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Making a Fondue Without Alcohol

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Q. I am hosting a fondue party and have a great recipe that requires beer, however I just learned that one of my guests is completely allergic to alcohol, so much that even non-alcoholic beer has enough traces to make her ill. I am trying to come up with a substitute for the beer that would help melt the cheese yet still give it a bite. The recipe I have is simple and incorporates cheddar cheese, Swiss cheese, salsa, and beer. Do you know of anything along the same lines that would be alcohol free?

A. That's a little like asking for pork & beans without the pork, steak & eggs without the eggs, and peanut butter & jelly without the jelly. Come to think of it, people in this food-fearing age ask us those sorts of questions all the time. But the point is, it's hard to come up with any fondue recipe that doesn't include alcohol in some form.

Alcohol — most often a dry white wine augmented with kirsch, occasionally beer — is added for three reasons. First, of course, for flavor; second, for its acidity, which helps keep the cheese from becoming stringy; and third, to lower the boiling point of the cheese and keep its proteins from curdling. The second point, the acidity, is the easiest to fix. Add a few teaspoons of lemon juice to the fondue pot.

You can probably get around the third point, as well, by using harder and higher-fat cheeses than you had intended. More of the protein in harder cheeses is broken down as the cheese is made, which allows it to withstand higher temperatures without becoming stringy and tough. Fatter cheeses contain less protein to curdle. Fontina, Gruyère, Emmental, and a good aged cheddar might help you maintain the desired creamy texture.

The flavor issues is a little trickier. The two fondue recipes we found that don't call for wine, beer, kirsch, or stout call for water or milk instead — muting the flavor rather than elevating it. Since, with your salsa, you're heading in a Mexican direction already, why not boost the flavor with a little red pepper, perhaps some chile peppers, some paprika, and/or a pinch of cumin, and replace the beer with water to get the right consistency?

If you're open to heading toward the milder side of the street, though, you might consider a classic Piedmont Fonduta.

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