Fondue: A Primer

Tips for perfect fondue and three recipes: Cheese, Chocolate and Breakfast

Sometimes a recipe that seems easy turns out to be vexingly difficult to pull off. Cheese fondue is a case in point. The list of ingredients couldn’t be simpler – not much more than cheese fondue over candlewine and cheese. When it’s well done, fondue is a memorable dish – its smooth texture, comforting warmth and rich flavors perfectly balanced by crusty bread and crunchy vegetables.

But I can’t think of another dish that I’ve made over and over again, one that I should have down pat, that I have had more trouble with. All too often rather than a perfectly smooth amalgamation of melted cheese and warm wine, I’d wind up with something that looked more like a wad of gum eraser floating in hot whey.

I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. I used the same recipe, the same technique each time I made it. The only difference I could discern was that though I generally use traditional fondue cheeses like Gruyère and Emmantaler, I didn’t always use exactly the same brand of cheese. Too, I used different white wines each time, though I generally tried to pick up something dry, like a Sauvignon Blanc.

I decided to pull all the cookbooks off my shelves and look up every recipe for fondue I could find. For the most part, the recipes were very much like the one I’ve always used, same ingredients, same techniques. After much research (the latest version of Harold McGee’s classic On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen was particularly helpful), I gleaned a few tips that have improved my success rate.

Rule 1: Spend the extra money to buy excellent quality, traditional fondue cheeses like Gruyère, Contè, Emmantaler and Vacherin.

These cheeses contain the proper balance of fat, moisture and protein for fondue. Imported French and Swiss fondue cheeses are reliable because they are manufactured under strict government supervision to a certain standard. You may also find excellent farmstead cheeses made in the United States that are similar and will work well.

Whatever you do, don’t buy cheap knock-offs of these cheeses – I’m pretty sure after some experimentation that using “bargain” cheese is the main reason my fondue flops sometimes. Fondue cheeses are traditionally made with raw milk and then aged. Read the label carefully and make sure what you are buying has been made with unpasteurized milk – the label will probably say something like “natural,” “fresh milk,” “raw milk,” or simply “milk.” Cheese made with pasteurized milk will say so on the label.

This is important not only because so-called “Gruyere” and “Swiss” cheeses made with pasteurized milk don’t taste nearly as good as those made with traditional methods, but because many pasteurized milk cheeses have a molecular structure that makes them prone to clumping and separating when melted in liquids.

You needn’t worry that cheese made from raw milk is unhealthy. All such cheeses must be aged more than 60 days before being sold in the United States, which ensures their food safety.

Rule 2: Cut the cheese into very small pieces or grate it coarsely and have it at room temperature before you begin adding it to the hot wine.

If you add big chunks of cold cheese all at once to the pot, the temperature of the wine will fall quickly and the cheese will clump before it can melt and emulsify in the liquid. Don’t make the mistake of grating the cheese too finely – it will clump together as soon as you add it to the pot.

Rule 3: Coat the cheese with a little cornstarch or tapioca starch before adding it to the pot.

The starch helps keep the molecules of fat and protein emulsified in the liquid.

Rule 4: Use an acidic white wine along with a little lemon juice; acid helps to keep the protein molecules from clumping together.

Do use a good dry white wine though, because its flavor will be a major component of the final dish.

Rule 5: Don’t let the wine get too hot.

The protein molecules in the cheese need to get hot enough to relax and flow. If they get too hot, however, they’ll grab on to one another and the mixture will separate. Use a good heavy pot to ensure even heating (not cast iron, though, which would react with the acid in the wine). Fondue cheeses melt at about 150℉, so don’t ever let the wine boil – it should be just under a simmer.

Rule 6: Stir constantly but gently.

Traditionally fondue is stirred with a wooden spoon for as long as it takes to melt all the cheese into the wine. Some fondue makers swear you must only stir in one direction, others that you must stir in a figure 8. I don’t think it matters just so long as you add the cheese a little at a time so the temperature of the mixture remains constant – never too hot or too cold. Rapid whisking, though recommended by some food writers, can cause clumping.

Rule 7: Have everything in place before you begin cooking the fondue.

