Cheese has been the dominant food group in my diet for a long time. I remember being a kid melting slices of American cheese and milk in the microwave for an afternoon snack of cheese soup. Nowadays, I’ve upgraded my cheese soup into fondue. Fondue is the dish that Ham and I have consistently made the most throughout our relationship, and it’s guaranteed to make an appearance in our lives at least four times a year. We spent our first New Years’ Eve together melting a blend of Gruyere and Appenzeller into a seasoned Riesling, and we spent the last New Year doing the same.
Fondue was originally created in Switzerland, where farming villages only baked bread occasionally in the wintertime and ate the loaves throughout the year. This meant their bread was usually stale, but dipping it into melted cheese helped soften the bread and make it much more palatable. In the 1930s, the Swiss Cheese Union was looking to increase cheese consumption so they popularized fondue as the Swiss national dish, and they haven’t looked back since.
What is fondue?
At its simplest, fondue is an emulsified cheese sauce. A medium-bodied cheese like gruyere or Emmental is gently melted into a dry white wine, resulting in a stretchy and silky cheese concoction. An emulsion is as vital to fondue as it is to mayonnaise. Nobody wants to dip their bread into a curdled oil slick. Wine adds flavor but most importantly, it dilutes the cheese into a mixture that will stay emulsified. The tartaric acid in wine also helps cheese’s casein proteins hold onto butterfat, further assisting the stabilization of the emulsion.
The wine base
I always start my fondues the same way: dry Riesling, a couple of sprigs of thyme, and some smashed garlic cloves. I need about 1 cup of wine to emulsify 1 ½ pounds of cheese, but I start with much more to amp up the flavor. I put twice as much wine as I need in a saucepan, add my garlic and thyme, and reduce it by half for extra flavor and body. While the wine reduces, I add my secret ingredient: sodium citrate! Sodium citrate helps with emulsion like tartaric acid on steroids. This means I have a really large margin for error when it comes to emulsifying my cheese; it also makes sure my fondue stays emulsified at all temperatures. I first read about it in Aki and Alex’s Ideas in Food a while ago and has been how I make my fondues (and custom American cheese) ever since. I use 1 ½ teaspoons of sodium citrate per 1 ½ pounds of cheese. Once I pick out my garlic and thyme, I’m left with a super flavorful wine base just waiting for mountains of shredded cheese.
Let’s talk about the reason we’re all here, the cheese. While sodium citrate allows me to use all types of cheese in my fondue, I keep it traditional. I use a 50/50 blend of high-quality Gruyère and Appenzeller. (My favorite places to buy cheese in the city are Murray's and Saxelby’s.) They have a wonderful stretchy texture when they melt and have an underlying buttery nuttiness that works really well with the wine. If I am out of sodium citrate, I will toss the grated cheese in 2 teaspoons of cornstarch to coat. It leaves me with a slightly stodgier fondue that requires a bit more fuss, but it works well in a pinch. I have my wine base at a very low simmer, with less bubblage than when I’m poaching eggs. I add my cheese a handful at a time, while whisking constantly, making sure that the cheese is fully melted and incorporated before adding the next handful. I keep going until all my cheese is up, then the fondue is prepared.
Do you need a fondue pot?
Fondue made the traditional way, with just the tartaric acid as an emulsifier or with the help of cornstarch, needs to be held warm. Once it cools, there’s no reheating without all the fat breaking out and leaving you with a lumpy mess. You will need a fondue pot, or better yet, a camping stove or induction burner, to keep the fondue warm at the table. However, with sodium citrate in the mix, you can reheat the cheese to your heart’s content, so I don’t bother with trying to hold the fondue warm. Make the fondue in a heavy pot like a dutch oven, so it stays stretchy as long as possible at the table, then give it a reheat whenever it feels too cool. Leftovers also reheat remarkably well.
Ideal fondue dippers
I know we are talking about it at the end of this, but you really want to make sure that you have all your dippers prepped before you make your fondue. No need to waste time! Behold my ranking of fondue dippers:
Boiled baby potatoes- Eating a creamy potato that is dipped until it is completely enveloped in nutty cheese is one of the world’s greatest pleasures.
Crusty cubed bread- While originally fondue was a way to save stale bread, I much prefer a fresh sourdough batard lightly toasted until crunchy on the outside but still fluffy within.
Peeled grapes- A peeled grape is a luxurious experience, made only fancier with the addition of glorious gooey cheese.
Apple slices- Apples and cheese are good friends, but they’re BFFs when the cheese is melted.
Charred Brassicas- Vegetables in the Brassicaceae family, (where broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc. live) go really well with cheese, and fondue is no different. You want to make sure you get some nice char on the vegetables, preferably from a grill to give it some smoky notes as well.
End of list.
Happy New Year, everyone! Thank you all for being here!