One of the most popular Swiss cheeses, Emmental deserves a permanent place in your fridge, and on your cutting board.
Emmental cheese, also called Emmentaler or Emmenthal, is a medium-hard Swiss cheese all but famous for its yellow color and its many holes. It comes from the mountainous valley of Emmental in Switzerland, where its production continues to feed the local economy to this day.
How Emmental Cheese Is Made
Made from cow’s milk cultured with three types of bacteria, Emmental tastes nutty and subtly buttery, with a fruity, flowery, acidic undertone to it. Its fragrance and flavor come from the Alpine grass that the cows ate and the bacteria that their milk was cultured with.
To make Emmental cheese, Swiss dairies warm cow’s milk in large copper vats, then culture it with three types of “friendly,” probiotic bacteria: Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus helveticus, and Propionibacterium freudenreichii.
They cut the curd as it solidifies, then knead and turn it over at least six times. When ready, it gets pressed into cheese wheels weighing 165-220 lb (75-100 kg) and measuring a diameter of 32-39 in (80-100 cm). Then, they leave them to age for 2-12 months, depending on the variety.
Not All Emmental Cheese Is From Switzerland
It is a surprise to many when I say that not all Swiss cheese is made in Switzerland.
If you want authentic, traditional, Swiss-imported Emmental cheese, look for “Emmentaler AOP.” AOP stands for “Appellation d’Origine Protégée,” or “Protected Designation of Origin,” and only Swiss cheeses that adhere to strict regulations and undergo master cheesegrader inspection can be labeled with it.
Is the steep price tag worth it, you ask? Totally. Emmentaler AOP comes from fresh, untreated milk from cows that ate only grass and hay. Additives and GMO ingredients are strictly forbidden.
When you bite into it, you literally get a taste of Switzerland.
Selecting Emmental at the Grocery Store
That being said, Emmentaler AOP cheese is expensive. When you don’t feel like breaking the bank to indulge in cheese snobbery, store-bought Emmental cheese can be just as good of an option.
All grocery stores and hypermarket chains in the U.S., from Kroger and Publix to Target and Walmart, tend to carry at least one or two kinds of Emmental cheese.
When selecting pre-packaged Emmental at the store, skip the cheap, value-brand stuff and reach for a block of Applegate, Emmi Roth, Grand Suisse, or President. You want the cheese to have a saturated yellow color, an abundance of holes, and to be soft and malleable to the touch.
Paleness is a sign that the cows ate more than grass and hay; fewer holes mean underdeveloped aroma and flavor; hardness indicates a higher processing temperature than prescribed by Swiss tradition (meaning a temperature higher than 70°F).
The Best Substitutes for Emmental Cheese
Generally, any Swiss cheese made from cow’s milk and aged for 6 to 12 months, especially Gruyère and Raclette, can be used as a substitute for Emmental. Other substitutes include Gouda, Fontina, and, on the stronger-flavored side, Edam and White Cheddar.
Gruyère, also a Swiss cheese, is a great substitute for Emmental. Made from cow’s milk and aged for 12 months, it’s a melter with a rich, nutty, and earthy flavor ideal for cubing in salads, grating over hearty pasta dishes, or melting in fondue.
Savory, fruity, and soft, Raclette is a Swiss cheese made from cow’s milk that’s also an excellent Emmental substitute for adding to grilled cheese sandwiches and for topping baked potatoes. (Though Raclette is missing some of the tang and game that only Emmental cheese can provide).
Of the American cheeses, worthy Emmental substitutes to consider are Ascutney Mountain cheese, Appalachian cheese with the rind removed, and, on the crumblier side, Bleu Mont Cheddar.
Storing Emmental for Maximum Freshness
Emmental cheese—unopened or opened, pre-packaged or bought from the deli counter—should be kept in the fridge and shouldn’t be left to sit out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. Otherwise, bacteria inside it can grow to dangerous levels and make it unsafe to eat.
Refrigerate unopened pre-packaged Emmental cheese in its original packaging and use it up before the “best by” date. Deli-counter cheese, whether it’s wrapped in plastic or paper, lasts for 3-4 weeks in your fridge (the sooner you eat or cook with it, the better).
Most cooks make the mistake of wrapping cheese in plastic wrap and storing it on the upper shelves of their fridge. A better storage method is to cover the cheese with wax or butcher paper, allowing it to breathe, then store it in the vegetable crisper drawer.
Emmental cheese should never be moldy. If you see mold spotting or notice an off odor or flavor, there’s a high chance the cheese has spoiled. Don’t take your chances and throw it in the bin, as others in your home can make the mistake of eating it.
Freezing and Thawing Emmental Cheese
Emmental cheese, whether a block, cubed, sliced, or shredded, can be frozen for prolonged storage. Simply pop it in a freezer bag and put it in your freezer, where it will keep its best quality for up to 12 months.
Frozen foods stay safe to eat indefinitely, the USDA says. However, the cheese will eventually dry out and become crumbly and mealy, so don’t take too long to use it up.
To thaw Emmental cheese, transfer it to your fridge the night before you plan to use it. On the following day, by the time for dinner, it will have defrosted and will be ready for you to eat or cook with.
Great Ways to Enjoy Emmental Cheese
Emmental is the perfect snacking cheese, whether accompanied by a hunk of rustic, homemade bread and a tall glass of white wine or cubed alongside meats, fruits, and pickled vegetables on a charcuterie board.
It’s also a nutty, creamy, and stretchy melter, making it a great addition to a number of guilty-pleasure sandwiches from all around the world: from American grilled cheese and crispy baked Italian subs to French Croque Madame and Croque Monsieur.
Other decadent—yet homely—ways to enjoy this cheese include deep-frying it (battered), adding it to potato fritters (grated), or tucking it into your omelets. Some Americans also like to add it to their macaroni and cheese (not too much, though, as its flavor can be overpowering).
For the same reasons, Emmental is perfect for adding to Swiss fondue. That being said, avoid adding it to sauces, as it has a hard time breaking down and will make them overly stringy.
Why Emmental Cheese Has Holes
Emmental cheese has holes because of the P. shermanii bacteria, which churn out carbon dioxide that builds up the form of gas bubbles inside the cheese as it matures. (Just like the way that yeast bacteria make your pizza airy and your homebrew bubbly.)
These holes, according to Cheese.com, are known as “eyes,” and cheesemakers call a batch of Swiss cheese without them “blind.” They are a sign of fermentation, which develops aroma and flavor. So the more holes a piece of Emmental cheese has, the more pronounced its smell and taste.
Curiously enough, the holes were considered as imperfections back in the day, and cheesemakers would avoid do all they could do avoid having them in their cheese wheels. But that changed over time—and cheese with holes became a symbol for Swiss craftsmanship recognized by critics, foodies, chefs, and home cooks worldwide.
Where Emmental Cheese Comes From
The Swiss have been making Emmental since the 13th century. The first mention of this type of cheese appears in written records from 1293. But it was only called by its present-day name in a document dating back to 1542.
As with most delicious foods, Emmental was born as much out of practical ingenuity as it was out of necessity:
“At the beginning of each summer,” cheese expert Juliet Harbutt writes in her 2009 book, World Cheese Book, “farmers would take their small herds to the summer pastures, known as alpage.”
These farmers were far from the nearest markets, Harbutt explains, so they came up with a recipe for a cheese that took several months to age in mountain chalets—those wooden, sloped-roof houses oh-so-typical of Switzerland—or in small, farmer-owned cooperatives.