Did fondue ever really go away?
Did cheese go away? Did wine go away? Did Switzerland go away? Did people’s love of melted cheese go away?
The answer is an emphatic “no” to all of the above, and yet fondue does have a trapped in amber — er, congealed cheese — reputation.
“Fondue is a conjurer of the past, a food trend that exists primarily in memory, often decades removed from the last time you ate it,” writes David Sax in “The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up With Fondue,” his 2014 book about food trends. “You hear its name and picture ski lodges, a fog of stinky cheese, crackling fireplaces, shag carpets, and Burt Reynolds lying there, shirtless and with a long-stemmed fork in his hand.”
Well, friends for better (or worse?), I’m leaving Burt out of the picture, but I am going to show you how to make good fondue, regardless of whatever decade you want to channel.
The reason is simple, as executive chef David Fritsche of Washington’s Swiss-themed restaurant Stable succinctly explains. “It’s good. It’s cozy. . . . It is very accessible.” It’s also very fun.
Fondue is so accessible in part because of its probable origins as a 19th-century peasant food, created as a way to use up stale bread and scraps of cheese. “It comes from a poor man’s history,” Fritsche says.
After that, we can trace its spread to the Swiss Cheese Union, a powerful cheesemaker cartel that wanted to not only control the country’s supply of cheese (specifically Emmentaler, Gruyere and Sbrinz) but push its consumption. So, ta-da, fondue suddenly became what all the cool cats did in their stylish clothes — après-ski, of course. This is the kind of image, probably with ‘70s-era clothes, that you may picture when you think of fondue. New York restaurants such as Chalet Suisse and Swiss Pavilion also helped cement its popularity, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. (Anne’s Reader Exchange, a regular feature in The Washington Post way back in the day, featured a fondue recipe from Swiss Pavilion in 1959.)
In the intervening decades, people have declared fondue over. And then back. And gone again. And so on. I’m not going to make such grand proclamations, although I have to say I was pleasantly surprised when a call-out for props on my neighborhood mom’s group resulted in a chorus of people who said they regularly use their sets.
Thankfully, you don’t need a set — or bouffant — to make and enjoy a pot of delicious, warm cheese. Here are some tips on how to make it and ensure your gathering goes as smooth as the fondue itself.
• The cheese. The composition of fondue in Switzerland varies according to region (“canton” is the official term). A typical combination, says Fritsche, is a half-and-half mix of hard Gruyere and semihard but creamy Vacherin Fribourgeois. At the restaurant, they offer a blend of Vacherin Fribourgeois and two varieties of Schlossberger, which is similar to Gruyere. Another traditional pairing, as in the recipe shared here, is Gruyere and Emmentaler, the latter of which is the holey variety often referred to as “Swiss cheese.”
Fondue can skew milder or sharper depending on your personal preference, as long as you keep the texture in mind. “You’ve got to stick with those cheeses that melt well,” says Lenny Moonsammy, the senior dairy buyer at Amy’s Kitchen who published the simply titled cookbook “Fondue” in 2007.
She suggests Comte as another good candidate, and the original version of the recipe below even threw some raclette into the mix, which I found made for a slightly stretchier cheese-pull experience. Keep in mind that very soft cheeses will liquefy, and hard, crumbly ones won’t melt sufficiently to incorporate into the mix. In other words, avoid such varieties as Parmigiano-Reggiano, cheddar and feta. If you want to include something like a little brie or blue cheese, just fold it in at the end as an accent.
Moonsammy says you shouldn’t be shy about consulting your cheesemonger, who can point you to specialty varieties you may not have heard of.
As far as ratios, Fritsche and Stable general manager Silvan Kraemer recommend an approximate 2-to-1 ratio of cheese to wine. (In the following recipe, that translates to 1 pound, or 4 cups, of grated cheese and 2 cups of wine.) According to Hallie Harron in “Not Your Mother’s Fondue,” plan on 1/3 to 2/3 cup of fondue per person.
In testing, I tried both shredding and finely chopping the cheese, and both worked well. Do whatever you feel like.