Fondue is made quickly and must be eaten quickly. Make sure that whatever you’ll be using to keep the fondue hot at the table – an electric warmer, a classic fondue pot, a pot of steaming water – is ready to receive the hot fondue. If you will be transferring the fondue from its cooking pot into a serving pot, make sure it’s pre-warmed. Have all the bread chunks and vegetables ready, the table set, your guests lined up with fondue forks at the ready.

And a suggestion: Practice by making Fondue for 2 (recipe below).

Fondue, for something so simple, is certainly not inexpensive. I suggest practicing the recipe on a small scale before trying it for a dinner party. Below you’ll find a recipe that’s perfect for 2 people; it uses only 1/2 cup of wine and 4 ounces of cheese. Should you muff it, you won’t have broken the bank, and you can console yourself with the rest of the wine.

If you feel a little daunted by the prospect of cheese fondue, try one of the other easy recipes here. Breakfast fondue is no more than a combination of butter and jam. Yes, you could just butter your toast and then spread jam on top, but there is something alchemical that happens when the two are melted together. Trust me; it’s a sublime mixture and couldn’t be simpler to make.

Chocolate fondue is pretty much hot fudge sauce in a fondue pot. That said, it makes an elegant dessert and it’s easy to put together. And what could be better for a Valentine’s Day dessert than chocolate fondue for two?

Breakfast Fondue

  • 1- 8 ounce jar of jambreakfast fondue
  • 1/2 stick (4 Tbs.) butter (I prefer unsalted, but salted is fine, too)

For Serving:

  • cubes of toast, French toast or waffles

Melt the butter in small, heavy pot. If you like, you may allow the butter to brown slightly; this will lend a nutty flavor to the fondue. When the butter is melted, stir in the jam. Allow the jam to melt completely and to become hot, but don’t allow it to scorch.

Pour the hot fondue into an oven-safe serving bowl. Arrange the cubes of toast, French toast and waffles around the edges of a hot cast iron pan. Place the bowl of fondue in the center. Serve in the pan at the table (be sure to put a trivet beneath the pan to protect the table), allowing diners to spear and dip their own tidbits.

Chocolate Fondue

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup water

    chocolate fondue

    pineapple dipped in chocolate fondue

  • 1-1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (chips are fine)
  • 2 ounces cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

For Serving:

  • things to dip – pineapple chunks, strawberries, pieces of fresh coconut, pieces of cake, nuts, dried apricots, etc.

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy pot and bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring just enough to be sure the sugar dissolves. Let the mixture bubble, using a pastry brush dipped in water to wash crystals off the sides of the pot occasionally.

Watch the mixture carefully as it begins to turn golden, but don’t stir (stirring may cause the mixture to crystallize). When the mixture is dark golden brown, turn off the heat and stir in about half the heavy cream. Be careful, as the mixture will bubble up and spatter a little. When the bubbling subsides, stir in the rest of the cream. Stir in the chocolate and cocoa powder until smooth, then stir in the vanilla.

Serve warm, either in a fondue pot or individual cups, along with items for dipping.

Cheese Fondue for 2

  • 4 ounces best-quality raw milk cheese such as Gruyere or Swiss, cut into small cheese fonduepieces or coarsely grated
  • 1 tsp. cornstarch
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and cut into 2 or 3 pieces
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice

For serving:

  • chunks of crusty bread
  • vegetables such as carrots, radishes and red peppers, cut into bite-sized pieces

Have everything ready before you begin cooking – the table set, the vegetables and bread in place, as well as the fondue pot and it’s heating mechanism (whether a candle, sterno, pot of hot water, etc.).

Toss the cheese with the cornstarch and place it at the ready next to the stove. Rub the inside of a small but heavy, non-reactive pot with the garlic. Pour the wine and the lemon juice into the pot (if you like, you can leave the garlic in with the liquids) and heat to just below a simmer.

Remove the garlic if you haven’t already, then begin adding the cheese to the liquid, a little at a time, stirring gently. Melt the cheese completely before adding more cheese and try to maintain the mixture at a steady temperature. Do not let it boil.

The fondue is ready when all the cheese has been added and the mixture is fairly smooth. Serve immediately.