It’s hard to keep our spirits high this time of year. The days are bleak, our vitamin D comes mostly in pill form, and it feels like all the good parties are squarely in the rearview. Our mood boards may sparkle with aprés ski scenes and fireside chats, but our reality is all austere resolutions and dry nights in. How do you bring the warm conviviality, dopamine dressing, and mountain-top chalet to you? Set a match to your tealights, folks—it’s fondue time.
Much has been made of fondue’s connection to the 1960s, and with good reason. There’s a song from the decade that goes: “I think it’s so groovy now that people are finally getting together,” and I had these lyrics stuck in my head for most of 2021—a time when our stressed-out society was just starting to tilt back toward groovy gathering. This was also the prevailing vibe in the post-war years, when an Alpine restaurant at the 1964 World’s Fair Swiss Pavilion introduced newly swingin’ Americans to the time-honored art of communal melted cheese.
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People had been liquefying excess Gruyére in a bath of oxidized wine and mopping it up with day-old bread in the Alps for centuries, but the practice had never jumped the pond. When it finally did, the table was set for it: decor was Danish, key parties were a thing, and suddenly you couldn’t do anything cooler than dunk cubed food into enamelware pots in creamy shades of butter yellow, milk-chocolate brown, and avocado green.
Skip ahead to winter 2023. You can now find incredible farmstead cheeses and single-origin chocolates everywhere from Whole Foods to Walmart, folks of all ages love to collectively consume them at parties, and it’s definitely still groovy that people are finally getting together. In other words, high time for a high-quality fondue night.
To make this indulgent dream a reality, you’ll first need to choose a style: cheese, broth/oil, or chocolate. Those of you with bottomless ambition (and several pots) could attempt two to three styles in one night, but first-timers may want to start with just one—for digestive comfort as much as for ease of clean-up.
Next you’ll need to get your pot out of storage, or treat yourself to a new one—they come in all sizes and materials now, including ceramic, cast iron, XL, and even copper. No fondue pot? A double-boiler or heavy-bottomed pot set over tea lights works, too. Just make sure you have enough skewers for your guests, and plenty of plates, napkins, and forks. (To avoid contamination and scorched lips, you’ll want to discourage guests from putting their fondue pokers in their mouths.)
When it’s almost party time, throw a fireplace scene on your TV and some tunes on the hi-fi. Wait ‘til guests arrive to begin melting, then get your ingredients fully warm on the stove before transferring them to your caquelon (fondue pot). Teach your guests to twirl their poker after each dunk to avoid drips, then get to dipping!
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Cheese is the archetypal fondue—if you’re going to make just one, it should probably be this. The traditional recipe is delicate and aromatic, and involves rubbing a garlic clove around the pot, melting Alpine cheeses (think: Gruyère, Comté, or fontina) in a bath of white wine, and finishing with fresh-grated nutmeg and Kirsch. You can also switch things up with hard cider, cheddar and pilsner, or jalapeño. Improv is encouraged, as long as you choose your cheeses wisely. Pepperjack and Gouda are safe bets, but avoid cheeses that don’t melt well, such as grana, haloumi, or anything fresh or soft. Whatever you do, don’t throw away the crusty bronzed layer that forms at the bottom—this is an Alpine delicacy called la religieuse, and it should go to your party’s MVP.
- Dippers: Day-old bread, pretzels, apple or pear slices, roasted potatoes or Brussels sprouts, cornichons, cherry tomatoes, salami or cured sausage, cooked ravioli or tortellini, raw or gently cooked veggies (think: carrot, cauliflower, broccoli, mushroom, green bean, asparagus, and radish).
- To drink: While the French insist that anything but white wine, kirsch, or herbal tea will coagulate the cheese in your stomach, cheese fondue screams cocktail hour—pair it with stiff, bracing classics like Manhattans or Martinis.
If you ever had a special-occasion birthday at the Melting Pot, then you know about the broth course. Akin to a Japanese shabu shabu or Chinese hot pot, this style involves cooking raw items in a simmering fondue pot of oil (peanut or canola work best) or broth (flavored with things like onions, herbs, dried mushrooms, ginger, garlic, vinegar, or citrus). In Switzerland, it’s called fondue Chinoise in honor of its Chinese origins—legend has it that a Swiss man brought the idea home after tasting it on a trip—and is commonly served around Christmas. It’s a fun showcase for from-scratch stock, and an excuse to go absolutely wild with post-cook dipping sauces. (Some recipes even highlight a complementary dip and broth combo.) This is best done in a pot with a drip tray around the edge, for resting meats after you’ve removed them. And if you’re attempting oil, let me just say that my hack for grease stains is dish soap.
- Dippers: Shrimp, chicken, steak, sausages, ravioli, tortellini, meatballs, vegan meats, and any of the vegetables mentioned as cheese fondue dippers.
- Sauces: Green Goddess, Worcestershire, teriyaki, pesto, aioli or sauce gribiche, bagna cauda, chimichurri, Dijonnaise, barbecue, tamari tahini, ginger miso, blue cheese, French onion, remoulade, and on and on (plus many tiny bowls).
- To drink: This will totally depend on what’s flavoring your stock and sauces, but with so much big energy on the table, opt for an easy and refreshing chilled Gamay.
This may be the most versatile category, because there’s really very little we wouldn’t dip in chocolate. Bacon? Yes. Potato chips? Of course. Pickles? …Sure! Pizza? I’d honestly try it. Melted chocolate itself is also a blank canvas for flavor. From traditional white, milk, and dark templates, you can venture into coconut cajeta territory, nut-butter-infused riffs on Nutella, or espresso infusions that double as after-dinner boosts. You can even make dessert cheese fondue using a fudgy little Norwegian whey cheese called Gjetost. Whatever you decide, start with a good base recipe and opt for the highest-quality chocolate you can afford.
- Dippers: Cubed pound cake, marshmallows, graham crackers, strawberries, banana slices, pear slices, brownie chunks, shortbread, pineapple, pretzels, potato chips, rice krispie treats, cheesecake cut into pieces, dried fruit, Oreos, blackberries, bacon, churros, peanut butter sandwich cookies, macaroons.
- To drink: Bubbly wine, Oloroso sherry, vin santo, fennel tea.