Need help with cheese sauce.
October 11, 2015 8:52 PM   Subscribe

I've been mixing and matching from random recipes online for mac and cheese, so I can't get the consistency quite right. How do I get a really smooth base?

For the most part, I'm doing:
  1. butter (4 tbsp) + flour (1/4 cup) + seasonings (salt+pepper+paprika, rosemary? oregano?)
  2. milk/cream (1-2 cups depending on how skim it is)
  3. cheddar + Parmesan + Asiago to taste
  4. mix into a box's worth of (boiled) shell pasta
The main issue might be how much butter/flour I'm using, but there might be a technique for adding the milk that I'm completely missing. Or it could be a temperature/timing thing.

I'm trying to keep this as simple as possible, but still make it taste good.
posted by vixsomnis to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
milk/cream (1-2 cups depending on how skim it is)

...there's a massive variety in this.

What's actually going wrong? What stages are you going through?
posted by pompomtom at 9:02 PM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is what you're looking for. Trust me.
posted by General Malaise at 9:04 PM on October 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

Could it be the cheeses you're using? I wouldn't expect the Parmesan to ever become smooth; even when I put it on a pizza under a broiler mixed with other cheeses it doesn't really melt. I'm fairly picky about macaroni and cheese but I usually use a good 70% or more processed American cheese.

I normally just follow the Wikipedia instructions for preparing Béchamel sauce (particularly the clove-studded onion in the milk as it heats) and then whisk in the cubed cheese, and once it's totally smooth the pasta.
posted by XMLicious at 9:05 PM on October 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Serious Eats 15-minute Ultra Gooey Mac & Cheese Follow this, Kenji Lopez-Alt has the science here.

First off, you're using cheese that doesn't melt well. This can be fixed with either some American cheese/Velveeta, or some sodium citrate.

Second, that's a lot of flour, and a lot of variation in the milk.

Third, an egg does wonders for helping the sauce stick to the pasta well.
posted by CrystalDave at 9:05 PM on October 11, 2015 [9 favorites]

How are you cooking the butter and flour? The key to a really smooth mac and cheese, in my experience, is to get the roux perfect - first melt the butter, then add the flour, then cook for several minutes while whisking constantly over low heat. The Pioneer Woman recipe has some good pictures -- no need to add the egg, though.
posted by Jeanne at 9:06 PM on October 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

What do you want your end-result to look like? As smooth as boxed cheese? If that's the case, try velveeta or american cheese instead of hard cheeses which really don't want to melt all the way no matter what.
posted by muddgirl at 9:06 PM on October 11, 2015

In what way is your sauce not smooth? Grainy, lumpy, too thick, something else?

In general, though, I'd say make sure that your particular cheeses are good melters, that you're cooking your roux long enough, and that you're whisking after you add milk.
posted by anne_severson at 9:13 PM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is my Mac and cheese recipe, as written for my never-cooks little sister:

8oz pasta
2 T (tablespoons) butter
2 T flour
2 cups milk/cream
2 1/2 cup cheese
1/4 tsp (teaspoon) paprika (optional, I forget it half the time)
1/2 tsp pepper (same)

cook the pasta until it's juuuust done - should still be a little chewier than if you were going to eat it in sauce - drain and rinse with cold water
put in baking dish

melt the butter (slowly, on low/medium)
slowly ad the flour and whisk until it's uniform
Very slowly add the milk a little at a time while stirring. helps if the milk isn't super cold, but not required. if you put it all in at once the butter-flour mixture will get lumpy.
stir on low/medium for a bit and let it thicken. using cream instead of milk helps with this, and you can use a little less cream in that case. Basically I do this until I run out of patience
add the cheese and melt, again slowly.

pour the sauce on the pasta and stir to distribute
put either slices of cheese on top, or bread crumbs or similar
bake 20+ minutes at 350 until browned on top

I have also found that at least 1/4 of the cheese needs to be American or very similar for proper melting. Hard or aged cheese like aged Asiago (the usual kind) should probably be no more than 1/4 to 1/3 at the most, or it tends to separate. The harder the cheese the less to use. I would switch to 1/2 American, 1/4 a young cheddar, 1/4 Asiago, and grate the parm on top, if you want that cheese mix. It will still have a very strong taste.
posted by sepviva at 9:17 PM on October 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Ina Garten's mac & cheese recipe works well for us. The key is the same as the other winners here, I'll bet: bechamel.
posted by notyou at 9:18 PM on October 11, 2015

You need sodium citrate.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:18 PM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, for a equal-part-4-tbs roux I would add at least 2 cups of liquid and probably err closer to 2.5 cups. I don't know why the skimmness of the milk would matter for this.

