What is Raclette? The other melted cheese dish cooked tableside

What is raclette? A cheese, a dish, or something else. Here’s what you need to know about this dish from the Alps and how to eat it.

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
French raclette meal
French raclette meal

If you love cheese dishes and the fun social atmosphere of letting guests do their own cooking at the table, similar to cheese fondue, you’ll love raclette, too.

Discover the origins, history, and how to eat this lesser-known interactive melted cheese dish from the French and Swiss Alps that pairs well with beer or white wine.  

My first raclette party

I had Raclette for the first time in France when a friend casually suggested we throw a Raclette dinner party together. 

“Huh? What is Raclette?” 

Raclette grill with a accompaniments set out on a table for guests to grill on a raclette machine.

Even after she explained what the meal was, I still had no idea what she was talking about, which surprised her. She just assumed everyone knew about raclette

In my own defence, this all happened back in 2011, the same year we relocated to France, so there were still a lot of unknowns regarding French food and French culture back then.

I learned pretty quickly that this cheesy melted meal is extremely popular in France, where it’s just as normal to own a tabletop electric raclette machine as it is to own a toaster or blender. And because everyone creates and grills their own combinations of cheese and accompaniments, raclette grilling turns an ordinary meal into a fun interactive and social culinary gathering around the table.

Long story short, I fell in love with French Raclette.

After living in France for over a decade, I’ve enjoyed countless French raclette dinners with friends and family at home, at fairs and at French Christmas markets.  It’s also great to eat after a day of skiing. 

 But what is raclette?

By the end of this article, you’ll know everything you need to know to throw your own raclette party, from ingredients and what type of raclette grill you’ll need. We’ll also go over the meaning, origins, and differences between French raclette, Swiss Raclette, and fondue. 

Read on to learn more.

What is Raclette?

What is raclette?

Everyone’s heard of Fondue, but Raclette is a bit of a mystery outside of Europe. 

First of all, people in France and French-speaking parts of Switzerland refer to this melted cheese dish simply as “Raclette” However, there are differences between how raclette is eaten in France and Switzerland.

So for the purpose of this article, I’ll be using the term French Raclette to differentiate between Raclette in Switzerland and Raclette in France.

Raclette is two things at once: a meal and a type of cheese

1) Raclette is a type of cheese:

Raclette cheese is a semihard alpine cheese made of cow’s milk that dates back to the middle ages. The cows eat a special diet of fresh meadow grass in the summer and meadow hay in the winter.

2) Raclette is a type of meal:

Raclette is also the name of an Alpine cheese dish traditionally made by melting raclette cheese and scraping the gooey, melty cheese goodness like a thick sauce over crusty bread, baguettes, cooked potatoes, and other accompaniments such as pickled onions, gherkins, veggies, or cold charcuterie meats.

Initially, people melted half wheels of raclette cheese over an open flame on an open fire, but these days people use an electric tabletop grill called a raclette grill which makes this an easy, delicious, and hearty meal you can prepare in advance for a cozy family dinner or a large hungry crowd.

What does Raclette mean?

What is raclette? : a bunch of mini French raclette pans loaded up with cheese and various food

The French word “raclette” (to scrape) refers to how the Raclette is served by scraping heated cheese as it melts with a special raclette scraper or a knife. 

Raclette is from the French verb “racler”, which is borrowed from “rasclar” in  Occitan, another Romance language spoken in parts of Spain, Italy and rural parts of southern France.

Raclette cheese used to be called “roasted cheese” in Swiss German

what is raclette: grilling eggs, mushrooms vegetables on an electric French raclette machine..

The name for Raclette has evolved over time.

Bratchäs

Originally, this peasant alpine cheese and meal was known as Bratchäs, which means “roasted cheese” in Swiss German. For several hundred years, Bratchäs remained isolated in the Alps and was not widely known outside of the Alpine region until the early 1900s.

Râcla

It was during the 1900s that people began roasting cheese at home in front of the fireplace and referred to the meal as “râcla” in the French Swiss dialect.

Raclette

Eventually, the French term “raclette” gained popularity in the early 1900s, thanks to a poet named Oscar Perollaz and his wife, who wrote a song called “La râclette” and performed it at the inauguration of the Valais exposition in 1909. The term probably existed prior to his poem; it’s just that his poem made it more mainstream. 

