Looking for cheese tests for Mornay saucing purposes
June 4, 2022 7:31 PM   Subscribe

I know what kinds of cheeses work well in a standard (Mornay) cheese sauce. Cheddar is good, colby jack, american, etc. But there are so many other kinds of cheeses and some of them (squinting angrily at mozzarella) do NOT work in a cheese sauce. How can I tell which cheeses will work in a sauce and which will fail in dramatic clumping fashion and cause the sauce to look like a big pot of coagulated baby vomit?

I have been making cheese sauce since I was little, I'm ok at it so long as I stick to cheddar, american, colby jack, parmesan, etc. I got a little cocky about it, I suppose.

I had the idea that if a room temperature slice of cheese broke rather than bent if it was folded, that the fat:protein ratio was high enough that the cheese would melt well into a sauce, but I was proven wrong by fontina and now I don't know what to believe.

What makes a good "cheese sauce" cheese and how can it be distinguished from other cheeses? What home tests can be run on cheese that can predict the behavior in sauce?

Extended nerdery about cheese or cheese sauce theory is welcome, lists of cheeses will be read but (unfortunately) not retained.
posted by Vatnesine to Food & Drink (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Use sodium citrate to encourage emulsification; then almost any cheese will work.

posted by aramaic at 8:17 PM on June 4, 2022 [17 favorites]

Aramaic has already said what I came here to say. Perfect anything cheese sauce, about 280 g each cheese and liquid (beer, milk, water, broth) plus 11 g sodium citrate. Adjust liquid up or down as desired. Mix in salsa and jalapeños, it’s queso dip.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 9:11 PM on June 4, 2022 [4 favorites]

And, if you don't have any sodium citrate handy (or don't want to make your own), throw on a slice of processed cheese (like Kraft Singles) per pint of cheese.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:12 PM on June 4, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Sodium citrate will turn any cheese into a smooth melting cheese, but you're asking about Mornay sauce specifically. For Mornay I believe the secret is more in the technique than the recipe, and I wonder if your broken emulsion is the result of a burner that was too high. The technique I've used is basically the same as fondue technique: once you have your roux, turn the heat to low, add say a quarter of the cheese, stir until it's only just starting to really melt and stretch, then add the next amount of cheese and keep stirring. If you incorporate the cheese gradually like this it should emulsify really evenly.

Homework questions:

Are you shredding your own cheese from a block? Packaged shredded cheese contains anti-caking agents that will mess with your sauce.

Was your mozzarella part skim or was it made from whole milk? Was your Fontina authentic Fontina Val d'Aosta DOP, or was it just "Fontina" from wherever? Fat content and production methods vary, and melting characteristics will vary along with them.
posted by fedward at 10:20 PM on June 4, 2022 [2 favorites]

The most important thing is to shred / grate your own from a block. Anti-caking agents in "pre-shredded" cheese don't melt well at all.

Other than that, sodium citrate (basically, citric acid salt) is a great emulsifier for all types of cheese that doesn't go "gooey" easily. As Cooks Illustrated pointed out, its chemical formula even spells out NaCHO. :D
posted by kschang at 12:39 AM on June 5, 2022

Fascinating— my go-to mix for a lasagne sauce is mature cheddar for flavour (not a naturally smooth melter) and pre-shredded mozzarella (which I’m just learning should be tricky too)… lovely and silky. Is this going to be one of those horrible cases where it’s worked right up to the point where I find out it shouldn’t, like a cartoon character running off a cliff without looking down?
posted by breakfast burrito at 1:17 AM on June 5, 2022 [5 favorites]

Tallegio, rind removed, makes a killer cheese sauce inclusion.

Was your mozzarella the low-moisture, part-skim type?
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:07 AM on June 5, 2022

I am not a cheese sauce aficionado, but if I were to embark on this journey I would look at a variety of vintage and modern fondue recipes sourced from different countries and try each one of the cheeses someone somewhere thought made a fondue good enough to write down. Just to kick it off, Emmentaler cheese is the most classic.
posted by Mizu at 4:56 AM on June 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: From Serious Eats: The Science of Melting Cheese.
posted by eponym at 7:13 AM on June 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: and some of them (squinting angrily at mozzarella) do NOT work in a cheese sauce

I'm going to wager that the pasta-filata process is at work there. Not that I expect *all* pasta-filata cheeses would fail that way - I think those with lower moisture levels than mozz could be fine - but mozzarella is designed to stretch, so that failure mode seems perfectly consistent to me.

but I was proven wrong by fontina

There's fontina and then there's fontina. Are we talking crap bouncy industrial fontina or are we talking Fontina Val D'Aosta? If the former, I'm not surprised; it can have a perceptible curd size in the finished product that I think would make trouble.

I worked as a cheesemonger for five years, so I think I might have a kind of instinctual feel for this, but who knows if it'd prove out.
posted by jocelmeow at 11:28 AM on June 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

Kraft cheese is disgusting, but Cooper Sharp or similar American has the same effect while still being recognizable as cheese.
posted by sepviva at 7:25 PM on June 5, 2022

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