We’re so pleased to welcome Suzanne Kahn, a history grad student and author of the food blog, An Overdetermined Life, to share her research into an incredible cheese: halloumi. If you were lucky enough to eat our Halloumi Sandwich this week, you’ll be delighted to find out more about the cheese that never melts.
When you write about food, it’s hard not to want to eat everything you write about immediately.
This is doubly true for halloumi. In case you haven’t heard, halloumi is a Middle Eastern cheese—originally from Cyprus—that can be fried or grilled without melting. I’m going to repeat that so you understand why spending a week writing about halloumi makes you very, very hungry: This is a cheese that you can fry or grill until it’s brown. It will get warm and delicious, as cheese does, but hold its shape. It’s like cheese evolved so that it wouldn’t have to be breaded every time we wanted a mozzarella stick (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
A few days into working on this post, I cracked and demanded my boyfriend pick up some halloumi at the grocery store. I envisioned it as the perfect indulgent side to the salad we were having for dinner. He came back with something called “Greek Melting Cheese,” promising it was interchangeable with halloumi. I was a little skeptical because, as I understood it, halloumi was explicitly not a melting cheese. Nevertheless, I tossed it into a pan with some olive oil hoping he was right. In two seconds, the perfect squares I had cut had dissolved into liquid. I won’t say that scraping melted cheese off a pan is ever a bad thing, but I was a little disappointed.
But you, with your Blue Apron boxes full of real halloumi, do not have to be disappointed. Your cheese will not melt! And, I’m here to tell you why, along with everything else you never knew you wanted to know about halloumi.
Halloumi is eaten across the Middle East and, increasingly, the world. Originally from Cyprus, halloumi is traditionally made from sheep or goat milk. As halloumi has grown in popularity, cheese makers have produced large amounts of it with cow’s milk. In 2012, after an extended lobbying battle between Cypriot dairy farmers and Cypriot shepherds and goat herders, the government mandated that all halloumi produced in Cyprus be made of at least 51 percent sheep or goat milk.
But, the truth is, what makes halloumi so special is not the milk that goes into it, but the way it is processed. The basic process for making any cheese begins with culturing milk, also known as heating milk to a temperature at which bacteria start to grow. It is at this point in production that any acids or special bacteria that promote specific flavors are added. After the milk is cultured the cheese is typically set with rennet, a complex enzyme that coagulates milk. The setting process separates curds and whey. The curds are then drained and sometimes pressed. To make many hard cheeses, after this draining, cheese makers heat the cheese again. That second heating is how halloumi gets its unique characteristics.
During the second heating, halloumi is cooked in its own whey and brought to a temperature past the curd’s melting point, 135 degrees. I discussed the second heating with Steve Ballard, the owner of Idaho’s Ballard Family Dairy and Cheese, which makes a prize-winning halloumi-style cheese (he calls it Idaho Grilling Cheese). He explained that, when cooked in their own whey, pressed cheese curds behave like an egg being poached in boiling water: the curds come together as they cook instead of spreading out.
All cheese that gets cooked past its melting point can later be heated and hold its shape. The most common example of another such cheese is the South Asian paneer (which you might know from saag paneer and other common dishes at Indian restaurants). Paneer and halloumi are not interchangeable, although they can make good substitutes for each other in a pinch. The main difference is that paneer is a high acid cheese and halloumi is unique for having almost no acid in it at all. High acidity and low acidity both help prevent melting.
I chatted with Steve for a while about how his family of Idaho dairy farmers got into making a halloumi-style cheese. He told me that he learned about the cheese at a course on cheddar making. Although the family continues to mostly produce cheddar, he decided that adding halloumi to their offerings would make them stand out in the crowded Idaho dairy market. The bet has paid off, but not without hard work. They quickly realized that since Americans were unfamiliar with grilling cheese they would have to work hard to successfully introduce the cheese to a new population. That said, since they started producing the cheese in 2006 it has grown in popularity as knowledge of halloumi has spread.
And, indeed how could a cheese that can be grilled or fried until caramelized and brown not become wildly popular? You can grill it along with vegetables in order to turn an otherwise healthy meal into something a little more indulgent. You can panfry it in olive oil and toss it with salad or scoop it up with bread. I asked Steve about his favorite things to do with his cheese. His answer made my mouth water. He told me he likes to start his morning with a few slices of grilled or seared halloumi paired with slices of navel oranges, drizzled with honey, and served next to Greek yogurt. I made a note and put navel oranges and halloumi on my next grocery list. I felt more excited about breakfast than I had in a long time.