- The Booze. As Swiss natives, Fritsche and Kraemer naturally suggest making and serving fondue with a Swiss wine, specifically fendant, a dry white. Swiss wines aren’t always the easiest to source, however. I was happy with tests that featured pinot gris/grigio and riesling, though you could also use something like sauvignon blanc. Just don’t feel like you have to spend a ton. “Pouring good, pricey wine into fondue is basically a waste of money,” opines Daniel Gritzer at Serious Eats. Fondues made with beer or cider are not unheard of, either.
Just steer clear of red for fondue. “Red wine is not good,” Moonsammy says, “and it often makes it gray and ugly.”
Fondue also typically includes additional liqueur, most often kirschwasser, or cherry brandy. If you have another fruit brandy you like, try that. Stable also offers the option of pear schnapps.
- Bread. Fritsche bakes his own bread at Stable and describes his ideal dipper as something crusty on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside. Anything too delicate will disintegrate in the cheese. The 1979 Post article from which I sourced my recipe (headline: “True Fondue: The Dish Before It Hit the Melting Pot”) recommends a country bread, “not French baguette, Italian, rye or pumpernickel.” Another tip: Let the bread stale for a few days so that it’s less doughy. One-inch cubes are an ideal size. If you prefer not to let the bread sit out for a few days, very lightly toasting the cubes in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes is fine, too.
- Equipment. If you have a fondue set, whether it’s sleek and modern or a dusty vintage one your parents never touched, great! Options include ceramic (traditional but easy to crack), stainless steel (light but less even heat), electric (no burners required but mind the cord) and enameled cast-iron (heavy, heat-retaining and relatively easy to clean). Some sets include pots that are safe to put on your stove top. Otherwise, you can cook in a different pot and then transfer to the fondue pot to keep warm, over a candle or other low-heat source, such as Sterno gel.
If you don’t have a set, fear not. “The equipment makes for a nice experience, but you don’t need it,” Fritsche says. I successfully cooked and served numerous batches of fondue in an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven on the stove top. I did find I had to fiddle with the heat a bit to keep the fondue warm and smooth, switching between low and medium-low. Transferring the fondue to a slow cooker is another possibility. Regardless of what you end up serving the fondue in, you may find you need an occasional splash of liquid to maintain a fluid consistency as it thickens from evaporation. If you’ve played it right, at the end you should have a crispy, crackerlike layer of cheese on the bottom that is a special treat.
Have your set’s included forks at hand, or at the very least the longest dinner forks you can manage. Skewers can work in a pinch, but the single tip as opposed to prongs can make it more probable that food will be lost in the cheese.
- Cooking. High heat is the enemy of fondue, as it can cause the cheese to break and the mixture to separate. Including starch is one insurance policy against that sad result. My preferred starch is potato, which is not only gluten-free for those with dietary restrictions, but also ideal for an especially silky fondue. Batches with all-purpose flour skewed grainy if not catastrophic, but you could try arrowroot or tapioca starch in place of the potato. In my experience, tossing the cheese first with the starch ensured the fondue thickened reliably and evenly.
To further guard against breaking, make the fondue over nothing higher than medium heat. Gradually add the cheese a little at a time, stirring constantly. Fritsche cautions against using a whisk, which he says can turn the texture stringy, so pull out a spatula or wooden spoon for stirring. Once the fondue just starts to bubble and you feel it thicken, it’s ready.
- Accompaniments. Fondue is “technically a meal in itself,” Kraemer says, but that doesn’t mean people don’t want other food served with the bread and cheese. You can take a page out of Stable’s book and offer Brussels sprouts, cornichons, boiled potatoes and apples as sides or dippers. He recommends a light salad and charcuterie as other options for your spread.
Moonsammy suggests an even longer list of possibilities for dipping, such as sliced fennel, peppers, sausages, ham, broccoli, cauliflower and pearl or cipollini onions. “Everything’s better with cheese, right?” she says. In summer, she considers tomatoes and radishes fair game, too.
