We’re all used to eating fine cheeses on a cheese plate, and sure, that’s an awesome way to enjoy expensive dairy treats. But have you thought about actually cooking with fine cheeses? For some, this may be the ultimate gourmet blasphemy; taking a small production, artisan-made cheese and whirring it into a greater dish. Well, I just wrote an entire book dedicated to the idea of cooking with fine cheeses, and 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 cheese, you’ll want to be prepared for any potential caveats. Here are a few tips that will have you creating amazing cheese-based dishes that will dazzle and delight.
- Your favorite cheese, with or without the rind
- Anything you think pairs well with cheese!
- If you’re shredding your cheese before cooking with it, be sure to shred your cheese while 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 cheese 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 half or three-quarters of the rind 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 salad with some warmer elements added, toss the cheese gleefully into the hot food just before you serve it (and not a second sooner, or your cheese will 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 such as many triple creams. For these varieties, I’d recommend experimenting with a small portion before preparing an entire dish so you won’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. Also, uncooked pasta and vegetables will also absorb moisture when cooked in a cheese casserole. That dryness may be your preference, but if you’re looking for a more creamy-dreamy result, 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 375 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 salad 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 great, 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 melt no matter how much you heat them. Of those that do melt, they can melt 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 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?