Melting cheese can be a tricky business, especially if you're making a dish like a cheeseburger or a grilled cheese sandwich that requires cheese to melt on top of bread or meat. If the cheese takes too long to melt, the rest of the meal will be overcooked, while if it melts too quickly, it will puddle. American and Cheddar cheese are both known for their melting qualities, but which one is better depends on what exactly you're looking for.
Why Cheese Melts
The structure of cheese consists of milk fat held within a network of milk protein strands. When cheese is heated, the network of strands relaxes, creating the gooey, melted desired texture. Other characteristics, including the cheese's fat content and level of acidity, also influence the way in which it melts. A study by Dutch scientists suggests that people prefer the taste of melted cheese to the taste of the same cheese in its solid state.
Cheddar cheese is relatively soft, with a high moisture level compared to other types of cheese. These two factors give it a comparatively low melting point, melting at around 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Cheddar melts well, with a smooth, even texture, neither stringy nor runny. However, other, creamier cheeses melt more quickly. Cheddar can also vary in its consistency.
American cheese, usually encountered in the form of square packaged slices, is not technically cheese, but usually sold as "cheese food." The difference -- that American cheese contains oil or gelatin rather than only milk fat -- is also why it melts so well. The difference in composition makes American cheese melt quickly and smoothly, without becoming either unmanageably liquid or stringy.
Meddling With the Melt
Although American cheese is ideal for melting, most cheese lovers turn up their nose at its bland, mild flavor and lack of character. However, it is possible to artificially recreate American cheese's low melting point and smooth consistency in another cheese. Adding an emulsifying salt, such as sodium citrate, to a cheese will change its melting properties without altering its taste, according to "Saveur" magazine. The result is an easy-melting cheese with the flavor of your favorite Gruyere or cheddar.
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