How to CookCheese

Why Do Some Cheeses Melt Better Than Others?

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Of course you’re making cacio e pepe—a skillet of black peppery butter here, a pot of boiling pasta there, big glass of cab-sauv in hand. Life is good. You transfer the spaghetti to the skillet—with tongs to reserve that salty pasta water (you’re just that good). Toss, toss. Add a splash of water. Toss, toss. Add grated cheese. Toss, toss. Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano are classic and who are you to disagree? You treated yourself and bought the best because, you know, in simple recipes, ingredient quality is key and cacio e—gah! The sauce is all greasy! And clumpy! It’s ruined! It’s dying! Is there a cheese doctor on the plane?!

Here’s the thing. Cacio e pepe is so good and so cool in the States right now—Italian mac and cheese? Sign me up—but it’s not on your side. Why? Its two signature cheeses aren’t melt-friendly. You might even say they’re melt-mean—hard, dry, don’t play well with others. Compare this, for instance, with the ultimate diner sandwich: a grilled cheese made with American cheese—ooey, gooey, gets along with everyone.

Gabrielle Hamilton's Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Gabrielle Hamilton's Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Why are they so different? It’s all about the cheeses’ personality—also known as melting point. Don’t worry—you don’t have to memorize a different temperature for each cheese. But you should know a few guidelines. This way, you can be your own cheese doctor. Or at least, cheese nurse.

Melting point 101

Cheese is a lot like vinaigrette—an emulsion of fat and water. In this case, the fat is dairy-based and the emulsion is held in place by protein networks. Keep cheddar in your fridge and the block (and the fat!) remain solid. Leave it on the counter in a cozy house and it will start to soften. Drop it on a mid-summer sidewalk and it will start to melt. Each cheese wants a different temperature sidewalk, but here’s the general gist:

  • Soft, moist cheeses, like mozzarella—around 130° F
  • Soft-firm cheeses, like cheddar—around 150° F
  • Firm, dry cheeses, like Pecorino Romano—around 180° F
  • Fresh, acid-coagulated cheeses, like fresh goat cheese or ricotta, don’t want to melt. Feta and halloumi: also melt-mean.
Austin Diner-Style Queso
Austin Diner-Style Queso

Generally, the younger the cheese, the meltier.

Let’s say you’re making mac and cheese. Gouda sounds goud good. Maybe this tender, young gouda. Or, perhaps this sturdy, aged fellow? The older, the funkier, the better, right? Not here. Young gouda melts beautifully, whereas its grumpy elder can’t be bothered. Some melty superstars include: American, Velveeta, Taleggio, provolone, gruyere, mozzarella.

Saucy cheese? Make the sauce thick. Maybe acidic, too.

Mac and cheese starts with a bèchamel (or milk) sauce, which is loaded with grated cheese to create a mornay (or cheese) sauce. And bèchamel starts with a roux (equal parts fat, like butter, and flour), which gets diluted with milk, which gets cooked until thick. The flour is the lynchpin here. It acts as a stabilizer, keeping the fat from separating (remember that greasy cacio e pepe?). So, if you’re making a cheese sauce, make sure the sauce is thickened with something like flour or cornstarch. Another helper: acid. (Think why booze always creeps its way into fondue, like the beer in this aged cheddar number.)

Cacio e Pepe
Cacio e Pepe

What if you don’t want to add a thickener? Like that cacio e pepe?

Okay, no one wants to add a roux to their cacio e pepe—nonna would not approve. In situations like this, make sure your cheese is grated very finely—a Microplane would be perfect—and that your pasta water, which you use to create the sauce, is extra starchy. Just accomplish this by boiling the pasta in less water than you think is necessary.

What was your worst cheese melting calamity? What tricks have you learned along the way? Tell us in the comments below!