Wisconsin is known for its cheese and its beer, so it’s no surprise that cheddar beer soup—complete with the traditional popcorn garnish—is a standard item on local menus. This hearty soup is simple to make: Carrots, onion, and celery are sautéed in butter, flour is added to make a roux, and then chicken broth, dairy, and beer are whisked in. Shredded sharp cheddar cheese is added at the end and melts to a velvety smooth consistency.
Element of Distress
Unfortunately, most recipes cook up greasy and gritty. The cheese often clumps together or breaks, leaving the soup streaked with pools of fat.
Line of Attack
We’d figure out what cheeses would give us maximum flavor and minimum hassle.
Achieving melty-smooth cheese—would it really be that hard? It turns out that low-moisture cheeses, everything along the spectrum from mild Colby to aged cheddar, are much more likely to break when melted. The result is a grainy, greasy soup. (Might as well add gross to the list, too.)
Then our minds went to grilled cheese sandwiches and other ooey-gooey applications of American cheese. Knowing that processed cheese is made with emulsifiers to promote melting, we tried out different ratios of American cheese to find the perfect blend of taste and texture. One cup of American to three cups of sharp cheddar was the best mix for non-grainy melting and rich flavor.
We got the melting problem licked, but what about smoothness? We’d also have to stomp out any last clumps in the soup. We realized that while shredded cheese melts faster than larger pieces, the surface of the shredded cheese melts so quickly that pieces can fuse together, creating a mass that becomes harder to melt. To keep the shredded cheese from fusing, we added cornstarch to hand-shredded block cheese to keep clumping at bay. Science!
A note on the beer: We tested robust ales like Bass and Samuel Adams (and even a few Wisconsin microbrews), but the winners were the milder, less bitter American lagers. Miller High Life, the “Champagne of Beers,” was a perfect complement to the tanginess of the cheddar.
What are you waiting for? Say cheese.