What’s the best cheese to cook with? – The science behind choosing the right cheese for your dish.
“Cheese is an ingredient that has so much to offer in flavour, texture and versatility.” Chef Michel Roux Snr
Cheese is an ingredient that can transform and elevate almost any meal: it can be used simply to season a dish, or as an ingredient in its own right in classic cookery such as gratins, soufflés, fondues, omelettes, and even the humble yet magnificent cheese on toast.
But it’s not all plain sailing, with issues such as oil pooling on dishes, cheeses that just won’t melt, split cheese sauces and too much greasiness.
Choosing the right cheese for the job (and not heating it too fast!) can alleviate these issues. Not all cheeses are equal, and cooking with cheese involves a balance of moisture, acidity and the solid elements within the cheese (fat, protein and calcium). Getting the balance right means you’ve chosen the right cheese for your dish.
If you want a good ‘melter’, a good rule of thumb is to choose a smooth-textured cheese, not crumbly or squeaky, that is easily sliced at room temperature.
When you heat cheese two things start to happen: the fat within the cheese starts to soften and become liquid and the protein and calcium network starts to unravel to produce stretchiness. The best ‘melter’ will be a cheese that has slight acidity to it, a reasonably high level of moisture and a good fat content, so that the protein, fat and calcium can all interact as the heat is applied.
Cheese for melting can be split into three broad categories (this is a bit general but will work as a rough guide!):
- Low acid cheese such as Halloumi, paneer and ricotta. The low acidity means that the cheese has quite a high calcium content that is tightly packed together. This means they tend not to melt but instead hold their structure when cooked.
- Medium acid, high fat cheese such as Gruyère, moist Cheddar, Gouda, Comté and Mozzarella. These melt more smoothly (and become stringy). The best ‘melters’ have a pH around 5.0-5.5.
The ability to melt is related to moisture content too which explains why a drier Cheddar, very mature Gruyère-style or Parmesan (which also sits in this category in terms of fat content and pH) doesn’t melt quite as well, needing a higher temperature to melt and risking becoming a bit greasy when melted. But they do work fabulously well raw for garnishing, adding depth to dishes.
Gouda and Raclette cheeses are ‘curd washed’ during production which removes some of the lactose sugars, stops them becoming too acid, and creates a supple texture – all elements which help contribute to their great melting ability.
- High acid cheese such as feta, very crumbly cheeses (Cheshire and Wensleydale), and lactic goats’ cheeses (Crottin, Ste Maure, Dorstone). The higher acidity means these cheeses don’t melt and break down quite as well. The lower calcium content means they will soften with heat but retain their structure, so these cheeses are best warmed rather than used in sauces.
What else happens when you cook cheese? It goes brown. This is the important Maillard reaction – the same thing that browns bread when toasting – making the sugars and amino acids produce desirable flavours.
If you want to really get to the nitty-gritty behind the science of melting cheese, check out this article:
Or this hour-long video explaining it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XoD_S_YEHLI
Factors that influence a cheese’s melting ability:
- Moisture – the higher the moisture = the better the melt
- Fat – the higher the fat content = the better the melt
- Acidity – pH 5.0-5.5 is ideal (higher or lower than this reduces the melt)
- Calcium – high-fat cheese needs a high calcium content to help it melt
Note that as cheese matures, its protein structure and acidity can change, affecting how it melts, and higher-fat milks can congeal faster as the oil separates out – you can see this difference when comparing a melted Swiss Raclette cheese (usually part-skimmed) with melted Ogleshield.
For most dishes a softer, Cheddar, creamy Lancashire, or Gruyère-style are almost perfect for cooking, having the strength of flavour and a structure (moisture/acidity/calcium) that means they melt extremely well. A bit of age to the cheese will help, as it gives a sharper flavour which will come through in the dish. Cheddar has become a kitchen staple, but its brilliance as a cooking ingredient is often overlooked.