The argument that cheese tends to taste better when it’s melted initially stemmed from a passionate Well+Good Slack conversation, in which nearly every one of my colleagues confirmed this statement without question. It was my call to dig in.
After some research (more on that soon), it was clear: Food scientists confirm that the appeal of melted cheese isn’t a coincidence at all. In fact, while melted and unmelted cheese are nutritionally identical, researchers have found your palate is heavily impacted by temperature. Ahead, we delve into the science-backed theories behind why melted cheese might taste more deliciously rich and flavorful than unmelted cheese—and let’s just say it’s not all in your head.
Why does melted cheese tend to taste better?
According to Inna A. Husain, MD, medical director of laryngology at Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana, there are two main theories that shine a light on why melted cheese tastes so darn good.
The first theory: The fat content found in cheese is more noticeable (creamy, savory, rich) at warmer temperatures. “Researchers at Yale have studied how our central nervous system responds to fatty foods. We think due to either evolution or learned behavior, oily calorie-dense foods are what our taste receptors like to hone in to,” Dr. Husain says. Additionally, Dr. Husain says that fats tend to be easier to “taste” when melted in a warm or liquid substance. Hence why we might be instantly drawn to the melted cheese-covered nacho every single time.
Meanwhile, another study indicates that the texture of the food is equally, if not more important, than its flavor. (Anyone else struggling through the cottage cheese renaissance?) “In the Netherlands, food scientists have studied the creaminess of desserts—like custard—and found that test subjects were more drawn to the smoother ones,” Dr. Husain says. As such, she explains that melted cheese has a lot of texture similarities to custard and might trigger a similar reaction. “It’s thought that the texture that coats the tongue, along with the warmth of the melted cheese, enhances what the taste buds register and thus what is transmitted to the brain, especially heightened sensation,” she says.
What’s more, Natalie Alibrandi, a London-based food scientist and CEO of Nali Consulting, says melting cheese can completely alter its flavor profile, which impacts our perception of its taste. “When cheese is heated and thus melts, it releases various volatile compounds which are not present when the cheese is unmelted,” Alibrandi says.
“The percentages of volatile compounds in heated cheese differ from those reported in cold cheese—such as diacetyl and acetoin—which are the abundant aroma compounds in cold Edam cheese. While hexadecanoic acid and butanoic acid are more abundant free fatty acids in cold Edam cheese,” Alibrandi says. Dr. Husain also agrees that melting or heating cheese can help release more flavors, otherwise known as umami, that would otherwise be hidden in its solid form.
Alibrandi caveats that not all melted cheeses will react in the same way. “Every cheese melts differently due to the different thermodynamic properties of its casein [a protein found in milk and dairy products] structure. When cheese is melted, it undergoes chemical changes: the proteins and fats break down to become more fluid, solid fat globules become liquid, and this creates a smoother texture and mouthfeel,” she says.
When cheese is melted, it undergoes chemical changes: the proteins and fats break down to become more fluid, solid fat globules become liquid, and this creates a smoother texture and mouthfeel.”—Natalie Alibrandi, food scientist
That said, while cheeses will react differently depending on their composition, Alibrandi says that one thing’s for certain: Heating them will release different flavors, aromas, and complexity than what you’ll experience when consuming unmelted cheese.
According to Alibrandi, there’s another important reason why we may enjoy melted cheese more than most unmelted cheese. It’s simple: Melted cheese is rarely consumed on its own (think: pasta, fondue, grilled cheese, pizza…). “This will likely also have an impact on the perception of the taste of melted cheese due to flavor association as well as flavor enhancement of the ingredients paired with melted cheese,” Alibrandi says.
A registered dietitian shares a guide to alternative cheese that taste great melted or unmelted. The choice is yours: