What Is Provel Cheese And Where Can You Find It?

On the banks of the Mississippi River and in the shadow of that famous Arch lies the "Gateway to the West," or St. Louis. The city's location and role in American history make it unique in that it is everywhere and nowhere all at once. It is not quite the North nor the South — just barely a Midwestern metropolis. 

As a crossroads in the heart of the country, St. Louis has been home to a diverse swath of people who've all left their imprint on its culture. The city's food culture, which boasts influences from Southern cooking (via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch), Italian cuisine (via Next STL), and more, is a clear example of this. It's the home of such original dishes as toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake, and Ted Drewes frozen custard, per TripSavvy. But ask those in the know what dish best personifies this singular city, and many will tell you it is St. Louis-style pizza, which is, above all else, identifiable by the use of Provel cheese.

A cheese unlike any other

Provel is pure St. Louis and unforgettable, one of those foodstuffs that transports people to the time and place they first had it. Much like other evocative foods, its origin is less-than-straightforward. According to Bon Appétit, Provel was trademarked by a Chicago purveyor of imported meats and cheese in 1950. Still, others say that it is the brainchild of a Wisconsin dairy and the St. Louis Italian grocer, Costa's Grocery.

Regardless of the provenance, one thing is certain: Provel is a singular substance. Ask anyone familiar with the cheese about its ingredients, and you'll likely get a different answer every time, but NPR explains that Provel is a combination of cheddar, swiss, and provolone tinged with hints of liquid smoke. When melted, it's not unlike Velveeta, becoming a smooth, homogeneous layer floating on top of St. Louis-style pizza's super thin, crispy crust and red sauce.

Though Provel's origin is murky, according to NPR, Imo's Pizza is the place considered by most to have put the cheese on the map by making it the sauce de rigueur for St. Louis' iconic pie. But Imo's isn't the only place that puts Provel to good use. Across the St. Louis area, it can be found cold in Italian salads and melted on sandwiches like the toasted, open-faced gerber sandwich made with garlic bread, paprika, ham, and Provel, says Sauce Magazine.

Provel is perfect for St. Louis pizza

Mozzarella will likely always reign supreme when it comes to pizza. As Food Republic points out, it comes in many forms and can be made from either cow or Mediterranean buffalo milk. The fat and water content can be altered too. Despite these variations, mozzarella is prized for pizza as it melts well while still lending a toothsome chew. But the iconic stringiness of mozzarella is exactly what makes it a bad fit for St. Louis-style pizza. The cracker-like, unleavened crust is strong enough to hold a pile of toppings but has a tendency to become brittle. A chewy cheese can precipitate structural failure in this situation, as J. Kenji López-Alt notes in Serious Eats. But Provel's lush gooeyness was made for this type of pizza and offers a buttery, smoky kick that yields with every bite.

For those who now find their curiosity and appetite piqued, it may be disheartening to learn that both St. Louis-style pizza and Provel are hard to find outside of that region. But take heart because with the internet and just a few clicks, you can get almost anything delivered, and Provel is no exception. Though you may be far from an Imo's Pizza, they are happy to ship you a supply of Provel.