CHICAGO — No-melt cheeses offer consumers and culinary professionals opportunities to make dairy a center-of-plate protein. The cheese retains its shape when cooked and may be used to replace meat in all types of dishes, including breakfast sandwiches.

“Firm, moist cheeses like panela and paneer are proving to be popular options to bring quality protein to the plant-forward plate,” said Ben Yee, director of producer partnerships, California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB), Tracy, Calif. “Panela has a mild flavor similar to a dry pressed ricotta, without melting, so it holds up well as the base for dishes like tacos or even as a meat-like medallion in a tomato sauce. Paneer can be marinated in spices and grilled for kebobs or in sandwiches.”

The CMAB worked with chefs to educate them about the benefits of no-melt cheeses. Dishes that were developed include Nashville hot paneer, where the cheese replaces chicken, and a keto lasagna, where paneer stood in for noodles.

The New York-based Blue Apron meal kit service started offering an “international escape” menu this winter. One of the offerings is paneer and vegetable tacos with peanut and arugula salad. The consumer is instructed to pan fry the diced paneer and then stuff them into flour tortillas alongside sautéed sweet peppers and onion, guacamole and a chipotle sauce.

“These cheeses don’t melt due to their protein structure,” said Suzanne Fanning, chief marketing officer and senior vice president, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis. “Either baked or grilled, these cheeses can form a sweet, caramelized, toasted ‘crust’ that is oh-so-delicious.”

Recognizing this growing trend for center-of-the-plate cheese, Cheeses of Wisconsin, Cottage Grove, Wis., created The Big Moo, which “cooks crispy on the outside, warm and melty on the inside.” What distinguishes The Big Moo from other no-melt cheeses is it is available in flavors like bacon, cheese pizza, jalapeño and roasted garlic. The company promotes the product as keto-friendly with one serving containing 6 grams of protein.

“Gayo Azul Queso Blanco is a white mild and fresh cow’s milk cheese that is growing in popularity,” said Debbie Seife, director of marketing, FrieslandCampina Consumer Dairy North America, Paramus, NJ. “Consumers are enjoying cooking with it and adding it to their meals and dishes. It is also fantastic crumbled over enchiladas, tacos, salads and soups.”

Another Hispanic ingredient cheese gaining traction in the United States is cotija. It is a crumbly, slightly salty cow’s milk cheese.

“Most people have likely had it on tacos, but where it is trending now is in the many varied street corn dishes showing up on menus and in supermarkets,” Ms. Seife said. “The traditional dish is made with corn on the cob, spices and cotija cheese.”

The sharp, tangy cheese does not melt when heated. However, it has an adhesive quality when grated that enables it to cling to corn or other foods. This makes it an appealing ingredient as a garnish on hot dishes.

“Consumers are opening themselves up to experimenting with cheese and to creating plant-forward dishes that still satisfy their cravings,” Mr. Yee said. “Cheese is the ‘glue’ that holds these dishes together, providing the flavor along with the functionality. The biggest challenge is lack of understanding of these lesser-known varieties because they are most often associated with Indian, Mediterranean or Mexican dishes.”

New forms and flavors

Cheese has been an integral part of Italian cooking, sometimes even the center of the plate. One dish that is rather new to the United States and really taking off on menus is cacio e pepe, which translates to “cheese and pepper.” The preparation uses long, thin, cooked noodles, such as angel hair or spaghetti, that are spun with warm pasta water in a partly hollow wheel of pecorino Romano cheese. It is then heavily seasoned with black pepper.

Datassential, Chicago, reports that cacio e pepe was on 48% more menus at the end of 2022 than it was four years earlier. Curious consumers also are experimenting with the cheesy pasta dish that some say is an early ancestor to the US staple of macaroni and cheese.

Norseland Inc., Darien, Conn., offers Lotito Presto Cacio e Pepe Pasta Starters. The refrigerated line comes in four varieties: original, con Pomodori (with sun-dried tomatoes), con Erbe (with wild herbs) and con Picante (with Calabrian chilies). The blends have sheep’s milk pecorino Romano cheese as the No. 1 ingredient. Whole milk powder and whey powder are critical components of the sauce mix. To use the mix, the consumer prepares 1 lb of pasta. During draining, one cup of the hot water is saved and added to the sauce starter, then tossed with pasta. Two shelf-stable varieties — original and black truffle — will enter the market this spring.

Norseland was one of the first to market refrigerated cheese wraps, a high-protein alternative to traditional flour-based tortillas and flatbreads. Folios Cheese Wraps are par-baked sheets of cheese that are free from carbohydrates and gluten. The original line debuted in 2016 in cheddar, Jarlsberg and Parmesan varieties. This year Norseland added mozzarella to the line. The higher moisture content of mozzarella presented baking challenges that the company managed to overcome. The keto-certified wraps may be stuffed, rolled, folded, melted, crisped and baked, said Valerie Liu, brand manager.

Sofia Auricchio Krans, a cheesemaker with BelGioioso Cheese Inc., Green Bay, Wis., said the company has developed a number of cheeses intended for adding kick to all types of recipes. They provide an additional layer of flavor through a familiar format.

“Pepperoncino has spicy red pepper flakes added to the curd for a little heat,” Ms. Auricchio Krans said. “Our Artigiano cheese comes in blueberry, vino rosso (wine) and balsamic with cipollini.

“Our fresh mozzarella is offered marinated with a variety of spice blends, including pesto, hatch chili and white truffle oil,” she said. “We have an espresso-infused mascarpone that goes great in desserts.”