“The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”
– Willie Nelson –
Cheese is pretty amazing. It can take the average dish from “meh” to “more please”. It is equally as wonderful as flavor enhancer as it is as the main attraction at mealtime. It can comfort us on a cold winter day when it is wrapped in toasted bread and dipped in rich tomato soup or give us a tasty and filling reason not to use the stove on a hot summer day. However, it occasionally gives us unexpected problems. Fortunately, like in any good relationship, we can overcome most any issue by pinpointing the problem, identifying possible solutions and working through any difficulties until a desired result is achieved.
Here are some tricks on how to deal with some common cheese-centric problems:
Problem: the cheese goes “grainy”
It is rather disappointing when one’s grandiose dreams of a smooth and scrumptious cheese sauce are crushed by a grainy, fragmented mess. This can be avoided by making sure to grate the cheese finely, so that it melts quickly and evenly. It should also be at room temperature before adding it slowly to the sauce. Hard cheese and aged cheeses should also be added to sauces that are a maximum of 155 F to avoid separation.
Problem: the sauce is lumpy
This can generally be avoided by adding the finely shredded cheese slowly, so that it does not agglomerate into lumps. Avoid high heat, too.
Problem: the cheese is overcooked
(delicious charred bits excluded)
When the cheese is hard and not enjoyable to eat when an ooey gooey melty layer of deliciousness was expected, a meal can just seem not as enjoyable. This can be avoided by covering dishes that bake for an extended period of time. This allows the moisture level to be maintained. Just remove the cover for the last 10 – 15 minutes to allow the cheese to brown which gives the dish a more polished look and helps to develop the flavor of the cheese.
Problem: the cheese just won’t melt
Pick the right cheese for the dish. Cheeses like Gruyère, mozzarella, fontina and cheddar melt beautifully. The same cannot be said of cheeses like halloumi, ricotta, feta and Parmigiano-Reggiano which will maintain their structure regardless of the heat. Reduced and fat-free cheeses can cause the same problem or even result in a plasticky, rubbery mess when melted which is not appetizing to anyone. A solution to this issue (that does not add a lot of extra fat or calories) is mixing the reduced or fat-free versions with a moister, meltier option (i.e. reduced fat cheddar with a bit of reduced fat cream cheese). However, it is suggested that this option should be reserved for fillings (like for a grilled cheese!), rather than toppings because of its lack of aesthetic appeal.
Problem: the cheese makes the dish soggy
This tends to only be an issue when using fresh, moisture-rich cheeses like mozzarella. To avoid unwanted saturation, which can ruin a dish, pat the cheese down, pre-bake the carbohydrate being used (like a pizza crust) and avoid sauces that have not been reduced or thickened.