What did I do to my mac and cheese?!?
October 6, 2020 7:59 AM   Subscribe

In need of comfort food, I turned to The Old Favourite. It went badly. Please diagnose my mistake.

I am a very competent, even good, home cook. I'm the type that doesn't often use a recipe, and I usually don't follow it so closely when I do, but stuff generally goes well and the food is tasty. Not so last night.

Here's what I did:
  • Cooked the DeCecco shells to al dente; drained (mostly)
  • Added some 2% milk and kefir (NB: have never used kefir before)
  • Brought to light boil, turned heat to medium
  • Added a bunch of baby spinach (another potential problem)
  • Added 7 oz of freshly grated gouda (came in a round block covered in wax; seemed like normal gouda)
This is where the problems started. Instead of the cheese slowly melting into the liquid, it turned into a few giant globules of spinach and hot, scary cheese. I tried to finesse it into the sauce, but it was not having it.

I added some steamed broccoli, and things only got worse. Basically, all the cheese clumped up the vegetables, and that was that. I decided to just let it go and eat it that way. Comfort food RUINED (although it was still pasta and cheese, so, you know, not that bad. And I topped it w/ some crispy Black Forest bacon from Aldi, which could never be bad.)

I've used this very basic easy mac & cheese technique to great success in the past. So, good people of MetaFilter, what went wrong? Was it that the spinach somehow chemically bonded to the cheese? Was it that I used only gouda?

If you know, or have experienced anything like this before, I would love to avoid this EVER happening again. My cleanup was...not pleasant, and the meal was absolutely subpar.

On the plus side, I recently started living alone again, so I didn't have to feel guilty about serving this kitchen disaster to anyone else!
posted by nosila to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Spinach has a ton of water in. Maybe wilt it in a separate pan to evaporate some of the moisture before putting in into the sauce.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:02 AM on October 6, 2020 [9 favorites]

I would mix all the pasta and dairy/cheesy stuff together first and then add the veggies at the very end.

Maybe even melt the cheese into the milk in a separate pot, THEN add the pasta, THEN add the veggies.
posted by mekily at 8:08 AM on October 6, 2020 [7 favorites]

I usually start by making a roux and then slowly melting shredded cheese into that to make a cheese sauce. I cook the pasta separately and then add the sauce to mostly-cooked pasta.
posted by neushoorn at 8:10 AM on October 6, 2020 [42 favorites]

I suspect that the kefir caused it to curdle. The water from the vegetables probably acerbated the issue. Here is a Food 52 article that mentions acid curdling sauces and here is a Reddit discussion about sauce breakage.
posted by Kpele at 8:10 AM on October 6, 2020 [27 favorites]

When i add vegetables to mac and cheese which i often do, i try to keep them as drx as possible (squeeze water from spinach, which only works if you wilt it in heat, eg throw in pan after washing, for like one minute and put into a strainer with plate on top and squeeze down), and rather than adding tje veg to the cheese sauce add vegetables to the noodles, mix with noodles and then add cheese sauce.
I dont think Type pf cheese matters much except gouda mmelts slow.

Ps peas can be added straight to cheese no problem.
posted by 15L06 at 8:15 AM on October 6, 2020

IME: Too much water, probably not enough fat and the acid likely didn't help. Wilt spinach separately, add it at the end after squeezing out remaining water, and consider adding a stabilizer to pull your dairy together.
posted by aramaic at 8:17 AM on October 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Two probable issues: one, the kefir curdled - you made cheese sauce cheese. Two, gouda is so rubbery that you're better off whisking thoroughly into the sauce base alone before adding other stuff, as it's got a plasticky slow melt that you want to completely finish transforming before other stuff hits it.

I always have sodium citrate on hand in case of cheese sauce threatening to fail, but I don't think it would have helped much once the vegetables were in the sauce. At that point, getting the sauce hot enough all the way through to be able to whisk it smooth would have been nearly impossible.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:25 AM on October 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

Yeah, no kefir, use whole milk, stir in any (already cooked) veggies at the end. My never-fail mac and cheese starts with a roux, then milk added to make a bechamel, then add the cheese till melted. Pour over the cooked noodles and add any mix-ins.
posted by lovecrafty at 9:37 AM on October 6, 2020 [7 favorites]

Put me on team kefir. I have never used kefir myself, but I'm pretty experienced with sour cream, and I could see sour cream wrecking a cheese sauce like this. I also agree with Lyn Never that you probably handled adding the gouda the wrong way.

