Who cut the cheese?
June 21, 2011 1:44 PM   Subscribe

What are the reasons cheese is seemingly so infequently used in "gourmet" cooking?

I'm basing this nearly solely on watching cooking shows on TV (and I also recognize that some cultures are going to use cheese more often than others). It seems like when chefs are asked to impress people with their skills/talents, cheese is seldom an ingredient in the dishes the choose to present, no matter how disparate the selection of dishes. Is there a reason for this, or is this confirmation bias?
posted by radiosilents to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would say that perhaps you have a small sample group. Cheese is used very often in many cuisines. I would go as far as to say that Italian cooking benefits greatly from an assortment of cheeses.
posted by Splunge at 1:47 PM on June 21, 2011

Just guessing here, but cheeses are typically strong flavored, and if a chef is truly trying to show off their skills one ingredient overwhelming all the others doesn't seem like a particularly good way to do this. That said, I haven't noticed the lack of cheese in gourmet cooking and I know that there are plenty of mild cheeses.
posted by ridiculous at 1:54 PM on June 21, 2011

It's also traditionally it's own separate course in fine (French) dining.
posted by Grither at 1:55 PM on June 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Good cheese is usually meant to be eaten on its own or with a few complementary accompaniments. With the notable exception of the great Italian hard cheeses, they're not actually used *in* dishes all that often.
posted by peachfuzz at 1:56 PM on June 21, 2011 [14 favorites]

Partly because the consumption of dairy after adolescence is overwhelmingly a European thing (note I didn't say "exclusively"). So if the cuisine is at all based on East Asian or Middle Eastern traditions, adding cheese just isn't necessarily appropriate as a culinary matter.

That said I agree with Splunge and would add that various cheeses are probably at least as prominent in French haute cuisine as they are in Italian food. And French-style food is probably the canonical "gourmet" food, at least in the European context and contexts derived from it.
posted by rkent at 1:56 PM on June 21, 2011

Well, two things.

First, Americans tend to use cheese a lot more, and in a lot more contexts than foreign cuisines. Really, cheese is only considered a native part of European cuisine--didn't really exist in Asia, Africa, or pre-Colombian America--but Americans have taken to it in ways that even our European forebears haven't. Historically, it's kind of unusual, actually. The whole process-cheese-food thing doesn't really exist elsewhere as far as I can tell, and Americans are far more likely to buy cheese-flavored products than other people are. So to the extent that chefs are doing "world cuisine" dishes, as many of these shows tend to feature, there just isn't going to be all that much cheese.

Second, as others have mentioned, cheese is a pretty common component of Italian and French cooking, so there's probably some confirmation bias at work here. If they're making a pasta dish, odds are pretty decent that there's going to be cheese involved, but they don't seem to make a lot of these for one reason or another, possibly because most Americans are already pretty comfortable with pasta so it isn't considered unusual enough to keep ratings up.
posted by valkyryn at 2:04 PM on June 21, 2011

Most semi-hard cheese doesn't cook well. It turns oily, stringy, and doesn't cohere with the rest of the dish. It does often bake quite well, but there aren't a lot of baking shows on television (too slow).

Semi-hard cheese gets along fine in casseroles and various comfort foods because you can't see it.

You do see soft cheeses (goat, ricotta) a lot in both gourmet and popular European food, because it doesn't break or get terribly runny so it can be used as a filling, layer, or topping. But for the most part cheese is a thing eaten un-heated in combination with meats, fruits, etc. or in a special preparation (fondue).

Consider also that a substantial part of the world, including some of the most popular cuisines in the world, eats very little dairy at all.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:06 PM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would go so far as to say that most Italian cooking would simply not work at all without cheese.

Lyn Never already mentioned Fondue. Then there's Raclette, French onion soup with a toasty-cheesy cover, all kinds of oven dishes with a cheesy crust, cheese soufflet (now, a well performed non-collapsing cheese soufflet is truly gourmet cooking) and a zillion other things where cheese is indispensable. There hardly exists a stew where a healthy grating of Parmiggiano doesn't help to make mundane things instantly heavenly; even a moose-cubes, red wine, juniper and bay-leaves stew with wild mushrooms gets an extra kick that way. And indeed, fresh cheeses of the ricotta type (in Germany: Quark) go into I don't know how many oven dishes of my childhood, cheese cakes, deserts, you name it.