The song was a direct reference to the way the cheese is eaten, by scraping melted cheese. Here’s the poem. 

La râclette (poem)

Blonde râclette ( Blond raclette)
En gouttelettes (Droplets)
Sur nos assiettes (On our plates)
Solide atour ; (Solid around)
Mets vénérable, (Tasty dish)
Au nom aimable, (what a lovely name)
Toute la table (The whole table)
Attend son tour (Waits it’s turn)

“La Râclette ” song by Marguerite and Oscar Perrollaz

What is raclette cheese?Three wheels of raclette cheese stacked up with raclette sign

The critical ingredient in a raclette meal is, of course, the Raclette cheese, after which the meal is named. 

It’s a very meltable semi-hard cheese made from cow’s milk that originated in the mountainous Alpine region of Switzerland and France.

Raclette cheese is still primarily produced in France and Switzerland, but it’s also made in other parts of the world, such as the United States, Germany, and Austria.

However, Swiss and French Raclette cheese is considered the most authentic and traditional variety.

In terms of taste, Swiss and French Raclette cheese are delicious, and each has unique characteristics.

Swiss raclette cheese:

In Switzerland, most Swiss would agree that the best cheese for raclette is Swiss Raclette cheese.

Swiss Raclette tends to have more creamy and nutty notes, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. It’s often aged longer than French Raclette, resulting in a firmer texture and a more pronounced flavour.

French raclette cheese:

In France, the best cheese for raclette is French Raclette cheese.

French Raclette has a smooth and creamy texture with a slightly nutty taste. I’ve heard some Swiss people say that they think French Raclette is too rubbery. Because French Raclette usually ages for a shorter period, it results in a milder flavour and a more pliable texture than Swiss Raclette

Because raclette cheese is super meltable, they are great in cheese recipes including a grilled cheese sandwich.

The best way to determine which type of Raclette you prefer is to try both varieties and compare them for yourself.

Where can you buy raclette cheese?

pre-sliced French raclette cheese package from a French grocery store in France

Raclette is hard to find outside of the areas where it’s popular.

But in France and Switzerland, most people buy their raclette cheese at local grocery stores, where it comes pre-sliced in small packages in different flavours; smoked, nature, and pepper, for example.

Fromagerie selling French raclette cheese
 a French Fromagerie selling dozens of types of cheeses for raclette.

You can also find artisan quality Raclette cheese in cheese shops. In France, a French cheese shop is called “Une fromagerie.”At these specialty shops, you can usually find a wider selection of cheese and cheese flavours for raclette. From mustard and saffron to truffled and spiced cheeses. 

What are the origins of Raclette? Is it from Switzerland or France?

is raclette a Swiss or French invention?

Is raclette a traditional Swiss dish or a French dish?

If you ask a Swiss person where Raclette is from, they’ll answer very matter of factly that it’s from Switzerland in the canton (province) of Valais in the Swiss Alps. Raclette is also one of the national foods of Switzerland.

But Raclette is so popular in France; a French person might say it’s from the Savoy region of the French Alps, which borders Valais in Switzerland. 

So which is it? Is Raclette from France or Switzerland? 

Frankish Empire showing country borders at the time

 While it’s generally accepted that Raclette, the meal, cheese, and tradition, originated in present-day Switzerland’s Valais region, the truth is actually a bit more complex.

Like French fries (chips to you Brits), which both France and Belgium claim they invented, the origins of Raclette are somewhat debated, especially if you consider how old the raclette tradition is.

The history of Raclette dates back to 1291, over 700 years ago, to an area we now call the Alps. However, this was before Switzerland and France were called by their current country names. Both were territories of the Frankish empire, and there were no clear boundaries between what we now recognize as the French and Swiss Alps. 

 So it’s likely that the dish, as we know it today, developed over time and was influenced by both Swiss and French cultures. 

French Raclette is a little different than Swiss Raclette.

Swiss and French raclette Plate of boiled potatoes, charcuterie and cornichons with melted raclette cheese

Although very similar, there are some glaring differences between French raclette and Swiss raclette in terms of the things you eat raclette with during the meal.

Swiss people are often surprised by how Raclette is eaten in France and vice versa. 