Another tip: Adding a bit of reserved pasta water can help smooth out and thicken sauce. I've never tried this with cheese bechamel in particular but I don't see why it wouldn't work.
posted by muddgirl at 9:19 PM on October 11, 2015

I use 3Tbsp butter, 3Tbsp flour, 2.5 cups milk and an indeterminant amount of grated cheese. Melt butter, stir in flour, cook for a few minutes, whisk in milk (It can help to take the pan off the heat when added both the flour and the milk). Heat, whisking occasionally, till thick (generally when it starts to boil). This is a bit thin, but whisking in the (~1cup?) cheese thickens it up. However, american cheddar cheese is terrible, so your result could be quite different. Consider trying some imported or expensive cheddar. I've also made it with half milk, half stock, which tasted fantastic and needed less cheese.

I also make it in the microwave - easier to ignore. Instructions are essentially the same, though the flour/butter mixture only needs about a minute.
posted by kjs4 at 9:41 PM on October 11, 2015

In Serious Eats 15-minute Ultra Gooey Mac & Cheese, I found it! (@CrystalDave)
Some cheese sauce recipes call for béchamel— a flour-thickened milk-based sauce—as the base. I don't like how it works out both in terms of texture (a cheesy béchamel is smooth and creamy but not gooey) and flavor (you can taste hints of the flour in the finished product). A purer starch like cornstarch is a definite step in the right direction, while replacing the regular milk (or heavy cream) with evaporated milk seals the deal.
I'll probably get some American also, since I just finished my block of cheddar. Still have most of my Parmesan/Asiago though, so those are going in anyway.

Thanks for all the tips! I'll try some of these out. I'll have to wait for a special occasion for the one since I don't have the patience and mac and cheese is a weekly thing for me.

If anyone cares, my first attempt (sans any recipes whatsoever) looked something like the right half of this picture, but with a chunk of cheese the size of my fist. So, I've gotten pretty far.
posted by vixsomnis at 10:38 PM on October 11, 2015

@kjs4, +1 for the microwave prep. I'll definitely check it out (and try to get my hands on some non-Kraft cheddar).
posted by vixsomnis at 10:41 PM on October 11, 2015

As a note, bechamel is better for baked m&cs because the starch prevents splitting. If you're doing solely stovetop Just reduce say 2 cups of cream by half, and add about a cup of shredded melting cheese. Stir until melted and smooth, add par-cooked (say two minutes less than package directions) pasta.

Parmesan is not melting cheese, nor is Asiago. You want cheddars, fontina, brie or camembert with the rind removed, chevre, even gruyere or emmenthaler if you roll that way. Hard cheeses will not melt to a smooth consistency without something like sodium citrate (mentioned above) getting involved.

The easiest way to make m&c is to do that process, put in a heatproof bowl, top with a 2:1 mix of buttered and lightly toasted breadcrumbs and Parm/grana padano/pecorino/etc and bung under the broiler (grill in the UK) for a minute to crisp.

Throw in some garlic and onion or shallot to saute first, then deglaze with white wine and proceed as above, add herbs--any of thyme, chervil, rosemary, basil, tarragon, bay--at any point if you wish, add bacon or shredded pork or chicken with the pasta at the end. Any of those will up your game.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:52 PM on October 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you're serious about this, you'll want to make a roux base.

For about 2 servings, a couple of tablespoons butter in the pan. Slowly add flour and stir - a silicone spatula is great - until you get a nice pastey mass. Brown it a little bit and keep rolling it around. This is a roux.

