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Grim's Grub: It's dairy, it's a byproduct, it's ... American cheese!

It may not be healthy, but it's sure not plastic.

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Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com
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Most of those with European descent have a love affair with cheese.

It's a product of dairy decomposition. But like other products of decomposition (fermentation, anyone?), it provides such complex flavors that chances are you have a favorite cheese for every occasion.

You get tangy, sharp cheeses; earthy cheeses; sweet, smoky cheeses; and cheeses with spices and other ingredients too numerous to count.

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Don't knock this marvel until you've tried it!

Of late, however, there is significant pushback against a specific cheese product that really came about in a very natural, very innocent way, in spite of internet theories to the contrary.

There are a few things that shaped food history more than others. War is perhaps the most familiar in this column, but the one I also rant about regularly is preservation, shipping and shelf life.

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And that was the impetus for the invention of American cheese.

That's how Birds Eye got started, and Borden Eagle Brand, and Campbell Soup Company, and so much more. That's also how Kraft got started with its American cheese.

The process is not necessarily American. The chemistry that makes it possible was developed in Switzerland by Walter Gerber and Fritz Stettler in 1911, when they added sodium citrate to Swiss cheese to give it a longer shelf life. The resulting product was smoother and melted easier.

In Canada, there was James Lewis Kraft, who had made a business of selling "warm cheeses." These are products that are made easier to slice by carefully heating them to a specific temperature and then cooling them.

This process changed the characteristics of many cheeses. Though cheddar is a good melter, it was even more so when tempered this way.

Kraft would purchase cheese wholesale, heat treat it and then load it into a rented cart to haul it around with a horse named Paddy.

When Kraft's business grew sufficiently, he needed to ship product farther and farther from its source, but even warm cheeses suffered from the shorter shelf life common to all dairy in 1916.

Back in those days, the solution was the same no matter what you were preserving. Salt it!

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Kraft emulsified oils and salts into 50/50 batches of cheddar and colby cheese and produced individually sliced and packaged "American cheese" products that would last a long time. The new product had qualities not common to real cheese.

At its most processed, it was almost a solid, greasy paste. It melts more readily than all but the softest cheeses, and it mixes into virtually anything when melted.

Some other cheeses can easily break sauces if the cook isn't careful, but American cheese's emulsifying agents can also act as binders and thickeners used in the same sauces.

It was accessible to the home cook. Many Americans at this time were only familiar with few, if any, varieties of cheese. Cottage cheese and farmer's cheese would be two of the more common products to average families, with cheddar being a special treat.

But it wouldn't be for years later that supermarkets would have the bounty of curdy wonders we have today with smoked Gouda, Swiss, Havarti and so many more, and at consumer prices no less.

With more of a global access to better cheeses, Americans now have the privilege to be snobs about various ingredients, including being cheese snobs. Combine that with a growing food literacy about processed foods and you get today's derision of American cheese.

While I absolutely do favor fancier cheeses depending on my entree, I have never given up on American cheese.

Is it healthy? No. Is it more plastic than milk product? Again, no.

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Sure, it won't beat smoked Gouda on a cheese board or onion cheddar in a macaroni and cheese dish, but it's the king of the burger.

And while I love some dill Havarti in my omelet from time to time, eggs and American cheese are definitely made for each other.

Anyone who has had a good cheesesteak sandwich knows that cheaper cheeses make a better sandwich.

Still not convinced? You don't need to be. You can take almost any of your favorite cheese and "Americanize" it for that same melt factor and then at least you know what's in it.

American Style Cheese with Melting Salt

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Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

By Nathan Myrhvold, from "Modernist Cuisine at Home"

  • 1/2 cup liquid (beer, chicken broth, water, etc.)
  • 14 grams sodium citrate (approximately 2 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 6 cups cheese with decent melting characteristics (not pregrated as this has added starch)

Start by grating your cheese.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick mat and place it in an oven at the lowest setting. In a saucepan, dissolve the sodium citrate in your choice of liquid and bring to a simmer. Gradually stir the cheese into the liquid at a rate that allows it to melt as it is added.

Stir the cheese and liquid mixture until smooth. If it seems to refuse to fully incorporate, you may use a stick blender. Pour the liquid onto a warm baking sheet and tilt and turn it to get an even layer of cheese. Wrap the tray in plastic and cool it to room temperature before then refrigerating it for two hours until cooled solid.

Cut the cheese into slices and keep them separated with pieces of parchment paper. You may also cool the cheese in a loaf pan for a sliceable block of cheese.

Gooey Cheesesteak Sandwich

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  • 1 pound of flank steak, "breakfast" steak or other very thin steaks
  • 1 teaspoon Montreal Steak Seasoning or to taste
  • 1 clove minced garlic
  • 1 small or medium onion, sliced thin
  • 2 green peppers, sliced thin
  • 2 tablespoons butter, plus more for spreading
  • 4 hoagie rolls
  • 4 slices American cheese
  • 4 slices of a second melty cheese of your choice - provolone, colby, horseradish cheddar, etc., cut in half

Begin by rolling your steak into a log. Then use a sharp knife to slice the log into about 1/3-inch slices. Next, melt the butter in a nonstick pan over medium to medium high heat. Once melted, add the steak and stir it around to get it coated in the butter. (You can add more if you feel the need.)

Once the steak is approximately halfway cooked, add the garlic, onion and green pepper and stir until they are all mixed thoroughly. Then add the Montreal seasoning.

While this is cooking the rest of the way, slice your hoagies, butter them and toast them in another pan. Once golden brown, place two halves of cheese on the bottom roll. Use tongs to lift the filling onto the bottom roll, then place two halves of a different cheese on top.

Squish the top roll down to ensure the heat melts the cheese.

The traditional way to eat this sandwich is standing outside on a sidewalk, leaning forward with your feet wide so that anything that falls out of the sandwich lands on the ground and not your clothes.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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