Swiss people generally eat their Raclette much more simply than in France. 

A traditional Swiss raclette dish usually involves three or four ingredients and some pepper.

  1. Swiss raclette cheese
  2. Cooked potato: usually boiled
  3. Something acidic, i.e. pickled, such as cornichons or pearl onions (pickled onion)
  4. A sprinkle of pepper.
  5. Maybe some cherry tomatoes or onions to put on the cheese before melting. 

French Raclette involves much more charcuterie meat than Swiss Raclette:

French raclette meal for one served at a restaurant in France

Almost anything goes in a French raclette meal.

In addition to potatoes, raclette cheese, and pickled cornichons, a French raclette meal always involves a lot of charcuterie meats, such as sausages and cold cuts, which is unusual in a classic Swiss raclette meal. 

Because French people are more open to eating different accompaniments than the average Swiss person, you can get more creative with ingredients. 

combination of French raclette chees pans

In addition to cold cuts and charcuterie meat, and depending on the person, French Raclette can include other things to grill on your raclette grill. 

  • Chicken
  • Sausages
  • Seafood:
  • Veggies:
  • Baguettes are also a popular side dish

A Swiss person would find all the additional accompaniments strange, and a French person would find it odd that Swiss Raclette doesn’t have mountains of charcuterie meat. 

Although most Swiss people eat their Raclette more simply than they do in France, I should mention that a select few Swiss people will include a little speck or Grison (a dried meat); but nowhere near the quantity of meat you would find served in France.

  • SPECK: this is a type of cured meat that originates from the Tyrol region of Italy. It’s similar to prosciutto and looks a lot like bacon, but it’s made from pork leg instead of belly.
  • GRISON MEAT: Also known as Bündnerfleisch, is a type of lean, air-dried beef from the Grisons region of Switzerland. 

Other Cheeses for raclette in the French style

While raclette is traditionally associated with Swiss and French cheeses, French people are more open to using different kinds of cheese for raclette, which is a big no-no in Switzerland. 

Here is a list of other cheeses you can use for a French-style raclette meal

French cheeses for a French raclette meal:

  • Morbier cheese: A semi-soft French cheese that originated in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France (the same region as raclette cheese). Made of cows milk. 
  • Reblochon cheese: A semi-soft French cheese that originated in the Haute-Savoie region of the French Alps, which is adjacent to the Franche-Comté region
  • Blue cheese such as Bleu de Gex: Bleu de Gex is also from the same region as raclette and has a stronger taste than most other French blue cheeses. 
  • Comté: A semi-hard cheese with a nutty taste that melts extremely well. Also from the same region as raclette cheese.
  • Camembert cheese:
  • Goat cheese:

Italian cheeses for raclette:

  • mozzarella
  • Gorgonzola
  • Scamorza

Dutch cheese for raclette:

  • Gouda
  • Edam
  • Maasdam

British style raclette:

  • Aged cheddar cheese

It’s popular in many other European countries too.

Cheese Raclette meal is popular in many countries, especially Alpine countries, France, Germany, Switzerland Austria to name a few

Raclette is not only popular in Switzerland and France but also in neighbouring countries that have Alpine regions, such as Italy, Germany, Austria, and Liechtenstein, especially during the cold winter months. 

Each country puts its own spin on the raclette meal.

For instance, German Raclette will likely include Sausages and dark German bread. 

My Dutch friends like to put a variety of different cheeses out, including aged Dutch Gouda cheese. 

Raclette was eaten very differently in the 1200s

before raclette machines, half wheels of raclette cheese used to be heated next to an open fire like a wood fire or a fireplace.

We know that heating raclette-style cheese next to open fires and scraping the melted part of the cheese onto bread is an old Alpine tradition because of Swiss-German medieval texts that date back to 1291 that were found at a convent located in the old Swiss canton of Unterwald.

Historians believe peasants, shepherds and cattlemen in the mountainous Alpine regions carried cheese with them as they moved their cattle through the mountain pastures, a practice called transhumance. Moving cattle could take days or weeks, so bringing food that was nutritious, filling, relatively cheap, and that wouldn’t spoil was crucial. 

In the evening, after the sunset, the herders would set up a campfire and place their cheese on a rock or piece of wood near the fire, scraping the heated part of the cheese facing the fire onto a piece of bread with a knife as it melted.

