That cheese is giving you trouble? Let’s talk about what makes cheese melt, or not, when cooked in the oven.
It’s your day off. You wanted to treat yourself to a decadent grilled cheese, so you took a block of cheese out of the fridge, cut a few slices, placed them between two pieces of bread, and slid the newly-assembled sandwich in the oven.
When you took the sandwich out of the oven, everything seemed fine. The bread, which had turned golden brown on the outside, felt crispy and smelled heavenly. The cheese—the hero of your story—looked as if it had melted well.
Memories of the grilled cheese sandwiches you ate as a child at your grandmother’s house in the countryside flashed through your mind as you took the first bite of the sandwich and reality hit. Something had gone terribly wrong; the cheese was cold and barely melted.
Frustrated and confused, you left the sandwich on the dining room table, grabbed your phone, and googled the subject. Now you find yourself here, wanting to know exactly what went wrong. To give you the long and the short of it:
If your cheese doesn’t melt in the oven, ask yourself: did you use the right type of cheese, bring the cheese to room temperature first, and cook it for enough time at the right temperature?
A loaded question, we know. So let’s help you get to the answer.
What Causes Cheese to Melt?
All cheeses, whether made from buffalo, cow, or goat milk, react to heat in two stages. First, they soften. Then, depending on whether they’re curdled with calf rennet or lactic acid bacteria, they either melt or stiffen up.
At a temperature of 90°F (32°C), the milk fat begins to separate from the solids, softening the cheese. But it’s not until the cheese reaches an internal temperature of 130°F to 180°F (54°C to 82°C) that it melts (or not).
Here, the cheese’s recipe starts to make a difference:
Non-vegetarian cheeses made with rennet, the curdled milk from the stomach of an unweaned calf, melt because their proteins, the casein molecules, are bound together by calcium atoms that break down when heated.
When that happens, unripened cheeses like mozzarella become gooey and stretchy, and ripened cheese like cheddar melt softly and smoothly.
On the flip side, vegetarian cheeses curdled with lactic acid bacteria don’t melt at all. The casein molecules are bound together by clumping. These clumps stiffen when the cheese is heated, which helps it keep its shape and tighten up.
In case you’ve ever wondered, that’s exactly what makes Cyprian halloumi and Greek feta such good options for throwing on a hot grill or cooking in grill pan on the stove.
Which Cheeses Melt the Best?
Even if we limit ourselves to rennet-curdled cheeses varieties, some cheeses melt better than others. Knowing which ones to bake—and which ones to put on a salad or serve on a cheese board—can make or break your home-cooked meals.
Cheeses with high moisture content, such as fresh mozzarella, or high fat content, such as cheddar, generally melt well in the oven. In contrast, dry cheeses like parmesan retain their shape when cooked.
Some of the best melters are Monterey Jack for grilled cheese sandwiches, American and young cheddar cheese for burgers, fresh or dried mozzarella for pizza, provolone or cheese whiz for a Philly cheesesteaks, and Gruyère for French onion soup.
So if you want your food to have a gooey texture, go for one of the above cheeses. For the same reasons, stay away from aged, dried, lean cheeses, and unless you actually want them to keep their shape during cooking.
How to Melt Cheese the Right Way
You read this far, which means you can now pick the right type of cheese for every occasion. That said, you can still mess up your dish if you don’t learn to melt the cheese properly.
The good news for cooks like you and me is that melting cheese isn’t rocket science. Familiarize yourself with the technique that I’m about to show you, and you will have to spend countless hours in the gym to compensate for your newly-acquired skill. (You’ve been warned; proceed with caution!)
Bring the cheese to room temperature first:
You do this by removing the cheese from the fridge and resting it on your counters for 15-20 minutes. This tempers the casein (the protein), making it easier to cook and melt the cheese.
Preheat your oven for 15-20 minutes:
Baking works best when room temperature foods suddenly come in contact with the heat of your oven. If you don’t preheat your oven, your food is guaranteed to be cooked unevenly.
Don’t go crazy on the heat:
This is trickier; what’s appropriate depends on what’s cooking.
Suppose you’re making a sandwich or baked ziti, and the bread or pasta has already been cooked. Use low heat and a dry cheese. When baking a pizza, and the pie is raw, use high heat to puff up the crust and a moist cheese with enough moisture to withstand it without burning.
If you’re making a sandwich, don’t turn the oven up so high that the bread browns before the cheese can melt. Also, you shouldn’t use fresh mozzarella, whose moisture will seep into the bread and make the sandwich soggy. When in doubt, use Monterey Jack or a younger cheddar and bake it in the oven at 275°F (135 °C).
When making a pizza, preheat your oven to 500-550°F (260-290°C) and use fresh—not dried—mozzarella. The reason for this is that the crust consists of raw, uncooked dough, and it needs a lot of heat to dry out and puff up. When the crust has turned golden brown, the fresh mozzarella cheese will have melted without burning, largely thanks to its moisture content.