The Science of Creamy Mac and Cheese

Gouda Mac and Cheese

I knew about sodium citrate and its effects on cheese sauces. It took me a while to try it myself. The end result was the creamiest cheese sauce ever. Now I use it all the time when I want a really creamy cheese sauce. We made two versions of mac and cheese in a cooking class with kids. We made the traditional roux-based recipe and the less traditional sodium citrate version. The kids preferred the sodium citrate version by far.

Sodium citrate is the natural salt of citric acid. It has a sour taste, and is used as a preservative and food additive. It is also used in sour candies.

For a lot of us, making a cheese sauce involves making a classic white sauce, or béchamel. Flour and butter are combined in a saucepan, then heated together until the butter melts and the mixture is smooth. Then you add milk, cream or half and half. Once the mixture thickens, you add the cheese and end up with a cheese sauce. Wonderful and classic, but some cheeses don’t melt that well. You end up with a tasty, but somewhat un-creamy end product.

There is a way to make the creamiest cheese sauce ever and it involves a little science. When you make a cheese sauce, the cheese will melt, but sometimes has a grainy texture. That is because of the way the proteins bond with calcium in the cheese. When you combine warmed liquid with a little sodium citrate, then add the cheese, the sodium substitutes for some of the calcium and the cheese breaks down better. The end result is a really creamy sauce.

The liquid you use can be water or milk. I like half and half. I found several recipes on line. I played around, and ended up with the recipe below. Some directions said you have to use an immersion blender to get a creamy result. I did that the first time and the sauce was very creamy. I used a whisk the next time. I found whisking worked just fine.

You want to be sure to use food grade sodium citrate.

Super Creamy Mac and Cheese

12 oz. dry pasta

2 T. butter

1¼ c. half and half – you can also use water, milk, broth

2½ t. sodium citrate

12 oz. finely shredded cheese- I used Gouda, but cheddar, Muenster or any cheese that melts well, will work

Salt and pepper to taste

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, place in bowl and toss with the butter. Set aside. Heat half and half in a saucepan, over medium heat. Stir in the sodium citrate and bring to a simmer. Add the cheese slowly, about ¼ cup at a time, whisking well until melted before adding more. Sauce will become thick and creamy. Once all the cheese has been added, stir in the prepared pasta, adjust seasonings and serve. If you like, you can place mac and cheese in a casserole, top with buttered bread crumbs and bake until bread crumbs are toasted, about 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Serves 4.

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