Potatoes didn’t arrive in Europe until the 1600s, so potatoes as part of the raclette meal came later. Thank you, Spanish colonialism, who brought potatoes back from South America. 

And electricity and electric raclette machines didn’t exist either. 

French raclette vocabulary:

Parts of a French raclette grill 

  1. Le Raclette = Raclette cheese: it’s always masculine and uses the article “LE.” 
  2. La Raclette = Raclette meal: It’s always feminine and uses the article “LA.” 
  3. Appareils à raclette: This is what you call the raclette grill in French. The raclette heating appliance is used to heat and melt the cheese during the raclette meal. 
  4. Pelle à Raclette aka Poêlon: Raclette shovel, aka mini skillet, where you place cheese, which you then slide under the grill of the Raclette
  5. Spatule à Raclette =Raclette spatula for scraping the cheese off the mini raclette skillet pan once the cheese is melted. Usually made of wood, but some are made of plastic. 
  6. Racleur: Usually, the person in traditional raclette restaurants who scrapes the melted cheese off the half wheel of raclette cheese for you.

A squeegee is also called une raclette à vitre (window scraper)

Raclette Grilling: How do you eat, prepare and serve Raclette?

Best French raclette grills: which one is best for your needs?

Most importantly, to eat French Raclette, you need to heat the cheese to the point that it melts and is soft enough to ooze onto your plate.

Most people use an electric raclette grill which is a type of grill for home use to melt raclette cheese.

Raclette grills come in all shapes and sizes, from round ones and square ones to multi-level raclette grills that come equipped with 2 to 8 nonstick mini skillets used for melting cheese and other toppings.

The best raclette machines and the most popular type of French raclette grills in France are multifunctional in that they melt the raclette cheese but also have a griddle surface to grill meat, veggies and seafood.

These multi-functional French raclette grills sometimes have a reversible griddle, with one side for grilling meat and veggies and the other for making crepes or eggs.

There are even tea-light-powered raclette grills that are very portable. These usually serve two people.

I wrote a whole article about the different types of raclette machines and how to choose the best one for your needs. Best raclette grills: +Tips on picking the perfect tabletop party grill

Traditional raclette grills used in restaurants

A traditional raclette grill usually for restaurants but there are also home versions

Most people who enjoy Raclette at home, at least in France, use a standard electric tabletop raclette grill which comes with small pans, for each person so that everyone can melt slices of cheese and create their individual creations at the same time.

However, when you eat Raclette at restaurants, fairs, or Christmas markets in France, Switzerland and other countries where Raclette is popular, the raclette cheese is usually melted by a big electric raclette machine where a huge half-wheel or quarter wheel of raclette cheese is placed under a heating element.

Then, once the side of the wheel of cheese facing the heating element is soft and melty, a person called a “racleur” scrapes the melted cheese over your boiled potato on your plate for you. 

In French, this raclette grill heating device is usually referred to as a “traditional raclette grill” (appareil à raclette traditionnel).

You can buy these for home use, but that would involve getting a huge wheel of raclette cheese which can get expensive.

They are also hard to store due to their awkward configuration and larger clunky size.

How to setup and serve a raclette meal: The basics

If you’re interested in throwing a raclette party, here are the basic for setting up and staging everything before the guests arrive. 

  • Place the raclette machine where everyone can access it, like in the centre of the table or on a countertop.
  • Plug in the grill and let it warm up for about 10 or 15 minutes before you’re ready to eat.       
  • Each person will need their own mini raclette skillet or small pan. This is where you place the cheese, which you put under the griddle to let the cheese melt.

How to setup a raclette grill to eat French raclette

table set up with a Frech raclette grill and all the fixing for the French raclette meal

  • Prepare all the accompaniments and pre-cut if necessary, such as sliced mushrooms and pre-boiling potatoes with the skin on. Then place everything on the table. 
  • Don’t forget to put out slices of cheese for guests to melt. 

slices of raclette cheese

When it’s time to eat, everyone grabs a slice of cheese and puts it on their mini skillet under the griddle. Once the cheese has melted, pour it over the cooked food and enjoy.

You’ll know the cheese is ready when it starts to bubble. Then, scrape the cheese off the mini raclette skillet onto your plate using the raclette spatula. 

