According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans consume an average of 34 lbs. of cheese per person each year—that’s an increase of more than 40 percent since 1996. Cheese is always on trend, and its trend curvature is always on the move. Americans prioritize convenience, old favorites and authenticity, so the steady popularity of classics like mozzarella, Parmesan and cheddar—which, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor, are the most prevalent on U.S. restaurant menus—is no surprise. Spicy Jack, feta, blue cheese, fresh mozzarella and ricotta also top the list, demonstrating the growing demand for bold flavor, global interest and freshness.
Cheese is a unique menu differentiator that fits all dayparts. It is a component of many flavor-forward, textural, craveable and comforting dishes. According to Technomic, the fastest-growing cheeses on U.S. restaurant menus include: American specialties like Colby; goat and other soft, fresh cheeses; authentic European classics like Gouda, raclette, Emmentaler and Havarti; Hispanic and South American cheeses like enchilado, asadero, panela and Cotija; and a cadre of high-flavored varieties like smoked Gouda, Asiago and ricotta salata.
Of course, we see a multiplicity of peppery, chile-infused specialties to keep American palates afire, sweet, creamy cheeses like burrata to cool them down, and a myriad of grilling or frying cheeses to share. Cheese brings textural play like meltability, spreadability, stretch or crispiness to recipes, and customization to sandwiches, bowls, small plates and veg-centric menu items. Here are the latest cheese trends and tactics that are impacting menus today.
The Other Grilled Cheese
While the grilled cheese sandwich craze shows no sign of retreating, cheese on the grill (or the griddle, the frying pan, the broiler) is the new grilled cheese in town. It has all the best parts of the sandwich—buttery-crisp, caramelized exterior, a creamy, soft middle and big flavor—sans the carbs or meat, making it a modern option for many.
Salty, semi-hard Cyprian goat’s- and sheep’s-milk halloumi, or the more aged Greek kefalotyri, are the Middle Eastern standards for grate-grilling or searing. They can be traditional (drizzled with olive oil and topped with mint) or used more creatively—in kabobs, for instance. Indian paneer is a softer version, but it’s firm enough to be grilled. Provoleta a la parrilla, or South American “grilling cheese,” can be seared brown outside and good and gooey inside for topping bread, filling tacos or served as bar nibbles.
A current favorite is juustoleipa, also known as “bread cheese” or “squeaky cheese,” a buttery, Scandinavian, pre-baked, pressed curd cow’s-milk cheese (originally made from reindeer milk). Since it is already baked to brown, it can be grilled, griddled or pan-fried—or even put in a speed-cook oven or microwave. It makes a killer “cheese steak” entrée, or it can be quickly cubed for dipping or topping a salad.
- Chopped Kale Salad with lime-avocado vinaigrette, tomato, sweet onion, black beans, sweet corn, seared juustoleipa and pumpkin seeds
—Snake Creek Grill, Heber City, Utah
- Grilled Halloumi and Roasted Portobello Mushroom served with chile jam in a whole-wheat wrap, Portuguese roll or toasted pita
—Nando’s, multiple locations
Melted & Dipped
The recent trends of sharing and small plates have brought a plethora of melted cheese dips and dishes. The move toward authenticity has taken the queso and hot cheese dip out of the can and put traditional fondue and fonduta on the table. Next up in the wonderfully unctuous, addictive cheese dip category is raclette, the upside-down fondue. At its most authentic, this French-Swiss Alpine, semi-hard cow’s milk cheese wheel is quartered and melted over a fire or tableside (on a raclette rack) and, once bubbling hot, is scraped over potatoes or toast and perhaps other veggies or charcuterie—usually served with the typical charcuterie accompaniments such as bread and pickles. Now, raclette is all the rage in a myriad of modern melting pot dishes, too. There are even new singularly focused restaurants, pop-ups and food trucks named for it.
- Suisse: Raclette cheese, melted and scraped tableside; choice of viande séchée, prosciutto di Parma or jambon de Paris, roasted potatoes, cornichons, pickled white pearl onions, sliced baguette, arugula salad with Champagne vinaigrette
—Raclette NYC, New York
- Smoked Potato: Gently smoked new potatoes, melted raclette, crème fraîche, pickled ramps, dill
—Selden Standard, Detroit
Soft & Fresh
With more American artisanal cheesemaking and specialty cheese distribution, fresh cheeses once only enjoyed locally are now available nationally. Chefs are finding more ways to menu fresh and soft cheeses. Fresh mozzarella, goat’s- and sheep’s-milk cheeses, sweet ricotta, salty and flavored farmers’ cheeses adorn salads and veg-centric plates and are slathered on ever-popular toasts and tartines. They are plopped on flatbreads, whipped into dips and fillings and plate-scaped as a base, adding soft, fresh, clean and cooling dairy notes to any number of preps.
Burrata continues to play the part of menu star and drive innovation in soft, fresh cheeses. Smart burrata makers are giving us the part we most love: the ricotta-like, cream-soaked, hand-pulled and shredded mozzarella center known as stracciatella. Both burrata and its traditional filling continue to proliferate in salads, apps and bar bites to be enjoyed with toast, vegetables and condiments, and in creative savory and even sweet recipes as well.
- Burrata with prosciutto, pine nut brittle, maple-cranberry vinaigrette
—Pawn Broker, Miami
- Deep-fried burrata in a spicy marinara sauce
—Hail Mary, Brooklyn, N.Y.
