Gruyère is complicated… in a good way. Not only does it have a complex mix of many flavors and capabilities, its production is a carefully curated process mired in centuries of tradition. This cheese is so cherished and beloved that it prompted an international skirmish for naming and geographic designation. Despite all this history, Gruyère is a multifaceted jewel in the cheese world that is easy to use and enjoy.
This is a cheese that is a true triple treat. Its wide range of varieties are a great addition to any cheeseboard, pairing well with many fruits, breads and beverages. When added as an ingredient in different of dishes, Gruyère provides a unique depth and pronounced dairy notes. Going beyond flavor, it melts with a silky and creamy texture, which makes it a star of beloved classic dishes like fondue, French onion soup and Croque Madame sandwiches.
The tastes and textures of Gruyère vary greatly, depending on its origin, processing and aging. Cheese can range from mildly sweet and fruity to rich and nutty with pronounced earthy or ripe notes. Most Gruyère variations have a subtle salty flavor, moderate acidity and strong dairy notes. Like many cheeses, the texture changes and dries out with age. Young cheeses will be firm and compact, while well-aged varieties will be somewhat crystalline and crumbly. French versions of the cheese are generally sweeter and have small holes throughout. In contrast, Swiss Gruyère does not have holes, while American and other nations’ versions of the cheese may or may not have holes.
Although many people associate Gruyère cheese with French dishes, its origins are purely Swiss, which is the cause of a long history of arguments across France and Switzerland’s shared border. The Swiss have been making the cheese we know now as Gruyère since 1115. The cheese takes its name from the Alpine town of Gruyères in the Canton of Fribourg, Switzerland. The history and providence helped to establish the geographic designation. After decades battling over who had the rights to use the name Gruyère, Swiss Gruyère was granted the AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) in 2011, which granted the Swiss to claim the geographic designation.
The Swiss Gruyère AOP cheesemaking process has changed very little in over 900 years. Fresh milk is obtained from Fribourg cows, which are only fed GMO-free and silage-free diets of grass, hay and herbs. The use of antibiotics or growth hormones is prohibited. The milk these cows produce is 40 to 60 percent milk fat and is not pasteurized prior to beginning the cheesemaking process. Not pasteurizing the milk is believed to enhance its unique flavor. Animal rennet is used to form the curd, which is heated in large copper vats. These containers not only heat the mixture very evenly, but the copper ions react with the contents to create unique flavor compounds.
The curds are put into large hoops and pressed for a day under pressure, before being submerged in a salt brine bath for an additional 24 hours. The first three months of the young cheese’s aging process is a time of constant care. The cheesemaker frequently turns the cheese and coats the outside of the wheel with salt in order to produce the perfect rind and mature the flavors. Aging continues in the “cave d’affiniage”, where the cheese matures in approximately 59 degrees F and 90 percent humidity for five to 18 months.
The AOP standard mandates that Gruyère be aged a minimum of five months in order to be approved by the Swiss government.The aging process provides time for more complex, earthy or “funky” flavors to emerge, while moisture evaporates from the wheel, creating a dryer and denser cheese. Swiss Gruyère has additional designations, which help distinguish age and processing methods. “Classic” is aged six to nine months and “BIO” is a version of the Classic made with certified organic milk. “Réserve” is aged for more than 10 months and “d’Alpage” is a special cheese only made in the summer using milk from cows that have been exclusively grazed in the mountain pastures. The large finished wheels of Gruyère range between 55 and 100 pounds and measure 22 to 26 inches in diameter.
Gruyère is also made in the United States. The domestic cheeses follow much of the Swiss’ basic cheesemaking process, which is outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR 133.149) and thereby regulated by the FDA. The significant differences are that most commercially available brands of Gruyère are made with pasteurized milk, the cows do not have the same alpine grass diet and the cheese is generally aged for shorter periods of time. The regulations require the cheese to be a minimum of 90 days old versus five months for Swiss-produced cheeses. These differences can be noted when tasted side by side with the Swiss or French cheeses.
Wisconsin’s Roth brand has chosen to respect the AOP and does not use the designation of Gruyère, choosing instead to use the name Grand Cru for its cheeses. Its original is aged four or more months, the Reserve is aged six or more months and the award-winning Surchoix is aged nine months. It should be noted that the Roth creamery is part of the Fitchburg, WI-based Emmi Roth Co., a major Swiss Gruyère producer and importer.
Gruyère is becoming more readily available both in retail and foodservice. Most grocery chains carry one or more varieties in the specialty cheese section or look for the cheese in club stores, online and at local gourmet/cheese shops. Several grocery chains sell Gruyère under their own private label, which can make it difficult to ascertain the exact origin and age of the cheese.
Foodservice is recognizing Gruyère’s excellent attributes and is using it in a variety of traditional and un-traditional ways. Starbuck’s is featuring a sous vide egg bite with bacon and Gruyère on its breakfast menu. Alesia’s in St. Petersburg, FL, is refining the hot dog by nestling an all-beef version in a baguette and topping it with Gruyère, Mornay sauce and caramelized onions. Ladyface Ale Companie in Agoura Hills, CA, has a new spin on the Canadian classic, poutine. French fries are somothered with pulled pork, Gruyère and beef gravy. It’s no surprise that chefs across the country are exploiting Gruyère’s great flexibility and flavors to elevate their dishes and excite their customers.
Gruyère can easily adapt to the home chef, as well. It can be added to almost any dish that calls for cheese. Gruyère’s rich flavors and creamy melting qualities make it a great addition to grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers, mac and cheese, egg bakes, flatbreads or the humble casserole.
Perhaps the best way to truly appreciate Gruyère’s unique flavors is by serving it as part of a cheeseboard. Pairings will depend on the intensity of the cheese’s flavors. Younger cheeses work best with lighter wines like Rieslings, sparkling and pinot noirs. Hard ciders, pilsners and ambers are also good compliments to the cheese. More mature and complex Gruyères can stand up to heartier wines like a Shiraz, Zinfandel, Grenache or bolder reds. Other good combinations for aged Gruyère are heartier beers, such as porters, stouts or lighter IPAs as well as a variety of whiskeys and bourbons, which can compliment the earthier notes in the cheese. However you choose to enjoy it, Gruyère is a cheese worthy of exploration, and maybe it’s not so complicated after all….it is just delicious.
French Onion Gruyère Dip
This dip features all the best parts of French onion soup, sweet caramelized onions and lots of cheese.
3 Tbsp butter, unsalted
2 cups yellow onions, diced (about 2 medium onions)
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
3 Tbsp flour
1 cup whole milk
1½ cup Gruyère cheese, shredded (about 4 wt. oz)
Melt the butter in a 10- to 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat.
Add the onions, salt and sugar. Cook the onions until they begin to become slightly translucent and soft. Stir frequently to avoid burning.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue cooking until the onions become golden brown (caramelized) and very soft. Stir frequently.
Dust the onions with the flour and stir to thoroughly combine. Continue to stir the mixture over medium-low heat for approximately one minute.
Slowly add the milk while stirring constantly and cook until the mixture is thickened.
Mix in the Gruyère, about ½ cup at a time, until all the cheese is added and melted. Remove from the heat.
Serve immediately with bread, crackers, chips and/or vegetables for dipping.
Note: This dip can also be used to top burgers or other warm sandwiches.