Beyond slicing and snacking: The art of actually cooking with cheese

As "Top Chef" showed us, when you view cheese as just a snack, you're missing out on so much more

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published April 9, 2024 11:00AM (EDT)

Varieties of cheese and bread sticks  (Getty Images/Westend61)
Varieties of cheese and bread sticks (Getty Images/Westend61)

For as long as I can remember, cheese has been my favorite food. It is truly insurmountable to me. I have eaten more than my weight in specifically Parmigiano Reggiano and mozzarella over the years, and is the epitome of a comfort food for me — from the saline, crystallized bites in the aforementioned parmesan to the salty, crumbly bite of feta. 

So it’s a bummer that the “cheese” challenge in this season’s "Top Chef," which is remarkably set in Wisconsin, was so underwhelming. Unimaginative, droll, flat. Aside from a few particular dishes (Danny’s, Rasika’s, Michelle’s), the results of the challenge were very lackluster. I always love seeing Carla Hall, though!

But I digress: When it comes to cooking with cheese — as in actually incorporating cheese into a dish versus simply slicing it and serving it alongside honey, mostarda and olives — there are many things to consider. 

Cheese can lend a vast tapestry of flavor notes, profiles, textures and consistencies to a dish, based on so many of its inherent traits as well as how those traits are manipulated: Is it a central component of the dish? Is it incorporated into the dish? Or it is being used as a topping, such as grating cheese onto pasta, mixing cubes into salad — or even like Manny's curds on his reimagined poutine in this episode?There's also a whole other genre of grillable cheese, like squeaky halloumi, which is one of my absolute favorites. 

That's even without considering the variety of flavors cheese can lend a dish. Do you want the bite of gorgonzola or the mildness of brie? Do you want the crumble of feta or the melting capabilities of gruyere? Do you want a goat’s milk cheese in your salad or a sheep’s? Is there a rind on your cheese, and if so, is it edible? Is it stinky, like taleggio? The list goes on and on.

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The uses of cheese are myriad and practically infinite, but if you have some in your fridge or you’re just a verified cheesehead like me, here are some ideas for using those wonderful cheeses in ways other than simply slicing and snacking:

Incorporate into a sauce
You may have heard many mentions of Mornay on this week's episode — one particular mention was in Danny's terrific-sounding dish, which reminded so much of a dish I had at Crown Shy in New York a few years back. Mornay is essentially plain ol' Bechemel that is then enriched with Gruyere and sometimes parmesan. Yes, it is as good as it sounds. The way it enrobes and enlivens anything with which it is served is astonishing. Any macaroni-and-cheese you may have ever had was probably made with something similar, just with lots and lots cheddar (or Colby or Brie or gouda or Monterey jack or fontina or manchego . . .) instead.
But why stop at that? Use any of your favorite base sauces and whisk in a cheese and see what it might impart, how it shifts the flavor, how it changes the textures and so on and so forth. Sometimes, you might land on something incredible. Just be sure to always opt for a finely shredded or grated cheese, which will help it to more uniformly dissolve or melt into the sauce itself instead of resulting in a large, unappealing orb of quasi-melted cheese coated in a disparate sauce. 
Use in a stuffing or filling
I have made an inordinate amount of stuffed chicken breasts in my life. I usually opt for multiple cheeses, bread crumbs, lemon zest, a touch of cream, sometimes sun-dried tomatoes and lots of fresh herbs, but the specifics differ based on the season and what I have on hand. You don't have to just stop at chicken, though. Really, you can stuff anything. 
Of course, a pepper is always an option, but I love stuffed onions, tomatoes, eggplants and zucchini.
Furthermore, stuffed breads are always a wonderful option, like an uber-cheesy pepperoni bread or a savory cross-hatched bread stuffed with tons of cheeses, garlic and herbs. Of course, grilled cheese would also fall in this category (how did no one on "Top Chef" make grilled cheese and tomato soup in this episode?), as well as the always iconic stuffed mushroom. This genre of cheese dishes are typified by that ooey-gooey, "cheese pull" type moments.
Harness the melting qualities as a binder



One of my favorite things in the world is roasting vegetables and then, about halfway through the cooking process, adding some cheese (almost always gruyere and parm, sometimes mozzarella, sometimes fontina) and letting the cheese melt and brown, melding with the crisped vegetables. I love the way the cheese melts and pools, sort of trapping the veggies, the flavors of the cheese imbuing the vegetables and vice-versa — I truly haven't eaten vegetables any other way in years.


