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It is easy for me to have a passion for cheese because it is instrumental in so many things we all love to eat. Whether it is Italian lasagna, French pastries, Mexican burritos, or all-American macaroni and cheese, cheese makes them complete. Everything just tastes better with cheese, and it can take so many products to a higher level. Just ask kids about cheese on their vegetables.
My role as Corporate Chef at Sargento Foods is to help our customers find the right cheese solutions to take their product to the next level. For example, if a food manufacturer wants to market a gourmet product such as a cheese-stuffed meat dish, I can work with the manufacturer to choose the best cheese or blend to provide the specific characteristics desired in the final product, whether it is refrigerated, frozen, or shelf stable.
For centuries, chefs have been stuffing meats and fish with cheese. Consider such classic dishes as chicken cordon bleu—chicken breast flattened and stuffed with ham and Swiss cheese—and fillet steak stuffed with blue cheese.
When considering using cheese as a stuffing, I first think about the form and function.
How does the stuffing need to perform? Should it easily flow out once cut? Should it be stringy, gooey, or very firm?
If an immediate flow is desired, I would recommend using a processed cheese sauce, which can be delivered in a shredded, diced, or sauce format or as a cheese sauce concentrate that works well with other ingredients that will add water to the filling. Cream cheese bases also work well, particularly when other cheese flavors are desired but are more difficult to deliver in the filling, such as crumbled blue cheese.
If a stringy stuffing is desired, I would recommend using younger cheeses. Young Cheddar mixed with aged Cheddar will give stringiness and flavor. Pasta filata cheeses like Mozzarella and Provolone also work very well. Mozzarella is a great carrier of flavor. It will never develop a strong flavor, so it can carry many flavors, like basil, rosemary, sun-dried tomatoes, and pesto.
If a firm stuffing is desired, I look at using aged cheeses like Parmesan, Asiago, or aged Fontina. These cheeses will normally have a well-developed flavor, so a small amount will work great and really enhance the flavor.
Flavor is another key consideration when I am recommending the right cheese. Cheese can drive the flavor, can enhance the flavor of a product, and may add salt to the finished product. Flavor development in cheese is driven by proteolysis, the breakdown of proteins, and lipolysis, the breakdown of fat, as the cheese ages.
Given all the different make procedures for cheese and the bacteria used to develop the cheese, there are many different cheeses to choose from. It is important to understand the flavor profile that the cheese will contribute and how it will work with the other ingredients in the finished product. That is where I can help.
Cheese is a great carrier of flavor also because of its high fat content. Using a soft cheese with a high fat content, like Brie or full-fat cream cheese, as a stuffing will give the best of both worlds, a rich filling with a good mouthfeel and texture.
Premium appeal is another area that I look at when recommending cheeses to our customers—it continues to be a trend with many of our customers. Cheese is a great way to add value to a finished product, particularly when the cheese has an origin that consumers can relate to. For example, Cheddar may be perceived to be best when it is from Wisconsin, Vermont, or New York, and when it is positioned as "Aged Cheddar" or "Creamy Cheddar" it has an entirely different meaning to consumers.
Many cheeses have great history and heritage behind them, and connecting that to the finished product can add value beyond the functional benefits of using cheese. Not only will the cheese bring the dish to a higher level from an organoleptic standpoint, but also connecting the cheese to the image our customer is trying to create can give even greater consumer appeal and command a premium price.
by Guy Beardsmore is Corporate Chef, Sargento Foods Inc., 1 Persnickety Pl., Plymouth, WI 53073 ([email protected]).