Can you make fondue without alcohol?
Fondue—a dish familiar to many around the world—traces all the way back to as early as 1699, where it was published in a cookbook from Zurich, Switzerland. The famous recipe “Kass mit Wein zu kochen” in English meaning “To Cook Cheese with Wine” was very simple in that you melted shredded or cut cheese with wine and then dipped bread in it. However, up until the late 1800s, “cheese fondue” was a dish known by its use of cheese and egg (more on this to come)…
By the 1870’s recipes for what we know as fondue today began to pop up, i.e. cheese with wine, sans eggs. Come 1902, cornstarch was readily available adding to the ease of making fondue and maintaining its smooth texture. Popularity of the cheese dish began to spread and made its claim in America giving people the opportunity to come together and enjoy a meal.
One of the concerns many people have with this dish is the use of wine. Although much of the alcohol in wine cooks out in the heating process, small amounts still remain. We at the Dairy Council wanted to take a stab at this concern and create an alternative to adding wine. While it is not the traditional method for making fondue, it provides people with an alternative AND it provided us with a fun food science challenge.
To do this, we searched the Internet for suggestions of alternatives, and turned to our old nutrition textbooks, and cookbooks.
What We Knew:
• We knew that we needed a cheese with the right fat content to allow a nice melt
Fat allows the cheese to melt, completely blend, and prevent coagulation of the proteins in the cheese. The higher the fat content of the cheese, the better it blends with liquid. Shredded cheese melts and blends more evenly & aged cheeses can handle higher temperatures for melting.
• We had to have some sort of liquid to maintain adequate moisture.
Traditionally wine provides liquid needed to prevent shrinkage of the cheese and the necessary heat to melt the cheese. If cheese is heated without liquid, the moisture is pulled from the curd causing it to shrink and become tough—think baked cheese. Wine also contains tartaric acid, an acid that aids in the stabilization of the cheese curds preventing them from breaking or separating. However, you don’t want so much acid that it alters the pH – see below
• We needed a little acid to help prevent the cheese mixture from breaking
Note: pH lower than 5.6 tends to cause the cheese to string or mat.
From here, it was just a matter of trying suggestions we found online, and falling back on our food science knowledge.
Remember how fondue was once an egg dish? Well one of the first recipes we found, an old one from 1920, called for eggs. In this recipe you simply add eggs to the cheese, a touch of salt and some paprika for color and flavor. As we worked on this method, we noticed that even with tempering the eggs—so as to not scramble them—we still ended up with a cottage cheese like consistency. As you can see here:
Next, we read that simply replacing the wine with non-alcoholic sparkling cider was a sure-bet substitution, so we gave it a try and ended up with a much smoother texture, but the flavor was way too sweet for our liking. While the cider added the appropriate acid to keep the cheese from breaking, we couldn’t bring ourselves to like the dessert flavor of this one. Not to mention it was a bit too thick.
We still needed some sort of liquid to replace the wine, something with a similar acid content as the wine and cider but with the right flavor profile, so we thought, “Why not use the same liquid used to make cheese as the liquid to melt the cheese?” We tried it and combined milk with cream and a touch of butter—a good way to add a little more fat to the mix—and used that as our liquid base. The pH of milk ranges from 6.5 to 6.7, so we knew that wouldn’t be an issue for causing string issues, but it also didn’t add the amount of acid we wanted like the wine does. To deal with this, we decided to add a tiny amount of white balsamic vinegar, which lowered the pH just enough and added some of the tartaric acid we wanted.
Finally, we needed to address the cheese types we wanted to use. There are hundreds of varieties of cheese from around the world, but for this we wanted to keep it as close to the traditional cheese as possible. We decided on a combination of Swiss and Gruyere cheeses. The Swiss variety would bring more moisture to the fondue while the Gruyere would bring more fat and flavor. From there, we had all of our i’s dotted and t’s crossed and dove into the process. Once the milk mixture was warm enough, but not too hot to ruin it, we began adding the grated cheese in small amounts, waiting for it to melt between each addition, hit it with some acid, added flavor enhancers and had a deliciously perfect fondue minus the alcohol.
Click HERE for our recipe
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Kochbuch der Anna Margaretha Gessner, 1699, cited by Albert Hauser, Vom Essen und Trinken im alten Zürich, cited by Isabelle Raboud-Schüle, “Comment la fondue vint aux Suisses”, Annales fribourgeoises 2010;72:101–112.
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