You’ve probably heard of raclette before. Just like cheese boards and charcuterie boards, it seems to go viral every so often, with luscious photos popping up all over Instagram and making us crave hot, melted cheese.
Part of the reason raclette is so popular is that warm, gooey melted cheese being draped luxuriously over roasted potatoes looks so enticing on our social media feeds. But there’s so much more to raclette than sexy cheese pulls and impressive overhead shots of cheese-laden party tables.
Here’s everything you need to know about this wonderful way of eating cheese, from raclette’s Alpine origins to how to host your own raclette party at home.
What Is Raclette Cheese?
The word “raclette” comes from the French word meaning “to scrape” for the Swiss practice of heating a half-wheel of cheese in front of the fire before using a knife to scrape the melted layer onto crispy roasted potatoes or a crusty hunk of baguette. But the word can be used in multiple ways.
Raclette—capital R—is how we refer to the cow’s milk cheese called Raclette. This cheese has a semi-soft texture and buttery flavor, with tasting notes that range from mild and milky to beefy, floral, or vegetal. The rind of Raclette is washed in a salt brine during the aging process, cultivating a pale orange rind and sometimes pungent aroma.
Raclette is typically aged for three to four months. It has a relatively high moisture content for an Alpine cheese (a family of cheeses that also includes larger, firmer cheeses like Comte, Gruyere, and Emmenthal). This makes it an excellent melting cheese, but it can be enjoyed unmelted as a table cheese as well.
Uncapitalized, raclette refers to the practice of preparing or enjoying melted cheese this way, whether at a restaurant or at home. While there are smaller raclette grills that melt enough cheese for one or two people, raclette is typically served in the home to a larger group of eight people as the main meal at a party or gathering.
Where Does Raclette Come From?
This tradition originated with the centuries-old cheesemaking tradition in the French and Swiss Alps. Dairy farmers followed the agricultural practice of transhumance, moving their herds of cows up the mountains to graze on lush high-altitude pastures in the spring and summer months, then back down to the valleys at the end of the season.
To feed themselves on this long journey, the farmers brought staples like potatoes to eat with the smaller wheels of cheese they would produce during the spring and fall, before making the journey up and down the mountain. While cooking the potatoes over the fire, they’d open a wheel of Raclette, leaving the cut side near the flames to soften in the heat. Once melted, they’d scrape it onto their potatoes like a ready-made cheese sauce.
Raclette is still enjoyed as a warming winter meal in ski chalets and restaurants in France and Switzerland, with half-wheels melted in front of a roaring fireplace or mounted on an electric melter. It’s also made in homes all over the world using tabletop devices designed for melting cheese.
What Cheese Should I Use for Raclette?
Seek out French or Swiss Raclette at your local cheese shop or gourmet grocer. Look for raw milk varieties, which are more traditional and often have livelier flavors and aromas. Semi-soft Italian mountain cheeses such as Fontina Val D’Aosta also make excellent cheeses for raclette.
Many small-scale cheesemakers in the U.S. produce raclette-inspired cheeses or other semi-soft, washed-rind cheeses that make a good substitute for Raclette. Seek them out at your local cheese counter, grocery co-op, or farmers’ market.
If you can’t find a raclette-style cheese, ask your cheesemonger for recommendations. You can also substitute commonly available Alpine varieties like Gruyère, Emmenthaler, and Comté.
Which Raclette Grill Should I Use?
For large groups, an electric raclette melter on which a quarter-wheel or half-wheel of cheese can be mounted and melted before being scraped is ideal. But most raclette enthusiasts use an electric party grill, which has a central heating element and several nonstick paddles for guests to use to melt their cheese.
For portable raclette or to serve just one or two people, pick up a partyclette, a small, rectangular nonstick pan with a wire handle mounted over a metal box. Lighted tea candles inside the box melt the cheese. The barbeclette, which consists of only the nonstick pan, works well for melting cheese on an outdoor grill.
How Do You Serve Raclette Cheese?
Plan for around eight ounces of cheese per person. A crisp, dry white wine is the traditional pairing with Raclette, but a light-bodied red wine with high acidity also works well.
Slice the cheese a quarter-inch thick and put it on a serving platter. Traditionally, raclette is served with accompaniments like roasted or boiled baby potatoes, cooked vegetables, French bread, charcuterie, whole-grain mustard, and cornichons or other pickles. A green salad tossed with a bright vinaigrette also makes a great addition. Arrange your accompaniments around the table with the raclette grill in the center.
Plug in your grill. There should be around eight nonstick paddles, which each diner can load up with a piece of cheese. Place the cheese under the burner and wait a minute or two. When you see the cheese begin to bubble, it’s ready to eat. If your cheese is taking more than a few minutes to melt, adjust the burner on your grill accordingly.
Some raclette grills also have a cooking surface on top where diners can cook vegetables, meat, or seafood while the cheese is melting. Be sure to provide separate serving utensils to your guests for any raw meat or seafood to avoid cross-contamination.