After it's gotten a bit brown and smelling wonderful, slowly add cream and keep stirring. About most of a thinger of one of those small tetrapak containers ~250mL. Simmer and stir in shredded cheese (90% chedder, 10% parmesan is my cheapo; there are better mac'n'cheese cheeses) until you get a nice saucey cheese thing. Taste, add salt as needed. Meld in your pasta and meat. Add white pepper and dust with chipotle.
posted by porpoise at 11:53 PM on October 11, 2015

Couple notes to that... roux is made 50/50 by weight, not volume, of butter:flour. And milk--hot milk, bring to a bare simmer in a separate pot--is used, not cream. And you don't brown the butter first--if you do, you can't toast the flour, because the milk solids start to burn. Add the flour as soon as the butter is melted, and toast them together. Note: the darker the roux, the less its thickening power. For a classic bechamel you only want to cook to 'blonde'--yellowish from the butter, with the raw flour taste gone. Experimenting with darker roux can lead to some fun flavour combinations--you'll likely want to find a cheese with a nutty flavour to complement the darker roast. Note that the final colour of the dish, if it is important to you, will be not quite as appetizing. If that's a problem, serve in like an onion soup bowl and top with breadcrumbs to more or less hide it. And if your bowls are dark, the colour will be elevated by contrast, somewhat at least.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:07 AM on October 12, 2015

++++ for sodium citrate. There are millions of tricks for getting cheese to do what it doesn't want to (forming a sauce, staying a sauce) but they all water down the cheese-ness, including making a third (!) of the cheese a cheese-like product. So assuming you want macaroni and cheese (or any cheese sauce, like queso or fondue) that never breaks, has the perfect "blue box" texture, but tastes like nothing but real cheese (unless you want it to!*), you want to pick up a few ounces of sodium citrate.

* sub beer for the water, maybe, or white wine in fondue. And it tastes like real cheese, unlike the box.

Oh yeah, and it reheats perfectly.
posted by supercres at 6:08 AM on October 12, 2015

If you want to try it out immediately some casual Googling seems to indicate that there may be various household sources of sodium citrate. For example this page states that tart white wines may contain it and that's how Swiss fondue works.
posted by XMLicious at 7:15 AM on October 12, 2015

You need equal parts butter and flour for your roux. And good melting cheese, like others have said.
posted by fancyoats at 7:17 AM on October 12, 2015

Definitely agree above that the equal parts flour & butter for the roux and use melting cheeses is the key. The America's Test Kitchen's recipes proportions are:

Roux: 6 tblsps of butter and flour
3 1/2 cups whole milk + 1 3/4 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 pound Colby + 8 oz Extra Sharp Cheddar shredded

This is for 1 pound of cooked elbow pasta and they intend for you to then bake this all in a 9x13 pan in the oven tossed with breadcrumbs.
posted by mmascolino at 7:49 AM on October 12, 2015

Came here to recommend sodium citrate as well. That stuff is magic! Seriously, the only things you need are cheese + liquid + sodium citrate.

I haven't used it with a 100% mix of hard cheeses, but definitely have mixed hard cheeses into other cheeses as a base. However, I think it would still work without any soft cheese base, just can't personally vouch for it.

Dang, now I want queso.
posted by theRussian at 8:06 AM on October 12, 2015

I'll grab some sodium citrate, too, if it's that magical.

Anyone have recommendations for herbs? I have oregano, rosemary, and "Italian seasoning".
posted by vixsomnis at 8:57 AM on October 12, 2015

In my view, herbs disturb the tastiness. Paprika, pepper (maybe white pepper), a little nutmeg, and salt are all you need.
posted by mumimor at 9:20 AM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Family secret: a teensy drizzle of Worcestershire sauce.

Herbs aren't going to stand up to that environment very well and may get bitter.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:56 AM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's not clear from your recipe that you're making a roux as much as just mixing the things together. Roux is the critical thickener which helps prevent those cheeses from breaking.

Roux is blisteringly hot stuff that needs pretty much constant attention for a few minutes. Have your dairy ready to add before you start the roux and then stir the roux constantly until it smells nutty, and maybe a tad longer once it starts to tan a little. (You don't need a brick-red roux for this application.) Add the dairy to stop the cooking process, and be careful of splattering-- they don't call roux "cajun napalm" for nothing.

Always throw out the roux (after cooling) if you see black specs where it burned. Flour and butter are cheap enough. On your next attempt, try again on lower heat.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:21 PM on October 12, 2015

When you make a roux, pay close attention to the consistency of the butter/flour as you stir. It goes through a couple of transformations before it's ready to rock, after you've done it a few times, you'll know what to look for.

Basically, it'll start grainy-to-clumpy, but if your proportions are right, just before it gets to the point of browning (which I personally avoid), it will get very smooth and syrupy as you continually stir it. That's the point at which adding your (hot) milk should happen.

Once you've got it down, you're guaranteed lovely smooth cheese sauce.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:43 PM on October 26, 2015

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