Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Melted cheese becomes stringy when mostly intact casein molecules are cross-linked together by calcium into long, rope-like fibers that can stretch but get stuck to each other. If the casein has been attacked extensively by ripening enzymes, then the pieces are too small to form fibers; so well-aged grating cheeses don’t get stringy. The degree of cross-linking also matters: a lot and the casein molecules are so tightly bound to each other that they can’t give with pulling, and simply snap apart; a little and they pull apart right away. The cross-linking is determined by how the cheese was made: high acidity removes calcium from the curd, and high moisture, high fat, and high salt help separate casein molecules from each other. So the stringiest cheeses are moderate in acidity, moisture, salt, and age. The most common stringy cheeses are intentionally fibrous mozzarella, elastic Emmental, and Cheddar. Crumbly cheeses like Cheshire and Leicester, and moist ones like Caerphilly, Colby, and Jack are preferred for making such melted preparations as Welsh rarebit, stewed cheese, and grilled-cheese sandwiches. Similarly, Emmental’s alpine cousin Gruyère is preferred in fondues because it’s moister, fatter, and saltier. And the Italian grating cheeses—Parmesan, grana Padano, the pecorinos—have had their protein fabric sufficiently broken that its pieces readily disperse in sauces, soups, risottos, polenta, and pasta dishes.