I pretty much always opt for a singular vegetable and I always let the sheet tray sit for a good five minutes for the cheese to begin to solidify. Sometimes, I like to top the cheesy roasted vegetables with picked shallots and a nut of sorts, like a salted pistachio or hazelnut. 


Conversely, the "binding" method is great, obviously, for sandwiches, as well as practically any potato or mushroom dish, stuffed items, or anything else you're looking to cook that needs something to help "fuse" it together. This is also the case for the deep, bronzed caramelization on my chicken parm., which is the single dish I've cooked the most over the years. 


In terms of embracing the "gooey" aspect of cheese, though, there may be no better usage than good ol' fondueOf course, there's also cascading, melted Raclette over any sort of potato, which is also unmissable. Cheese is just too darn good.

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Experiment with pizzas and flatbreads
One of my all-time favorite dishes comes from a cookbook written by Christina Ha, the first and only visually-impaired person to win "Masterchef." It's called "Bombay Flatbread" and it's essentially naan bread — or whatever flatbread you have on hand or would like to make — topped with Indian-spiced spiced chicken, cilantro cream, mozzarella, feta and a fried egg. It's a wildly unique, bombastic dish and every bite is rip-roaring with amazing textural differentiation (melted cheese! runny yolk! spiced chicken!) and flavor.
Similarly, if you've had a Neopolitan pizza made with hand-torn chunks of fresh mozzarella, you know there's a vast difference when compared to a pizza made with shredded mozzarella. I'm a sucker for fontina on pizza and a classic white pie with mozzarella, ricotta and parmigiano is always an amazing textural experience. 
Try out different bases and different cheeses and you'll be amazed at the results, from the way the cheeses melts to how they brown and the varying flavor they take on depending on how long they're cooked.

Elevate soups and salads

Every bowl of Italian Wedding Soup must have freshly grated Parm. on top. All chili or baked potato soup requires some shredded cheddar. I'm obsessed with slightly melted Mexican cheeses on top of a taco salad. There's nothing like enormous chunks of feta in a Greek salad. I adore the cheesy, full-flavored creaminess of goat cheese scattered throughout greens, with some crunchy nuts and dried fruit to provide textural differentiation.
Sometimes, stirring cheese into the soup base itself is perfect, while other times, a sprinkling on top if the preferable option. I'm obsessed with pressed, cubed, super-thinly-sliced or otherwise manipulated stone fruits paired with creamy cheeses, like a burrata, with lots of salt and olive oil. Cheese is the perfect ingredient for both soups and salads, no matter if it's a starring ingredient or a mere garnish. 

"Top Chef" Takeaways, Episode 3:

  • loved how Rasika used simply cherries and onions in her Quick Fire dish, concentrating and focusing on those flavors and those flavors alone. She's terrific! 
  • I loved how astute and cutting the guest judge was and his critiques were super insightful and revealing — yet he was never properly introduced aside from a fleeting reference early in the episode. Is Kristen just not introducing the guests or is that being cut out? Similarly, I was confused last episode by that random man who was apparently a comedian and why everyone at that table would throw their heads back and laugh with fervor at every word he said. I loved how Padma would slowly but surely introduce every single person and a bit about them. I'm finding that pretty jarringly missing thus far this season. 
  • I really liked Kenny and think he was so unvarnished, upfront and refreshing in his confessions, which is such a rarity in modern reality TV, whether competitive or otherwise. Some of his dishes sounded so great, too  I really liked how committed he was to his culture and his cuisine throughout each dish. Alisha is similar in confessionals: Raw, self-deprecating, not putting on airs, not visibly attempting to make funny quips. I always enjoy those types of chefestants, who have been fewer and further between as the show’s continued on.

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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