to the type of cheese but your own experience will tell you that fresh cheese varieties have a higher water content (about 80%), which falls drastically in mature cheese (about 30%).
We also need to consider the fact that the composition also varies greatly according to the type of milk used. For example, goat’s milk has a low percentage of casein, the proteins which tend to create very solid structures, and this is what makes goat’s cheese soft and creamy.
Neither should we forget the importance of rennet in cheese production: this enzyme is specialized in “breaking up” the casein into small pieces which then try to aggregate. This leads to the formation of curd, later to be transformed into cheese, when it is separated from the whey.
How to make melted cheese
You may be wondering where this explanation is taking us? Apart from the fact that we like talking about science, this will help us explain that, when cheese melts, it does not actually do so in the same way as ice. What really happens is that the casein micelle, which had managed in some way to aggregate, separate once more, and this looks as though the cheese has “melted”.
The presence of water facilitates the operation because the H2O molecules make the protein bonds weaker, and this is why soft cheeses, with their higher water content, melt more quickly. On the contrary, hard cheese varieties melt at higher temperatures but because of their more solid protein bonds, they look creamy and velvety when melted. Hard cheese has a nicer texture on the palate, when used as fondue, and does not liquefy in the same way as mozzarella.
That's why real fondue connoisseurs avoid mixing different types of cheeses: it is advisable to stick to one type if you don’t want to end up with a mixture that tends to separate rather unattractively.
How to keep cheese melted
Once the cheese has melted, we need to prevent it from solidifying, which tends to happen very quickly.
This problem is more or less resolved if the fondue is served in its special little hot pan, but we know all too well that prolonged exposure to heat spoils the consistency and taste of melted cheese. Therefore, it is advisable to add a little wheat or corn starch: this will help separate the proteins for longer and, if you do not overdo the quantity, it will not affect the flavor of the dish at all.
Finally, here are some additional quick tips.
First of all, melt the cheese at a low temperature so that the fats remain bound together evenly and do not separate from the rest. Then, add a few drops of lemon or wine to help the starch keep the casein micelle separated.
Finally, do not stir too vigorously or you will find yourself with a lumpy fondue.
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