As far as drinks, think about sticking with the same kind of dry whites that go into the fondue. Hot tea is also traditional. Whether it’s actually true or just makes for a dissonant eating experience, conventional wisdom says not to serve fondue with cool water, lest the cheese lump in your stomach. Or follow Fritsche and Kraemer’s lead and enjoy the cheese with schnapps.
- Etiquette and hosting. Rule No. 1: “No one likes double dipping,” Moonsammy says. Each guest should have their own fork, and you should never put your mouth on the actual tongs, instead pulling the food off with your teeth. Even better, if you can, provide enough forks so that guests can dip with one and eat with another — for example, dip with the fondue fork and eat with a regular dinner fork.
When you’re dipping, move the fork around in a figure-eight shape along the bottom of the pot. This doubles as a way to stir the cheese and keep the bottom from scorching. And if something falls off the fork? Come up with your own rules, though traditional lore often involves having to take a shot, buy a round for the group or — gulp — kiss someone (maybe that was rightfully left in the ‘70s?).
If you’re the host, Harron advises having plenty of napkins available, as “fondue can be a little drippy.” For fondue sets, she recommends putting the pot in the center of a table. Be sure the pot is sitting on a stable surface in a location that’s easy for guests to reach.
For parties in which you might serve multiple batches of fondue, Moonsammy likes to position them in different parts of the house to encourage mixing and mingling. The idea is to make it as relaxed and enjoyable as possible. “Everyone loves a fondue party, I’m telling you,” she says.
“If you eat fondue with your friends,” Fritsche says, “you’re definitely going to have a good time.”
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CLASSIC SWISS FONDUE
4 to 6 servings
Here is a simple, no-frills fondue that is cozy and comforting. This recipe, cribbed from a recipe in The Washington Post archives from 1979, is very much like what you might find served in Switzerland. It uses two typical Swiss cheeses, Emmentaler and Gruyere, but you can experiment with your favorite types. Just try to stay away from anything too hard (Parmigiano-Reggiano, cheddar), and if you prefer softer or bolder varieties (brie, blue), use them as accents at the end.
To be the most accessible, we’ve written this recipe for a Dutch oven. If you have a fondue pot, use it instead.
We found potato starch made for an especially effective thickener that gave the smoothest fondue; you can substitute all-purpose flour.
Cubes of bread are the classic accompaniment, but you can try whatever dippers you like, including boiled potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts.
8 ounces Emmentaler cheese, shredded or cut into 1/4-inch dice
8 ounces Gruyere cheese, shredded or cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 tablespoon potato starch
2 cloves garlic, one cut in half and one minced
2 cups dry white wine, such as pinot grigio, riesling or sauvignon blanc, plus more as needed
3 to 4 tablespoons kirsch
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
In a medium bowl, toss the cheeses with the potato starch until the cheese is evenly coated.
Rub the halved garlic all around the inside of an enameled Dutch oven (or fondue pot). Add the wine and bring it to almost a boil over medium heat. You should see some bubbles breaking the surface. Gradually add the cheese to the pot, stirring constantly with a spatula or wooden spoon. Continue stirring until the cheese is thoroughly melted and the mixture is smooth.
Stir in 3 tablespoon kirsch, the minced garlic, paprika, nutmeg and freshly ground black pepper (to taste). Continue stirring the mixture until it just starts to simmer and thickens. If you dip a piece of bread into the fondue, the cheese should coat it. If you find the mixture is too thick at this point, stir in the additional tablespoon of kirsch and/or additional wine.
Reduce the heat to low and serve, encouraging people to stir and scrape the bottom as they dip into the fondue. (Alternately, if you have a fondue set, place the fondue pot over its heat source.) As time goes on, the fondue will thicken, so you may need to fiddle with the heat, occasionally increasing it and/or adding more wine to maintain a fluid consistency, as desired.
Nutrition (based on 6 servings) | Calories : 380; Total Fat: 23 g; Saturated Fat: 13 g; Sodium: 350 mg; Carbohydrates: 5 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 0 g; Protein: 22 g.