Cheese in the Kitchen

November 30, 2016

“Can I substitute ____ for ____?” Ancient Heritage gets this question a lot from farmer’s market shoppers eager to cook with locally sourced ingredients. This blog post is for those cooks! My personal interest in cheese began when I learned to cook. Recipes often call for specific cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Roquefort, Gruyère and Emmentaler, to name a few. My learning curve was steep, having grown up in a household where cheese came in single-serving orange squares, shaker cans, or bags of shreds. What properties did these “fancy” cheeses have that made them the best choice for a recipe? This post is dedicated to exploring those properties, particularly as they relate to making substitutions.

             First off, if the specified cheese is unfamiliar, search the Internet for pictures of it in action, e.g., “melted pecorino sardo,” or “grated Gruyère.” Below are images of two Ancient Heritage cheeses melting: Hannah, a hard-aged cheese, and Adelle, a soft-ripened one. Hannah creates short strings when it is very hot and cools to a crispy, chewy texture.

Melting stages of Hannah cheese

Adelle behaves differently depending on how old the round is. A firm, young round will melt around the edges but remain mostly solid on the interior.

Melting stages of Adelle cheese

In contrast, a soft, aged round will be mostly liquid already, and the portion that is solid will liquefy quickly upon being heated.

melting stages of ripe Adelle cheese

            While there are no hard-and-fast rules that answer the substitution question, below are strategies to help determine what will work and what won’t. Essential properties to consider are moisture content, salt level, and flavor intensity. Hard cheeses have low moisture content, while soft cheeses are high in moisture. Hard cheeses are typically saltier than soft cheeses (with the distinct exception of feta.) Flavor intensity takes the most experience to evaluate, but memorizing a few categories to be wary of will help tremendously.

             First of all, note the volume of cheese required in relation to the volume of other ingredients. How prominently does it figure into the dish? If it takes a starring role, you will need a cheese with properties very similar to the one listed. Particularly, a high-moisture soft cheese will not do where a low-moisture hard cheese is called for and vice versa.

            Perhaps the cheese plays a supporting role. It will either be well-mixed with other ingredients, serving as a salt-and-fat boost, or function on its own, in pockets or layers within the final dish. Read the recipe instructions in their entirety to understand which is the case. If a modest amount of cheese is all mixed up with other ingredients, subbing a rather different cheese can be successful. For example, if a pasta filling calls for fresh chèvre (high moisture), to be blended with squash and herbs and then piped into shells, the most important factor in making a substitution is getting the filling to a smooth, easily-piped consistency. Go ahead and sub grated Gruyère (medium moisture), just be prepared to add a touch of liquid (cream, water or stock) to make up for that bit of missing moisture.

            Melting characteristics become key in the case of melted layers or toppings. Personal preference will dictate how far to stray on this point. For me, gooey, stretchy strings are non-negotiable in French Onion Soup, and lasagna without a slightly-crispy topping is no lasagna at all. While I draw hard lines in those cases, I will make almost any substitution on panini and bruschetta.

            If the cheese is employed as a topping, unheated, decide how important final texture is to the end result. A salad with many soft ingredients will be rather mushy altogether if you sub chunks of chèvre for grated Parmesan. However, that block of slightly-dried-out aged cheddar knocking around in the back of your cheese drawer will do perfectly! If it’s really REALLY hard, microwave it for 10-15 seconds to soften it enough to grate.

            Flavor compatibility is the final element to consider. Certain cheeses’ standout flavor elements make them unsuitable for some applications. In general, beware substituting a strongly-flavored cheese for an equally-intense one of a different category. Types to be careful with are: extra-sharp cheddars, funky blues, ripe Bries, alpine-styles (swiss) aged over one year, goudas aged over two years, or washed-rind styles. When a recipe calls for one of the above, and you must choose an alternate, go for something milder. Cow’s milk cheeses are typically milder than cheeses made from other milks. So, if a recipe calls for Manchego, (medium-moisture, sheep’s milk) use a medium-moisture cow’s milk cheese, like a mild cow’s milk cheddar or mozzarella. Hannah is a natural choice in place of Manchego.

            Once you decide to substitute, it is imperative to taste for salt instead of blindly adding what a recipe states. Cheeses vary wildly in regards to saltiness, and as the old saying goes, salt can always be added but never removed.

            Now, some inspiration to get you into the kitchen: Delicata Squash Gratin with Apple, Hannah cheese, and Thyme. Many thanks to chef Cory Schreiber for showcasing Hannah at her best. Happy cooking!

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