Provel cheese is probably not one of the samples a cheesemonger would hand you from behind the glass case in the supermarket. Unless, of course, you live in St. Louis.
But even in the Gateway to the West, few people really know what Provel is – besides that it’s smothered on Imo’s Pizza. Similar to the gooey butter bar, this St. Louis classic is everywhere in the city, and often leaves people wondering, wtf is Provel?
For starters, let’s clarify one thing: according to the FDA, Provel can’t even be classified as cheese because it doesn’t meet the requirement for minimum moisture content. So when I say “cheese,” I’m really talking about Provel’s official categorization as “pasteurized processed cheese.”
Provel is one of the most famous regional foods in St. Louis (how sad), and it’s almost impossible to find it anywhere else in the country. In fact, if the cheese is manufactured anywhere outside of St. Louis, it isn’t considered Provel, and has to be labeled as “St. Louis-Style Cheese.”
The recipe was concocted in 1947, when the owners of St. Louis’s Costa Grocery (now Roma Grocery, located on the Hill) decided they didn’t like how stringy mozzarella was after taking a bite of pizza. They wanted to create a cheese that melted well and had the same gooeyness as mozz, but with no strings attached. Hence, Provel cheese was created, and the St. Louis cheese scene was never the same.
Despite the popular myth that Provel is a combination of provolone and mozzarella, it’s actually a mix of white cheddar, Swiss, and provolone cheeses (but doesn’t taste like any of the three). It’s not as milky as mozzarella, and has a hint of smoky flavor produced by adding liquid smoke. Those who grew up in St. Louis are accustomed to it, but for others, it’s an acquired taste.
With a low melting point and gooey texture, Provel is used on much of the pizza in St. Louis (the reason it was created), and when it cools down, it becomes kind of like a plastic-y buttery substance. It’s also found on sandwiches, in salads, and, if you’re that into it, Imo’s sells and ships it by the bag. St. Louis-style pizza is definitely hit or miss, especially for those from the New York area who are used to loads of stringy mozzarella on large, foldable slices.
Though many outsiders may choose Velveeta as their “cheese product” of choice, Provel is deeply rooted in the city, and the St. Louis food scene wouldn’t have the same quirks without it.