The Star of the Show — the Fondue Pot
Fondue pots have come a long way since Swiss farm families melted cheese in an earthenware cooking pot called a caquelon. Fondue pots come in a number of shapes, sizes, and materials. Still, there are a few general things to look for when shopping for a fondue pot:
Does it come with a complete set of instructions on how to use the pot, including the heat source?
Does it come with instructions on cleaning, including information about whether it is safe to place the pot in the dishwasher or oven?
Does it come with a number of recipes designed specifically for use with that type of pot?
Does the set include a rack to keep the pot stable when it is set on the heated burner?
Does it come with a set of dipping forks?
If the pot is meant to be used with oil-based fondues, does it have a set of metal inserts at the top for holding the fondue forks?
Is it designed with features such as a long handle that make lifting easier?
Fondue Pot Material
The most common types of fondue pot are made of stainless steel, aluminum, or cast iron. Designed to handle the high temperatures needed for oil fondues, these can also be used to cook broth-based fondues. However, they are not the best option for cheese and dessert fondues, which can curdle or scorch at high temperatures.
An adaptation of the original Swiss earthenware pot, ceramic pots are specifically designed for cooking cheese fondues. The heat is distributed slowly and evenly, preventing the cheese from curdling. This makes them perfect for chocolate fondues as well, since chocolate has a tendency to seize when overheated. However, ceramic pots can't handle the high temperatures needed for cooking food in oil.
Dessert fondue pots are small ceramic pots that use a candle for the heat source. Inexpensive and designed to comfortably hold between one and two cups of melted chocolate, they are the ideal for serving a romantic chocolate fondue dessert for two. However, the open flame doesn't provide enough heat for cheese fondues.
As the name implies, an electric fondue pot replaces the burner with electricity as the heat source. An electric fondue pot is ideal for cooking oil-based fondues: the thermostatically controlled temperature setting frees you from having to worry about reaching and maintaining the proper temperature for cooking food in oil.
However, like stainless steel, aluminum, and cast-iron pots, it can be difficult to set the temperature low enough to prevent chocolate from scorching or cheese from curdling.
Finally, the Asian hot pot is a large communal cooking pot specifically designed for cooking food in a simmering broth. Traditionally, the hot pot — also known as a firepot — was heated by charcoal, which came up through a chimney in the middle of the pot. A “moat” circling the chimney held the heated broth. Today, modern hot pots are frequently made of aluminum or stainless steel. Electricity, gas, or alcohol has replaced charcoal as the heat source.
A special type of hot pot, designed for fiery Szechwan cuisine, splits the broth into two compartments. This allows cooks to prepare two types of broth. Noted for its spiciness, the first broth is seasoned with garlic, chilies, and Szechwan peppercorns. The second is a traditional hot pot broth, which is similar to a consommé. Guests are free to choose which broth to cook their food in.
Which Fondue Pot Should You Buy?
For cooks wanting to hone their skills by preparing several types of fondue, it's tempting to splurge on at least three fondue pots: a stainless steel pot for cooking broth- and oil-based fondues, a regular-sized ceramic pot for preparing cheese and chocolate fondues, and a smaller-sized dessert fondue pot for romantic evenings. Those who cook frequently with hot oil could even add an electric fondue pot to the list. And there is always the option of cooking broth-based fondues in an authentic Asian hot pot.
However, for cooks with limited budgets, another option is to purchase a stainless steel or aluminum pot with a ceramic insert. The metal pot can take the heat needed for oil- and broth-based fondues. As for cheese and chocolate fondues, the melted cheese or chocolate is poured into the ceramic bowl, which fits snugly inside the metal bowl. To prevent the ceramic dish from cracking, it may be necessary to first add boiling water to the metal pot.
While it may not be the best choice for a first fondue pot, an electric hot pot has two major advantages over other types of fondue pots. First, it means that all the cooking can be done at the table. Second, electric pots are frequently larger than other models. This makes it easier to prepare fondue for a crowd. Definitely consider purchasing an electric model as a secondary fondue pot if you plan to cook oil- and broth-based fondues on a regular basis.
With the exception of electric fondue pots and certain types of Asian hot pots, most fondue pots use alcohol-fueled burners to keep the food warm. Small and shaped like a skillet, the burner sits directly underneath the fondue pot. Heat regulation is controlled through its long handle: rotating the handle opens or closes holes at the top of the burner. Opening the holes provides a hotter flame, while closing them has the opposite effect. The two most common types of fondue fuel are liquid alcohol and fuel gel or paste. More expensive than liquid alcohol, fuel gel has the advantage of lasting longer and being safer since it can't splash. Leftover gel can be sealed in foil and reused.
Fondue fuel gels come in bottles or foil-covered containers. To use the bottled gel, it's necessary to line the bottom of the burner with tinfoil. With the foil containers, just insert the container and tear off the cover. Liquid fuel is poured into the burner. Depending on the type of fuel, the retention compartment in the middle of the burner may or may not be removed. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions on how to use the burner in that specific model of fondue pot.
While the fondue burner is fairly simple to use, there are a few safety tips you should keep in mind. First, never attempt to ignite a fondue burner using a cigarette lighter. Always light it with a match. Second, don't attempt to refuel the burner while it is still hot. Extinguish the flame by setting the cover on the burner, and allow the burner to cool before replacing the fuel.