Dipping bread and vegetables into a pot of hot cheese fondue makes a fun and delicious meal, but what’s the secret to ensuring a fondue is smooth and well flavored? Whether you want to use the classic Swiss combination of gruyère and emmentaler cheeses with white wine, or try a cheddar and beer version, the trick is in getting the proper balance of starch and acid.
Though it’s now a symbol of luxurious après-ski Swiss alpine chalets (and their counterparts around the world) and romantic Valentine’s Day dinners, fondue began as a peasant dish designed to make use of aged cheese, wine, and bread in the winter. Those three simple ingredients combine to form much more than the sum of their parts, and it’s easy to do, even if you don’t have that classic 1970s throwback housewarming gift: a fondue pot. It’s certainly more fun that way, but you can make fondue in a slow cooker too, though you’ll need to stir often to prevent scorching—and regular forks work just as well as tiny ones.
The only things you absolutely need are cheese (of course), wine (or a similar acidic ingredient*), and something to dip in it. Beyond those basic building blocks, you can add whatever else you like to fondue, from herbs to nutmeg to hot sauce to classic kirsch (cherry brandy or eau de vie, also called Kirschwasser).
“The combination of cheese and wine is delicious but also savvy. The wine contributes two essential ingredients for a smooth sauce: water, which keeps the casein proteins moist and dilute, and tartaric acid, which pulls the cross-linking calcium off of the casein proteins and binds tightly to it, leaving them glueless and happily separate. (Alcohol has nothing to do with fondue stability.) The citric acid in lemon juice will do the same thing. If it’s not too far gone, you can sometimes rescue a tightening cheese sauce with a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of white wine.”
Because there are so few ingredients, you should use the highest-quality cheese you can (ditto the wine if you’re not going non-alcoholic), and preferably, don’t go with pre-grated cheese—if you do, you may not need as much cornstarch as the recipe calls for, since the cheese shreds will usually already be coated in some cornstarch or cellulose to keep them from sticking together in the bag. Don’t bother with low-fat cheese either; there’s just no point, and the texture and taste will never be the same. Fondue is all about indulgence these days, despite its humble origins.
A fondue pot (or a slow cooker)
1. In a large bowl, toss the shredded cheese with the cornstarch or flour and the ground mustard to thoroughly coat. Using your hands makes it easier to evenly coat the cheese. Set aside.
2. Rub the cut sides of the garlic all over a nonreactive medium saucepan. Add the wine and bring to a boil over medium heat.
3. Add the cheese a handful at a time, stirring between each addition until melted. You may also want to lower the heat a bit—at this point, you don’t want anything to come to a boil; if it gets too hot, the mixture may curdle and become grainy. Stir gently and constantly until everything is melted and smooth.
4. Add the kirsch, if using. Stir to combine.
5. Transfer the mixture to a fondue pot or a slow cooker on the lowest setting (“warm” if possible). Serve immediately with your accoutrements. And if using a slow cooker, stir regularly, since it will run hotter than the fondue pot and may scorch the cheese!
Check out these Chowhound community tips for even more fondue intel and opinions, and try these other recipe variations for dinner—and dessert:
Also known as Welsh rabbit, this simple but satisfying dish is based on melted cheddar and beer; for an English take on fondue, you can dip bread, apples, and whatever else you like into the sauce instead of broiling it atop toast as per tradition. Get our Welsh Rarebit recipe.
This easy and elegant take on fondue from State Bird Provisions doesn’t require any special equipment at all, and while it may not be traditional, it is definitely delicious. Feel free to just make the cheese sauce and dunk in whatever sounds good to you. Get the Black Butter Balsamic Figs with Fontina Fondue recipe.
You don’t want to forget dessert, and what better way to follow up a pot of molten cheese than with one of lush dark chocolate? Get creative when it comes to what you dip in your fondue for the ultimate experience. Get our Chocolate Fondue recipe.
Note: Caitlin McGrath contributed to an earlier version of this story in 2014.