But then, in my amateur opinion, you did a few things the wrong way, and not all of them affected your final product. I don't think it caused the glopping, but I don't see any benefit to adding the spinach that early. If you're cooking your pasta and then re-boiling it, it's probably very overcooked. And gouda on its own is tricky to make sauce from. You have to add it slowly to already-hot liquid, and even then I generally start with some other, easier cheeses (yes, I'm referring to American, but also cheddar) before putting the gouda in. In general, I think the two-pot method proposed by mekily and neushoorn results in a superior product, despite the additional dishes. It's how I make mine.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:39 AM on October 6, 2020

I make spinach mac and cheese all the time, but the sauce ALWAYS starts with a roux. It stabilizes the cheeses and keep everything smooth and creamy. Roux first, then add in pasta, stir to coat, and veggies go in last, off the heat.

I think the kefir was the culprit. I have never seen any mac and cheese recipe that involved it, ever. Have seen plenty with gouda and spinach.
posted by juniperesque at 10:00 AM on October 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Yeah I put yogurt onto noodles from time to time and it always fucks everything up into a big curdly mess. It happens when the only variable is yogurt. It just does not play well with others.

posted by phunniemee at 10:24 AM on October 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the input everyone! I think I'm with #teamkefir. I agree that the best way to great mac and cheese is to make a roux, etc etc, but I just didn't have it in me. It wasn't the first time I needed a one pot solution and it probably won't be the last, but it's never failed me so miserably before!

Next time, I will most certainly add any veg after cheese, but most importantly, no kefir! On the plus side, the tang of the kefir was pretty nice, esp since there was no cheese in my cheese sauce. :/

I hope this serves as a warning to someone. I wouldn't wish that pot cleaning experience on my worst enemy.
posted by nosila at 10:38 AM on October 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

And for anyone wondering, this general process is a very easy way to get yourself some pretty dang tasty mac and cheese. Despite this disaster.
posted by nosila at 10:40 AM on October 6, 2020

Also, I loled at you made cheese sauce cheese. That is exactly what I did, Lyn Never.
posted by nosila at 10:46 AM on October 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

I promise, my last comment -- thinking back on using yogurt for cooking, I have learned that one must temper yogurt before adding it to a sauce so it doesn't curdle. (Basically, just spoon small bits of warm sauce liquid into the yogurt you're planning to add, stirring w/ each spoonful.)

This should have been a clue, but I've only recently discovered kefir, and I'm enthusiastic about it. When I opened the fridge and saw it, my mind blankly went, "That would taste GREAT in mac and cheese. Pour! Stir!"
posted by nosila at 10:51 AM on October 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yeah, sometimes a roux is a pain, but if you have citric acid on hand, it's super easy to make a super cheesy sauce! Dissolve 1-1/2 tsp citric acid and 2 tsp baking soda in 1/4 cup water. Heat it up with 1/2 to 1 c milk and 1/2 to 1 lb of cheese (grate and add the cheese slowly to melt) for the perfect gooey mac and cheese consistency.
posted by rikschell at 11:46 AM on October 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

FYI, if you want an easy no-roux mac and cheese, evaporated milk is a pretty easy way to do that. Also, I don't think you have to give up the kefir entirely. I put sour cream into mine all the time. Like you said, it's helpful to temper it, and I generally add it towards the end after my cheese has melted, but it can work.

I've also purchased a second crock pot ($11 at Target!) specifically for making one-pot mac and cheese. If you have the space to store it, it's useful.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:56 AM on October 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Put me on team kefir. I have never used kefir myself, but I'm pretty experienced with sour cream, and I could see sour cream wrecking a cheese sauce like this

My go-to macaroni recipe (I think their site is broken for the better - it used to have ugly styling and ads, but now it just has the recipe as plain text) does use sour cream. (I do modify it to use weirder cheeses, and I thought I had maxed out my mac & cheese game, but then I got a pasta extruder. I don't think there's anywhere else to go from here.)

It makes a very good creamy rich sauce, which you could totally magotally add veggies to (less moisture is better though as people say) after you're done making the sauce.

(sorry this comment is more parenthetical than not. that's just how things are these days)
posted by aubilenon at 12:01 PM on October 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

I agree that the best way to great mac and cheese is to make a roux, etc etc, but I just didn't have it in me.

This is basically the recipe I use and it has never failed. It avoids the roux while using all of the roux ingredients. I add a couple of tablespoons of butter into the milk/flour mixture for extra richness because I'm all in with mac and cheese. I often double the recipe and it's great every time. I've used the red wax gouda as well as random ends of pre-shredded cheese and the odd cheese slice. It's always delicious. Add any mix-ins with the pasta after the sauce is made.

