The sad case of the recalcitrant splitting cheese
There is a stall at Borough Market in London that sells authentic Raclette. To make Raclette, the stallholder sets-up a heavy metallic contraption designed for manoeuvring and holding cheese against a robust vertical gas burner. The cheese (big blocks of Raclette) is clamped into it’s metal frame and swivelled toward the flames. The cheese blisters and spits as if resisting the torment of melting, alas, it gives up the fight, and is scrapped into glorious flows of hot amber liquid and poured over fried potatoes. Look a little more closely, however, and you will see the tell-tale signs of cheese that has split: solid cheese and oil. Fortunately, the oil from the cheese is deliciously absorbed into the fried potatoes and judging by the popularity of the stall, customers are very happy with their melted cheese.
A favourite dish I make our grandchildren is frankfurters covered in grilled cheese. Inevitably, the cheese will split under the grill. The trick is to lift the frankfurters out of the oil – drain if necessary – then serve with potatoes or toast. We forgive the oil, just as for Raclette – result is very happy children.
Even the cheese inside a chilli rellenos is likely to split, yet will still please even if the melted cheese is unable to hide a few rivulets of additional oil.
The issue is not to do with the cooking; it’s to do with cheese. Cheese is essentially made up of fat and protein with varying amounts of water depending on the aging process and preparation. Heating cheese will cause the fat and protein to separate leaving curds of solid chewy protein and pools of fatty oil. Check your pizza the next time you order and you will see the effect, the same with cheese on toast or a cheese omelette or even a cheese coated pasta bake put under the grill. The effect is worse the longer the cheese is heated – so a pizza is safe as it only has a limited time in the oven. But any other cheesy topping will eventually split with enough heat. It can work in your favour; think of a cheesy pasta bake cooked for just a little too long in the oven, but where the diners all seem to fight for the burned crisp and crunchy crusts on the pan.
The Americans understand this cheese-splitting phenomenon and invented a non-splitting cheese. It works, but is it cheese? And if we are not keen on American cheese or are able to buy it, what can we do to limit this effect?
- Choose other types of good melting cheese, such as, Emmental, Gruyere, Fontina, Raclette, young Gouda, Tallegio and Mozzarella.
- Grate the cheese so that the melting point is reached evenly throughout all of the cheese at the same time.
- For grilling cheese in the oven or under the grill think either Hot and Fast or Low and Slow. A cheese on toast placed very near a hot grill will melt in 2-3 minutes. But all the while it will be splitting; so go with the flow and allow the cheese to brown in places – the Maillard reaction will make the toast more appealing and appetising. This is the way the Raclettes are made at Borough Market and how cheese melts in a very hot commercial pizza oven. As with these two examples eat your toasts, as soon as they come out of the grill. The second way, Low and Slow attempts to melt the cheese into a warm pool of soft cheese. Put the toast far away from a low grill and cook for about 5-6 minutes. There will not be as much splitting as the Hot and Fast method, but the big drawback is that for most people it will be unappealing and unappetising, but if splitting is a big issue use this method. Low and Slow is also good for young children as the cheese will be easier to eat and will not burn tender mouths.
- If you are going to make a sauce then you need science. Starch helps bind the fat and protein molecules – so start off with a flour and butter roux and add milk as for a béchamel before adding cheese. Or try dusting your grated cheese with cornflour before adding to your hot liquid. Similarly, acid and alcohol help to bind the fat and protein molecules, so you can add a little wine, lemon, or vinegar. The key to success here is Gently Does It. It seems counterintuitive not to beat vigorously to help bind the molecules, but it has the opposite effect. So gentle heat and gentle stirring.
A fondue is nothing more than a cheese sauce. But the one element that works in the favour of a fondue is the cheese. Emmental or Gruyere. Both good melting cheeses. In addition, both are very liable to split – so stick to the rules and gently does it.
A rarebit is a different animal. More of a twice-cooked cheesy custard than melted cheese. The addition of flour, milk, breadcrumbs eggs all help to lock the fat and protein molecules before reheating again under a grill.
But if the cheese is still not behaving in your sauce, there is always brute force, not to be advised, but in emergencies needs must. Bring out the stick blender and blitz, ideally with another good glug of wine. We are not really amalgamating the split fat and protein, more creating finer particles in a suspension giving the illusion of a sauce. Straining may help.
Split cheese, whether on toast or in a sauce – or even inside a chilli rellenos – is sad, but in nearly all cases, it is no big deal. It is still tasty, good to eat and nutritious. So get some cheese and without fear or prejudice, turn on the grill, heat a pan or the oven and start melting!