Cheese Melting

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
What is going on when we melt a piece of cheese? Essentially two things. First, at around 90°F, the milk fat melts, which makes the cheese more supple, and often brings little beads of melted fat to the surface. Then at higher temperatures—around 130°F/55°C for soft cheeses, 150°F/65°C for Cheddar and Swiss types, 180°F/82°C for Parmesan and pecorino— enough of the bonds holding the casein proteins together are broken that the protein matrix collapses, and the piece sags and flows as a thick liquid. Melting behavior is largely determined by water content. Low-moisture hard cheeses require more heat to melt because their protein molecules are more concentrated and so more intimately bonded to each other; and when melted, they flow relatively little. Separate pieces of grated moist mozzarella will melt together, while flecks of Parmesan remain separate. With continued exposure to high heat, moisture will evaporate from the liquefied cheese, which gets progressively stiffer and eventually resolidifies. Most cheeses will leak some melted fat, and extensive breakdown of the protein fabric accentuates this in high-fat cheeses. The ratio of fat to surrounding protein is just 0.7 in part-skim Parmesan, around 1 in mozzarella and the alpine cheeses, but 1.3 in Roquefort and Cheddar, which are especially prone to exuding fat when melted.