For those not familiar with Welsh Rabbit, the dish is not made with rabbit. It is made with melted cheese on toast, which is a great combination. Melted cheese on bread is not a new concept. The Swiss have fondue, the French croque madames or monsieurs, the British have Welsh Rarebit, or as it’s properly known, Welsh Rabbit.
The history about this dish is rather unclear. The dish originated in Wales, and it seems to have been born from economic necessity. Some say the Welsh invented it as a consolatory meal after an unsuccessful hunt. Others say it’s a tavern dish inspired by the Welsh love of cheese. As Caroline Russock phrases it on seriouseats.com: “In 18th century England, rabbit was the meat you ate if you were poor, and the Welsh were so poor that they couldn’t afford rabbit, so they ate cheese.”
Then there’s the issue with the name – rabbit or rarebit? According to folk legend, Welsh Rarebit was originally “Welsh Rabbit,” and it was meant to cast slander on the Welsh, who allegedly were not very skilled at catching rabbits. During the late 18th century, derogatory terms such as rabbit became frowned upon in polite company and the name evolved into rarebit, meaning a choice morsel. Today, rarebit has come to mean tasty morsels of bread covered in a mustardy cheese sauce.
The first record of the term “Welsh Rabbit” was in 1725, with the alternative form “rarebit” not being used until 1785. The latter form became preferred in recipe books. Although “Welsh Rabbit” is still heard, “Welsh Rarebit” is the more commonly used form now.
Far from simple cheese on toast, a good plate of Welsh Rabbit is savory, spicy, rich, and layered with flavor. There are a few different versions, but most seem to settle on these staples:
A béchamel sauce that is made from a roux using beer as well as cream. Others flavorings such as Worcestershire sauce and mustard are added. Cheddar cheese is melted in and the thick sauce is served over toasted hearty bread.
Other versions of the sauce have different spices added to them, and sometimes the cheese is simply broiled over the toast and it’s served in a reduced, beer-like sauce.
During the Prohibition-era, milk and cream seem to have been substituted for beer in the sauce. Over time, variations began to spring up and changes kept coming through the years. Golden Buck or Buck Rabbit is Welsh Rabbit crowned with a poached egg. Yorkshire Rabbit is topped with both bacon or ham and a poached egg. Irish Rabbit has herbs, onions and vinegar added to the sauce. English Rabbit uses red wine. American Rabbit uses whisked egg whites. Tomato Rabbit, also known as Woodchuck, uses canned tomato soup.
By the 1970s, the popularity of the dish had begun to fade. No good dish ever disappears completely. In recent years, cooks have begun to remake this favorite in new ways. Many budget-conscious cooks still use it as an economical and easy-to-prepare dinner choice.
Characteristically, the cheese used in Welsh rabbit is Lancashire, Cheddar or Double Gloucester, although Red Leicester is a popular substitute. Buy the best cheese that you can because it’s the star of the dish.
Most cooks also recommend using a good hearty bread, as the dish can be ruined by spongy bread. The sturdy bread forms a dense backdrop for the velvety melted cheese sauce. Not everything should have the same texture, which is part of what makes this dish fun to eat.
The richness of Welch Rabbit cannot be denied and when done right, it’s super flavorful and super rich!
(Recipe from Chowning’s Tavern: Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, VA)
Serves 4 to 6
- 1 cup beer*
- 2 teaspoons mustard powder
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1½ cups sharp Cheddar cheese, freshly grated
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Salt to taste
- 4 to 6 tomato slices
- 8 to 12 slices (½-inch thick), toasted French, Italian, or whole wheat rustic bread
- Preheat a broiler. Place the beer, mustard, cayenne, and Worcestershire sauce in a saucepan, and heat over medium heat until boiling. Slowly whisk in the cheese, making sure each addition is melted before adding the next. Add the butter, and whisk until smooth. Season with salt to taste, and set aside.
- Place the tomato slices on the rack of a broiler pan, and broil for 1 minute, or until lightly browned.
- To serve, place the toast slices on the bottom of an ovenproof gratin dish or in individual gratin dishes. Pour the cheese over the toast, and then top with the tomato slices. Place under the broiler and broil until the cheese is bubbly and brown. Serve immediately.
*Notes: If you don’t like beer, you can replace it with milk and it will still taste great.
The components of the dish can be prepared up to a few hours in advance and kept at room temperature. Reheat the cheese until hot, whisking until it is smooth, before the final broiling.
(Sources: Cable News Network – Eatocracy, Oxford University Press, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Wikipedia®)
The University of Wyoming and the United States Department of Agriculture cooperate.
The University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action institution.