- Stracciatella Cheesecake: Stracciatella cream cheesecake with a layer of pumpkin jelly and cookie crumbs
—Organic Bites, Miami
Innovative American cheese companies are formulating products specific to the needs of foodservice. This goes beyond simply adding value with flavors and ingredients, co-packing sauce or pimento cheese, or producing fried cheese snacks for volume. New technologies in cheesemaking, mixing, blending, shredding and freezing equipment—as well as clever sourcing and R&D—have resulted in a number of inventions, from super-thin slices for multiplying flavor to modern cheese-shred blends, even some with flavors added, built for specific applications (pizza, mac and cheese, Italian or Mexican dishes, etc.).
Natural cheese can be improved for increased meltability and decreased separation of fats and proteins to be used for sauces, dips, fillings and spreads. It can even come in pre-portioned pucks. Flavoring and blending can be added to reduce both inventory and steps in the back of the house. There are even cheese board kits that allow lower-labor, quicker-service restaurants to offer shareable cheese plates and boards.
- Chili Queso Dip: A blend of queso and chili topped with housemade pico de gallo and served with warm tortilla chips
—Buffalo Wild Wings, multiple locations
- Four Cheese Macaroni: Four cheeses specially selected for creamy, buttery, stretchy and delicious baked mac (orecchiette) and cheese
—Cru Café, Charleston, S.C.
Cheese offers the ability to customize and signaturize with perhaps the most effortless application. From mix-and-match mac- and-cheese varieties to specially topped salads, pizzas, grilled cheeses and slices for sandwiches, cheese is the universal transformer. Perhaps in no place is that more true than with the premium burger.
Smashburger, the Denver-based burger chain with more than 350 locations worldwide, exemplifies this with its brilliant Local Love burgers. The same base proteins nationwide are transformed with cheese and a condiment or veg topping, and perhaps a local bread, to regionalize them. Currently the list stands at 44 unique burgers. The Minneapolis Twin Cities has layers of both melted cheddar and Swiss cheese and garlic-grilled onions. The San Diego includes pepper Jack cheese and fresh avocado, cilantro, sour cream and a wedge of lime. The New Englander puts cranberry Stilton, cranberry sauce and grilled onions on an egg bun, while Connecticut’s “Constitution” brings together provolone cheese, baby spinach and giardiniera. Clearly, cheese plays a heavy role in differentiation here.
- Smokey Gouda Burger: Smoked Gouda cheese, fresh spinach, caramelized onion, garlic aïoli, brioche roll—Avenue Eats, Wheeling, W. Va.
- Mac & Cheese Attack: A quarter-pound burger between two fried cheddar mac-and-cheese “buns” with lettuce, tomato, scallions, Sriracha ketchup and salad—Rockit Burger Bar, Chicago
Cheese has always had a place on classic American, European and Mediterranean menus—now it serves as an all-important bridge in global mash-up menus. Until recently, cheese had been a noticeable no-no on Asian-themed menus. An explosion of Asian fusion chefs no longer consider cheese an unthinkable component of their inclusive, global and American-geared dishes.
A perfect example: at Kimski, Chicago’s Korean-Polish spot, all bets are off. The Potato Scallion Quesadilla is more like a potato pancake with Muenster cheese, scattered with sautéed kimchi and sesame leaves. There’s the Korean Kimski Poutine, where kimchi, beer gravy (also containing kimchi), cheese curds, scallions and sesame seeds smother fries, proving that cheese is a viable component of a mash-up menu.
- Cheese Dukboki (stir-fried rice cakes in chile sauce) topped with mozzarella
—Bibim, Allston, Mass.
- Korean-Style Nachos with beef bulgogi, kimchi, pepper Jack cheese sauce, pickled jalapeño, Kewpie mayo and gochujang
—Graze, Madison, Wis.
Increasingly, savvy restaurateurs are organizing late-night, morning and all-day “soaker” menus that aim to help absorb any given party consumption before, during and after the fun. Whether in a breakfast burrito, melted on a burger or pizza, or tucked into a sloppy sandwich, cheese makes the grade. In fact, cheese is a key theme in the many Web-based and published lists of best soaker, drunkard, stoner and hangover menus in America.
Cheesy, messy shareable nachos give a group a great pre-party start. One example: Chicago’s Big Star offers “Walking Tacos” that see corn chips, pinto bean dip, queso Chihuahua, chile sauce, crema, onions and cilantro—all served in a Frito Lay bag.
Just about everything on the “Munchies” menu at Komodo in Los Angeles fits the party mood, but the Brutus “salad” takes greasy cravings to new heights. Crispy tots are smothered in melted cheddar, steak and bacon, then topped with sour cream, pico and a jalapeño aïoli.
With all this attention paid to party food, is it any wonder that the drive-thru takes on new meaning in the wee hours, serving secret cheese-laden “munchies” menus before they start whipping out the breakfast sandwiches for commuters? Or that Tom & Chee, the acclaimed “Shark Tank” grilled cheese and tomato soup chain, recently expanded its menu of doughnut grilled cheeses to eight varieties? As long as there is a party, cheese will be required.
- The Poutinewich: Fries, short rib gravy, cheese curds, cheese sauce, onion jam, arugula
— Beard & Belly, Sidecar at The Long Room, Chicago
- Beer Cheese Dip
—Taco Hangover, West Des Moines, Iowa