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April 20, 2009 2:40 PM   Subscribe

For some reason my once always perfect scalloped potatoes have become a mess. I haven't changed my technique or recipe, but for some reason every single time I make them the sauce breaks up once they're in the oven. They taste the same but look pretty gross. Could it be that I've been using lactaid instead of normal milk?

I use the basic Good Housekeeping cookbook recipe (I have the anniversary edition, which means it's the same as the one in my mom's wedding-gift version I grew up with), as I have for more than ten years. I've made them successfully with milk and the lactaid in the past, so I don't think that's it. Just mentioning in case it helps.
The sauce looks fine before I add it. Thickened as it should be, smooth without lumps of flour or anything. Just... once they're in the oven, it breaks up and comes out with liquid and lumps. Ick. No idea what I'm doing wrong. Any suggestions? I don't want to give up on this dish, it's my pot luck go-to!
posted by Kellydamnit to Food & Drink (15 answers total)
Are you using a different pan or a different oven, or doing anything that could cause the temperature of your scalloped potatoes to be higher than you're accustomed to? One of the most common reasons for sauces to break is too-high heat for too long.
posted by dersins at 2:50 PM on April 20, 2009

Do you have anything acidic in there? I had problems once when I used ham that had a mustard-based glaze. I thought the small amount of glaze that made it into the casserole wouldn't matter, but sure enough it came out of the oven curdled.
posted by TungstenChef at 2:50 PM on April 20, 2009

Maybe the milk is too cold? I generally heat the milk and then add the flour before adding to the potatoes.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:51 PM on April 20, 2009

Oh, and is it possible that Lactaid may have changed the fat content in their product since you first started making the dish? Insufficient fat is another reason sauces can break.
posted by dersins at 2:53 PM on April 20, 2009

Have you changed the altitude you're cooking at? I always remember seeing the recipes that have different instructions for different altitudes. (But I guess I'm really proposing this because it would be cool if that was the cause, rather than because I think that's actually what's going on.)
posted by XMLicious at 2:53 PM on April 20, 2009

Response by poster: Oven: no, it has both worked and not worked out of the same oven.
altitude: haven't moved
If I add ham it's not glazed

the fat content may be it... or the heat. I've found the potatoes I've been getting lately take longer to cook than they used to- I may try to heat the milk, maybe use more butter, and boil the potatoes for a bit first.
posted by Kellydamnit at 3:03 PM on April 20, 2009

Are your potatoes any different? I have this problem when the potatoes are soft and watery. I think the extra liquid gets into the sauce, changes the fat to whatever ratio and causes it to break. Maybe try a different type of potato or try giving them a really good pat down and dry before putting them in?
posted by shelleycat at 3:12 PM on April 20, 2009

Just another thought on the Lactaid, are you getting the "extra calcium" version or whatever it is? (Oh, I guess it's called Calcium Fortified.) No idea why that would be causing a problem, but I know my boyfriend won't drink the stuff because he says it tastes "thick."
posted by cabingirl at 3:47 PM on April 20, 2009

I think your comment about your potatoes provides a clue. Starch tends to stabilize sauces (like flour/butter=roux that thickens the milk, or the bit of cornstarch in a cheese fondue).

Some of the starch in the finished dish surely comes from the potatoes themselves. Could you be using less starchy potatoes than you used to use? There's a big starch difference between russets and red bliss, for example.

Also, does this recipe include cheese, or is it basically bechamel (white, milk-based) sauce? Cheese sauces are also stabilized by starch. (This is why a bit of corn starch keeps a swiss cheese fondue smooth and creamy instead of stringy and stretchy).

I'm skeptical that it's the Lactaid or the temperature of the milk. I've made white sauces with both scalded/heated milk and cold milk with no problems.

It could also be the cheese (if there is any in the dish). Did you change brands/styles? Some processed cheeses contain emulsifiers that might help, and some really delicious, non-processed high-quality aged cheeses are lousy at melting (and more acidic to boot).

Finally, ovens are by no means immune for getting out of calibration. Get an oven thermometer and find out if 350 degrees is really 350 degrees in your oven. Maybe it used to be, and maybe it's not anymore.

It might be easier to troubleshoot if you actually post the ingredients and a quick/general description of the process you use to pull this dish together.
posted by ViolaGrinder at 3:49 PM on April 20, 2009

I also wondered if your recipe has cheese. I don't like the results of my scalloped potato dish when I use pre-shredded cheese. Even though it melts OK in the hot roux, it seems to separate during baking. Block cheese, shredded by hand, works more consistently for me.
posted by peep at 3:51 PM on April 20, 2009

Lactaid has an enzyme added to it. Surely that changes what happens when you cook with it.
posted by gjc at 4:28 PM on April 20, 2009

The Lactaid website has tons of recipes on it and it doesn't look like there are any substantial differences for use when baking or cooking. Double-check your oven temperature, and seconding the choice of cheese and potatoes - do you buy 'better' cheese now? Sometimes it doesn't melt or incorporate as easily as the pre-fab stuff. And potatoes do change with the season and variety - make sure they're nice and dry.
posted by barnone at 7:27 PM on April 20, 2009

I'm another person who wonders if you are using cheese, and possibly a different cheese than you used to. As much as I love cheddar, I never use it in baked dishes like potatoes au gratin or mac and cheese; the proteins coagulate, the relatively large amounts of milkfat (compared to other cheeses) get squeezed out, and you end up with rubber cheese curds floating in orange grease.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:03 AM on April 21, 2009

Response by poster: Nope, no cheese (wouldn't that make it au gratin?)
The oven may be out of calibration... could I check that with a normal cooking probe thermometer if I suspended it between the racks? It's a pretty crappy old oven, but renters can't be choosers.

I normally use smooth skin potatoes, but I'm not too picky on the variety. Right now they're white.

The lactaid is the 2% variety, which is what I almost always get. (1% only when the 2% is unavailable or expires too soon)
posted by Kellydamnit at 8:40 AM on April 21, 2009

Best answer: could I check that with a normal cooking probe thermometer if I suspended it between the racks?

Yup. Try suspending it in different places too, our crappy old oven has definite hot spots.

I normally use smooth skin potatoes, but I'm not too picky on the variety.

Using waxy versus floury potatoes is going to make a definite difference. Age also, new potatoes are harder han stored ones. For example, floury potatoes will release a lot more water and mush up more and just have a different texture, all of which will affect your sauce. It's important to buy the right kind of potato for your needs, each type can act like totally different vegetables at times (note: I don't know which type is better for this recipe). I've bought both waxy and floury potatoes that are white and smooth skinned so I have no idea which ones you're currently using or if they're different than before, you'll need to investigate.

It does look like the potatoes are the most likely thing to have changed between batches so look into that some more.
posted by shelleycat at 2:38 PM on April 21, 2009

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