A cheese substitute for gruyere can either be a relatively foolproof choice, or possibly a major kitchen mistake. It depends mainly on two criteria. The lesser of the two concerns taste, its complement or compatibility with the rest of your table offerings. The more important issue is how the cheese will be used, especially if cooked. A basic understanding of cheeses will help you make a good choice, but for some recipes which specifically insist on gruyere, you’ll need to know more about how cheeses are categorized and classified.
Gruyere is named for a town and region in Switzerland. There is a French government bureau that internationally specifies and enforces whether a cheese can claim this label. It is made from cow’s milk, coagulated by a small amount of the natural digestive juices extracted from an unweaned calf’s stomach. The solid curds, separated from the liquid whey, are pressed into molds. It’s first brined in a salt solution, and then smeared with specific bacteria to start the process of fermentation.
The curing duration of this cheese must be either five or ten months. Additionally, the temperature and humidity of its maturation chamber, sometimes a natural mountain cave, also have narrow requirements. It is an unpasteurized cheese, made without boiling. Some countries of the world, including the U.S., have regulatory restrictions about such dairy products, so gruyere cheese might be less available in some locations. To substitute for gruyere, you’ll basically be trying to match its character.
Gruyere is a pale yellow cheese, semi-hard in texture, with an outer skin of bacterially thickened rind. The initial brining produces a clean, just slightly salty and acidic taste. The relatively brief cure time imparts a little color and nutty earthiness. It will appear quite dry, and will have a granulated texture. This readily melts to a thick, smooth cream in the mouth.
If you simply try to match physical attributes, you’re well on your way to choosing a good substitute for gruyere. Pale white cheeses are too much like dairy, while darker cheeses are too acidic from prolonged fermentation. Firmness of cheeses often corresponds to flavor concentration, especially its saltiness. Dryer cheeses generally melt readily into a creamy liquid, whereas wet cheeses can hold their shape at even high temperatures. These tips may be all you need to select a good substitute on a French dessert plate of cheeses, fruits, nuts and wine.
Gruyere, however, is especially highly regarded as a cooking, or baking, cheese. Fondue, a simmering communal pot of melted cheese sauce in which skewers of bread, vegetables and other food are dipped, may require gruyere cheese. Other classic recipes, such as baked French onion soup and chicken cordon bleu, are often best prepared with it.
In order to choose a substitute for gruyere in these cooking situations, your best bet is to research and compare the two cheeses’ respective moisture and fat content. Year-old gruyere is about 36% water and 32% fat. Its mild taste and melted consistency is closely matched by cheeses such as Emmental, Jarlsberg, Fontina or French Beaufort.