Most of us are used to eating fine cheeses on a cheese plate. And sure, that's an awesome way to enjoy expensive dairy products. But have you thought about actually cooking with fine cheeses? For some, taking a small-scale, artisan-made cheese and whirring it into a dish with competing flavors may be the ultimate gourmet blasphemy. But, having just written an entire book dedicated to cooking with fine cheeses, I'm here to tell you that a cheese that makes your cheese plate sparkle can also take your savory cooked dish to the next level.
Cooking with cheese takes a little skill, and given the cost of fine cheeses, you'll want to be well-prepared. Here are a few tips that will have you creating amazing cheese-based dishes that will dazzle and delight:
- If you're shredding your cheese before cooking with it, be sure to do so while it's cold, lest it turn to mush. This goes for hard cheeses, as well. Ideal ways of shredding cheese are with a knife, a food processor, or a good, old-fashioned cheese grater. Fresh and/or soft cheeses may not need to be shredded at all—you can just crumble them with your fingers.
- Should you remove the rind before cooking with your cheese? Well, that depends. Do you like the way the rind tastes? Then feel free to add it! Some rinds are pretty intense, though, so it may be wise to remove one-half to three-quarters of it if you want to avoid dramatically changing the flavor of your dish. And, of course, all wax or otherwise non-edible rinds should be removed before cooking.
- If you're simply melting shredded or crumbled cheese into a hot dish, such as a bowl of freshly-cooked pasta, a plate of hot vegetables, or a warm salad, toss the cheese into the hot food just before you serve it (and not a second sooner, or it'll settle to the bottom of the dish and harden there like a set of concrete shoes).
- When adding cheese to a béchamel sauce—which then becomes a mornay sauce, by the way—be sure to keep your roux on the lighter side, or the nuttiness of the cooked flour and butter may compete with the flavor of your cheese of choice. If you're cooking with an incredibly intense cheese, though, go ahead and experiment with a darker roux!
- Some cheese lose their oomph when heated, especially more delicate cheeses like triple creams. For these varieties, I'd recommend experimenting with a small portion before preparing an entire meal so that you don't end up wasting $20 worth of cheese in a dish that just ends up tasting like hot milk .
- When making a mornay sauce, it's imperitive that you remove the sauce from the heat before adding the cheese. Cheese is essentially an emulsion of milk liquids and solids, and heating it too quickly can cause your lovely cheese to break into a mess of lumpy sadness.
- If you're making a baked casserole, remember that heat reduces moisture, so the longer you cook the dish the dryer it will be. Similarly, uncooked pasta and vegetables will absorb moisture when cooked in a cheese casserole. That dryness may be your preference, but if you're looking for something richer, you'll want to add a little liquid to the dish, such as full-fat milk or cream.
- Cooking a cheesy casserole at too high a temperature may break your cheese sauce, so keep it at 375º or below. If you want to brown the top, a quick trip under the broiler will do the job just fine.
- Don't think you need to limit yourself to only hot dishes. Cheese chunks go great tossed into a cold pasta or a produce-based salad with a little vinaigrette. Fresh cheeses, such as chevré and queso fresco, are particularly stellar for this purpose.
- A little lemon juice mixed with a cheese sauce may not curdle, but you might consider adding some lemon zest instead for a nice, bright flavor boost. Orange and lime also work well, depending on the flavor profile of your cheese.
- Some cheeses simply will not melt, and that's because they're not supposed to. Cheeses such as fresh mozzarella, ricotta, cottage cheese, and feta won't fully melt no matter how much you heat them. Of those that do melt, they can do so differently: chevré, Edam, Gruyere, and cheddar will all melt into very different textures. Experiment and see which does what.
- If you're throwing a fat slice of cheese onto your burger, do it about 2 minutes before you remove the meat from the heat in order to assure proper meltage. There are fewer burger buzzkills more potent than a warm, tender burger topped with a piece of cold, waxy, unyielding cheese. No bueno.
Cooking with cheese is relatively simple, though you should keep the above tips in mind to prevent a waste of your gorgeous dairy payload. FYI, these tips also apply to cheap cheeses, though those made with added oil, emulsifiers, and preservatives may respond differently when heated. Experiment!
What are your favorite cheese-based dishes?
About the author: Stephanie Stiavetti is a writer and cookbook author in San Francisco. Stephanie's cookbook, Melt: the Art of Macaroni and Cheese, celebrates America's favorite dish by recreating it with small production, specialty cheeses. Her food blog, The Culinary Life, is a repository for all things comfort food related, from savory dinners to transcendental desserts.