What is Fondue?

Cheese fondue

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If you're a cheese lover, fondue is the dish for you. And if you happen to be a chocolate lover, or a meat lover, there's a fondue for you, too. But what is this wondrous dish, and how can you incorporate it into your life? 

What is Fondue?

Although there are several variations, the word fondue primarily refers to a dish consisting of melted cheeses combined with wine, cognac or brandy. It's served communally, from a ceramic pot containing the cheese warmed from below to keep it melted, and enjoyed by dipping chunks of bread at the ends of long forks into the cheese and then eating them.

Fondue aficionados claim that the best bite develops at the bottom of the pot during the course of the meal. The crusty slab of cheese, called le religieuse, is reverentially scraped off and shared around the table.

History of Fondue 

Fondue originated in Switzerland, as a way to use hardened cheese and stale bread during the winter months, so the traditional cheeses for making it are Swiss cheeses, mainly Emmental and Gruyère. The name is derived from the French verb fondre, meaning "to melt." 

Different regions in Switzerland, as well as France and alpine Italy, use a variety of cheeses, including Vacherin, Appenzeller, and Sbrinz in Switzerland; Comté, Beaufort and Reblochon in France; and Fontina in Italy. 

With that said, fondue-like dishes exist in cultures around the world, such as Chinese hot pots and Japanese shabu-shabu, in which diners cook chunks of meat, seafood or vegetables in a communal pot of bubbling oil or steaming broth. Mexico's queso fundido is served with tortillas rather than bread, while bagna cauda in Italy relies on pureed anchovies for texture and flavor and is typically accompanied by vegetables. 

Types of Fondue

As you can imagine, cheese is by no means the only type of fondue. Fondue bourguignonne is a variation featuring hot oil instead of cheese, and chunks of meat in place of the bread. The meat, first skewered on a long fork, is immersed into the hot oil where it cooks, and is served with an assortment of dipping sauces such as Béarnaise, aioli, and horseradish sauce. Vegetables and seafood are also sometimes served with hot oil fondue.

Yet another popular variation on fondue is fondue au chocolat, or chocolate fondue, which consists of a pot of melted chocolate, into which pieces of fruit, pastry or, well, nearly anything, are dipped. Popular dippers for chocolate fondue include pretzels, marshmallows, vanilla wafers, Oreos, strawberries, bananas, apples, rice crispy treats, even cubes of cake. The possibilities here are virtually endless. 

Many Asian cuisines feature some version of the hot pot, the earliest versions of which appeared in China and predate fondue by some 2,000 years. But the principle is the same: a communal pot filed with simmering broth, into which ingredients like meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables and noodles are immersed until cooked and then eaten. Meats must be sliced thinly when cooking in broth, as opposed to the cubes of meat that can be cooked in hot oil. 

Which Foods Are Good for Fondue?

Besides bread, anything that tastes good with melted cheese on it will make an excellent dipper for fondue. Note that some foods are easier to impale on a long fork than others, but don't let that stop you. The only caveat is that unlike hot oil fondue, cheese fondue does not actually cook the food you dip into it. So meats should already be cooked.

Examples: 

  • Potato or tortilla chips
  • Pretzels
  • Hot dogs and cooked sausages
  • Chunks of turkey, ham or roast beef
  • Raw veggies (like broccoli or cauliflower florets, cherry tomatoes, carrots and so on)
  • Roasted potatoes
  • Cooked shrimp
  • Mushrooms
  • Meatballs

How to Make Fondue

The trick with making fondue is to ensure that the cheese melts smoothly and without separating. This is achieved by incorporating a starch, such as cornstarch, which acts as an emulsifier.

Note that traditional cheese fondue is made with a brandy called Kirschwasser (or Kirsch for short), which is made from cherries. You can substitute most any brandy or cognac for the Kitsch, but don't use cherry liqueur as it would be too sweet.

Traditionally, fondue is made in a ceramic pot on the stovetop and then moved to the table where it is kept warm by a small candle or a similar heat source underneath. But you can also make it in a slow-cooker.

To make it, you'd combine the cornstarch and Kirsch and mix to form a slurry. Then add a cup of wine and bring the mixture to a gentle simmer, before adding small chunks of the cheeses, a handful at a time, stirring until melted before adding more. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and serve while warm and melty. Here's a detailed recipe that illustrates the process.