If you like a crunch, mince and saute a few cloves of garlic with lots of olive oil for a couple of minutes. Add 1/2 to 1 cup of panko and stir until the panko is golden brown. Season with salt/pepper and sprinkle on top. It can be baked for a few minutes to firm everything up, but that's not necessary.
posted by defreckled at 12:29 PM on October 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

You people are amazing. I think I will salvage the massive amount of leftovers by making a real cheese sauce separately and stirring it in, given that most of the cheese clumped onto the vegetables and was eaten in the first helping.

Too many best answers to mark!
posted by nosila at 12:50 PM on October 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm very late to the party, but I suspect that the problem was too much heat -- it should be low, not medium, when you add the cheese, or it will separate.

Boiling the kefir and milk may have also been a problem separately, for similar reasons (I have no experience with kefir, but heating milk with an acid is how you make curds on purpose).

I have put yoghurt in pasta, without tempering, lots of times, but it's always been in the context of a single portion of quick lazy pasta, so proportionally a large yoghurt:pasta ratio, with the pasta already cooled down a little. Then I heat it back up slightly (after stirring it into the pasta, which I guess effectively tempers it). I wouldn't add a small amount of cold yogurt to a large volume of pasta which is already in a very hot liquid sauce.

I also +1 the suggestion to make a proper cheese sauce on a roux base -- but be careful with the temperature; take it off the heat entirely and wait for it to cool to "very warm" rather than "hot" before adding cheese. If it's too cold you can always briefly put it back on (low!!) heat and do some vigorous stirring.
posted by confluency at 2:54 PM on October 6, 2020

Oooh ooh I have a hack! "broken" cheese sauces can be avoided by all of the good advice above, avoiding acid, making a roux, and Sodium Citrate. Where do you get Sodium Citrate?

Standard processed American Cheese from the deli has it. If you throw in a few slices to your sauce and melt them up, it will add just enough to make it creamier and stave off breaking/clumping. Much easier than buying a bunch of a powdered chemical. Eat the leftovers.
posted by sol at 3:42 PM on October 6, 2020

Was about to comment on the American cheese trick. Cooks Illustrated has a has a recipe where the pasta is boiled in milk and water, not drained, then add half the cheese as deli American (must be from the deli as the standard "processed cheese food" doesn't have the sodium citrate), then after that melts, add your other cheeses. It's been my go to recipe for M&C for a while since it's so easy. I usually add sautéed onions, peas and diced ham.
posted by ShooBoo at 3:52 PM on October 6, 2020

P.S. if you really don’t have it in you, I’ve had pretty good luck with Kenji’s 3 ingredient Mac and cheese recipe. I’ve also been extra lazy and done it by using about a cup more liquid than technically required by this method, not draining, and adding the cheese but no milk products or butter. This doesn’t reheat well, but delivers a nice creamy sauce when first made.
posted by Night_owl at 5:34 PM on October 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Here's the Cooks Illustrated (paywalled) recipe that I mentioned above:
1 ½ cups water
1 cup milk
8 ounces elbow macaroni
4 ounces deli counter American cheese, diced or shredded (1 cup)
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
Small pinch cayenne pepper
4 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, diced or shredded (1 cup)
  • Bring milk and water to a boil.
  • Add macaroni, and cook just past al dente (6-8 minutes, but look at your macaroni box's label). Don't drain.
  • Add the American cheese, mustard and cayenne and cook for about 1 minute until all the cheese is melted.
  • Stir in the cheddar cheese so it's evenly distributed.
  • Cover and let sit for 5 minutes.
  • Season as needed with salt and pepper.
  • You can use other cheeses than cheddar. They have an alternative recipe with half gruyere and half blue. Last time I made it I used gruyere, goat and some mixed pre-shredded I had.
  • I've found you can reduce the American cheese to 3 ounces and increase the other cheese by 1 ounce and you still get all the cheese melted. You may even be able to use less American, but I haven't experimented.
  • I also add crushed garlic and use hot sauce instead of cayenne.
  • As mentioned in my earlier comment, I usually add one sautéed diced onion, peas and ham.
  • The original recipe includes making a bread crumb topping made with panko and parmesan. I don't bother.

posted by ShooBoo at 6:06 PM on October 6, 2020

OK, in all honesty give the Serious Eats recipe (linked above) a try, it's super-easy AND it scales like a mofo because it's ratio-based -- if you have 5oz of evaporated milk, then just use 5oz macaroni and 5oz cheese. Or whatever!
posted by aramaic at 6:20 PM on October 6, 2020

once again, i am forced to post the greatest recipe ever written: fundamentalist mac and cheese
posted by bruceo at 11:53 PM on October 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

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