One of the most gratifying aspects of using a tabletop raclette grill is this process of melting cheese and watching it slide and ooze off the grill pan into a bubbling pool on your plate. 

While the cheese is melting, you can also place other things to grill on the griddle, like mushrooms, zucchini, thin slices of chicken fish or whatever you want. 

French raclette meal: scraping and pouring French raclette cheese from a mini raclette pan over a plate of potatoes, charcuterie, and salad

You might  be interested in reading: 17 Famous French stinky cheeses adored in France, feared by others

The pros and cons of serving French Raclette for a family meal or dinner party

RACLETTE PROS:

There are a lot of benefits to serving a French raclette meal over a regular cooked meal.

  1. Raclette is an interactive, fun, hands-on social experience. Everyone gathers around the table, grabbing ingredients to cook on the raclette machine and scraping melted cheese onto their plates. 
  2. Raclette is an easy meal to prepare since you only have to precook the potatoes and prep other bite-sized ingredients which you place on the table. The guests do the rest. 
  3. You don’t need a raclette recipe. All you need is cheese, pre-boiled potatoes, baguettes, and a raclette machine, and you’re good to go.
  4. Everything can be prepared and laid out on the table in advance.
  5. You can get creative with ingredients and even use leftovers or ingredients on hand, like that half a zucchini lingering in the fridge.
  6. You can feed a large group of people without spending hours in the kitchen. 
  7. You can invite your vegetarian friends and even your vegan friends over. Just include sliced veggies on the table for vegans, and maybe even vegan cheeses; My son’s French girlfriend is a vegan, and this is what we do. 
  8. Depending on the model, you can also cook crepes on some models that have a reversible griddle specifically for making crepes or pancakes. But you could cook eggs too. 

RACLETTE CONS: 

Serving a French raclette meal also has some drawbacks.

  1. You need special equipment: If you don’t have a raclette grill, it makes eating raclette pretty hard.
  2. Raclette grills can get pricey, but there are inexpensive ones too. 
  3. Unless you use a tea-light-powered raclette grill, you need to plug in the electric raclette machine somewhere. 
  4. Since the grill is usually placed in the middle of the table, the chord of electric grills can get in the way, and you may need an extension cord. 
  5. This cheesy dish may be too rich and heavy for some people’s taste. 
  6. Cleaning up the raclette machine is sometimes a hassle because of the melted cheese left behind on the mini pans. But it’s still easier than cleaning a fondue pot.
  7. The grills can be hard to store if you’re short on space. 

French Raclette vs Fondue:

While both raclette and fondue involve melting cheese, there are distinct differences in the types of cheese used, how they are prepared and served, and the accompaniments typically served with them.

Here’s a table outlining some key differences between Raclette vs Fondue:

Fondue V.S. Raclettette
Category French Raclette Fondue
Cooking
Method
Need a raclette grill Need a fondue pot
Style Swiss/French Swiss 
Cheese used Raclette cheese:  but can use other meltable semi hard cheese.  Typically a combination of Gruyère, Emmental, and Appenzeller
Preparation Everyone melts their own cheese on a Raclette grill, then scrapes
the melted cheese onto their plate, served with accompaniments.
The cheese recipe is melted and kept warm in a pot,
on a stove or portable burner, then served with bread
or other dippers.
Ingredients Typically served with boiled potatoes, charcuterie meats,
pickled cornichons, onion, and sometimes vegetables and bread.
Typically served with bread or vegetables for dipping
into the melted cheese.
Serving style Guests assemble their plates by adding melted cheese and
accompaniments as they please.
Guests typically dip food into a communal pot of melted cheese

Wrapping up: what is raclette?

While a French raclette meal may be similar to a Swiss Raclette meal, the French have given it their own unique twist.

This isn’t the first time the French have made something their own, either. They’ve done it with other foods, like the crescent moon-shaped Kipfel or Kipferl, a breakfast staple in Austria, which the French transformed into the flaky, buttery bread we now call a croissant.

It just goes to show you that even traditional dishes can be transformed and improved upon, resulting in unique culinary dishes.

You should read this: 44 Fascinating French Croissant Facts For Curious Foodies & Francophiles.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog annieandre.com for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.

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