Fondue may feel retro, but sharing a pot of hot, melted cheese is timeless

Fondue is “good. It’s cozy. ... It is very accessible,” says one chef.

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, I’m leaving Burt out of the picture, but I am going to show you how to make good fondue, regardless of what 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, Gruyère 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.

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 Gruyère 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 Gruyère. Another traditional pairing, as in the recipe shared here, is Gruyère 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 Comté as another good candidate, and the original version of the recipe that follows 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 local cheese expert, 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.

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 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 F 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 stovetop. 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 stovetop. 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. 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.

***

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 Gruyère, but you can experiment with your favorite types. To be the most accessible, we’ve written this recipe for a Dutch oven. If you have a fondue pot, use it instead.



Classic Swiss Fondue

4 to 6 servings

8 ounces Emmentaler cheese, shredded or cut into ¼-inch dice

8 ounces Gruyère cheese, shredded or cut into ¼-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

½ 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 tablespoons of 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 , 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

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