We appreciate the easy appeal of the toast trend, especially cheese toast. But melting cheese can be a greasy disaster.
Looking for a better way took us back to 18th-century Britain, where the oddly named dish Welsh rarebit offered a solution.
At its most basic, Welsh rarebit is bread topped with cheese sauce. Britons melted finely chopped cheese with beer, typically, then spooned it onto bread topped with mustard or butter. It could be eaten as is or broiled until bubbling and browned.
But for a relatively simple dish, it has a complicated and contradictory history, starting with its name. Is it rarebit or rabbit? Is it even Welsh?
Some suggest the name stems from an insult to the Welsh, a reference to their lacking the means for real rabbit. Others speculate that rarebit originally was “rearbit,” or something eaten at the end of a meal.
Whatever its origins, the dish had traction. In 1753, “The Lady’s Companion” listed variations for Scotch rabbit, English rabbit, Italian rabbit and even Portugal rabbit. By the early 19th century, Welsh rarebit had spread to France, where it remained popular until after the turn of the century. It migrated to the U.S., where it was a favorite snack of William Randolph Hearst. Disturbingly, canned Welsh rarebit was even served on trains.
Arguably, Welsh rarebit was polished off in popular culture by fondue. The cheesy dish had a boost in the ’50s thanks to the rise of chafing dishes, but it waned after that. The modern toast trend, however, suggested to us it might be time for a rarebit revival.
The challenge with such a simple dish is to make sure each ingredient shines. We started with the cheese. For both flavor and texture, we preferred blocks of sharp or extra-sharp cheddar; pre-shredded varieties made a tasteless, rubbery sauce.
The beer is key. In addition to adding flavor—we favored malty brown ales and ambers over lagers—it also helps the cheese melt smoothly. That’s because beer is acidic, and acid helps loosen the proteins in cheese.
We wondered whether we could make the sauce even smoother. Some recipes call for whole eggs or yolks, which did produce a noticeably smoother and richer sauce. The drawback? Dulled flavor. A few tablespoons of sour cream likewise smoothed the sauce, but the taste was reminiscent of cheesy onion dip. Not bad, but not rarebit.
Traditional recipes are seasoned with dried mustard powder and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. But we found Dijon mustard and a full teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce provided better flavor. Minced shallots added sweetness but made for a slightly lumpy sauce. Instead, we sprinkled the rarebit with chives for the same flavor but cleaner texture.
As for the bread, there was no need to get fancy. The rarebit was so loaded with flavor from the cheese and beer that pumpernickel or even sourdough overcomplicated the dish. A plain, high-quality white toast was best.
Finally, while we loved our rarebit as is, we also enjoyed it with a spoonful of sautéed mushrooms, which made the dish feel more like a complete meal.