The problem here, apart from global dairy consumption bias issues, is that TV shows only show a very narrow slice of what they call "gourmet" cooking.
posted by Namlit at 2:54 PM on June 21, 2011

I think that even adding cheese to pasta is actually an American thing to do. I seem to recall that Mark Bittman doesn't approve. (Not that he's the most upscale of chefs, but you know.)
posted by yarly at 3:03 PM on June 21, 2011

Best answer: radiosilents: It seems like when chefs are asked to impress people with their skills/talents, cheese is seldom an ingredient in the dishes the choose to present

I think that's because good cheese is a stand-alone product. As pointed out, gourmet is a French word and French notions continue to influence ideas of what constitutes fancy good. Notably, the French serve cheese as a stand-alone course, because great cheese doesn't require or benefit from cheffing. (It's hard to show off a hunk of already perfect cheese, although there are a ton of "gourmet cheeses" that are lovely served as their own course.)

Exceptions are shaved parm-type garnishes, desserts and risotto, although aside from risotto I don't think most chefs consider Italian to be gourmet fare. Sorry about that.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:08 PM on June 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

cheese... didn't really exist in Asia. Are we counting paneer here?
or pre-Colombian America: I have no dates at hand, but Mexico has been putting out cheese for centuries, albeit mostly in the west and north. I also believe that the crema poured over most everything in central Mexico is a cheese of sorts.
As others have noted, French onion soup features a (Swiss) cheese, and Italian dishes regularly feature hard cheeses, ricotta, and mozzarella. Italian cuisine does have a proscription on cheese with seafood, however. The Brits also have Welsh rarebit, which is basically just cheese sauce on toast.
posted by Gilbert at 5:20 PM on June 21, 2011

Look to the Italians to find cheese in your meal. Look to the French to find cheese to the side of your meal. Look to the English to find your meal made of cheese.
posted by TwelveTwo at 5:33 PM on June 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

Most semi-hard cheese doesn't cook well. It turns oily, stringy, and doesn't cohere with the rest of the dish. It does often bake quite well, but there aren't a lot of baking shows on television (too slow).

Not completely true. Hard cheeses like Ricotta Salata, Grana Padano, Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano are usually added to a dish after it is removed from the heat to meld with the other ingredients. and then more is added at serving to preserve the consistency of the cheese. But yes, if you cook in a stove top dish, the cheese will separate. As well, a baked dish with hard cheese on the top will add a fine and delicious crust to any dish.

Mozzarella, provolone, mascarpone and ricotta will all meld just fine without separating in any way.

As well, most cooking shows will "cut away" and show the final baked dish, after a longer cooking process. Two good examples are Lidia's Italy. And the late lamented Mario Batali's, Molto Mario.
posted by Splunge at 5:42 PM on June 21, 2011

I think it's more a function of what will look best on camera and stand up to production. A souffle would be a major pain to make in the studio.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:13 PM on June 21, 2011

I think it depends. There are a ton of cheese-centric gourmet recipes. The problem with cheese is that it tends to ruin the delicate balance of flavors in most gourmet recipes. Cheese isn't bad, but it's akin to using a two-handed sledgehammer to drive in a nail; you'll punch a hole in the wall. The taste tends to be overpowering. There are exceptions, but by and large cheese has a strong flavor that coats the mouth and spoils the palate.
posted by Capt.DooDooFace at 8:05 PM on June 21, 2011

Cheese is a critical part of risotto, which is often pretty gourmet
posted by Perplexity at 10:18 PM on June 21, 2011

Best answer: Food television has its fashions, too. The type of cuisine that seems to be the most popular on cooking shows right now seems to be the "light, fresh" type--not that cheese isn't also good on fresh ingredients, but it's strong and Americans associate it with "heavier" dishes. Those aren't sexy, unless they're desserts.

Plus, Americans are pretty familiar with using cheese. We might not have that much experience with good cheese, in general, but the idea of sprinkling a little bit of cheese on your vegetables just isn't as sexy as a mandarin balsamic reduction, or whatever. We're too familiar with it.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:35 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Goat's cheese is used a lot in gourmet cooking, though.

One reason other cheeses aren't used more I think is that it's hard to make them look particularly attractive when cooked. Melted cheese lacks the ability to be placed with precision on a dish and "gloop" is not a gourment look.
posted by hazyjane at 4:43 AM on June 22, 2011

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