For many of us, chief among our greatest childhood food memories is the warm, buttery goodness of a grilled cheese sandwich. And for many of us, that sandwich was made with processed American-cheese slices, which offer, among other things, ideal melting properties. The cheese liquefies but maintains its stretch, and its sweet flavor intensifies. Each bite runs drippily, yet the cheese adheres to the golden, shatteringly crisp toasted bread. It’s a beautiful thing.
But what about the world beyond processed cheese? Hundreds (indeed, thousands!) of varieties of cheese exist, each with its own flavor -- whether yeasty or fungal, fruity or hazelnutty. How can we preserve and celebrate those cheeses while enjoying the essential comfort of a silken, seductive melt?
The answer starts with choosing the right cheese -- not all melt well, or even at all. You can enjoy a wide range of delicious dishes that include warmed cheese, but when the melt is what you crave, it’s best to avoid varieties that get drier and stiffer when heated, including ricotta, queso blanco, paneer, and most fresh goat cheeses.
A cheese’s meltability is determined by several factors, including moisture, salt, and acidity. High-moisture cheeses -- already rich and spreadable types, like Brie -- will melt more easily than hard, dry aged cheeses, like Parmigiano-Reggiano. And when they do melt, their textures are more flowing. Many firmer cheeses, such as fontina, Gouda, and Gruyere, still melt easily thanks to their relatively low acidity (think sweet or milky flavor) and salt. On the other hand, cheddar, which is more acidic than some cheeses, will become greasy, not luscious. Salty blues like Roquefort and Maytag may soften, but they’ll never turn into a warm pool.
Achieving a molten cheese may be a science, but finessing the flavor is an art, especially as it intensifies when heated. The sweet-cream and cultured-butter flavors in Gouda, for example, become concentrated, making a decadent dressing for peppery beef in a fondue. Rounds of fresh mozzarella are soothing against a chunky tomato sauce in Meatball Casserole. Hungry yet? Melted cheese is elemental -- its warmth, comfort, and satiating appeal were practically programmed into us from the first bite of that beloved sandwich.