October 23, 2012

Silky Smooth Macaroni and Cheese

One of the traditional dishes we took on in Modernist Cuisine at Home is classic mac and cheese. While we have always loved this family staple, there is an inherent problem with  traditional preparations: all of the virtues of using good cheese are lost when you make a cheese sauce with flour and milk, as in a traditional béchamel sauce, the standard in nearly all macaroni and cheese recipes.

Cheese is an emulsion of dairy fat and water, but that emulsion tends to break down when it gets hot. The starch particles and milk proteins in béchamel act as emulsifiers, but they aren’t very good at their job and result in poor flavor release. So, either you sacrifice the flavor of the cheese by adding far too much béchamel, or you dilute the cheese less at the cost of greasiness. We solve this problem with a little emulsion science and the use of sodium citrate.

Our modernist version of mac and cheese owes its chemistry to James L. Kraft, who in 1916 patented the first American cheese slice. He showed that sodium phosphate keeps the water and fat droplets mixed when the cheese is melted. We use sodium citrate, which has the same effect and is easier to find. The resulting texture is as smooth as melted American cheese, but as complex and intense in flavor as any of your favorite cheeses.

—adapted from the recipe for Mac and Cheese on page 310 of Modernist Cuisine at Home

Recipe Tags

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Mac and cheese variations Mac and Cheese step 1 Mac and Cheese Step 2 Mac and Cheese sauce Mac and Cheese Step 4 Mac and Cheese Step 6

Tips and Substitutions

  • Sodium citrate is a sodium salt of citric acid, which is found naturally in citrus fruits.
  • You cannot substitute citric acid for sodium citrate in this recipe.
  • Sodium citrate allows the proteins in the cheese sauce to become more soluble while lowering the pH of the sauce, which creates a smooth emulsion without curdling. Though citric acid will also lower the pH level, it will not work on proteins because sodium citrate does, and will, result in a soupy or grainy texture instead of a silky emulsion.
  • Both sodium citrate and citric acid are referred to as "sour salt" and can be found in the kosher section of grocery stores. They are, however, different, so be sure to check the label in order to select the right one.
  • You can also find various brands of sodium citrate online, such as WillPowder and Artistre, among others.
  • Whisk the sodium citrate into the water or milk until it's fully dissolved before bringing the mixture to a simmer.
  • Add the cheese to the simmering liquid slowly, about one spoonful at a time.
  • Use an immersion blender to blend each spoonful of cheese until it has become completely smooth and melted.
  • If the emulsion breaks, bring the mixture to a full boil and then continue processing it with the immersion blender. The mixture should pull together. If this fails, add a spoonful of heavy cream and try again.
  • Set the cheese sauce aside or refrigerate it while you cook the pasta. It will last up to one week when refrigerated, or up to two months when frozen.
  • This recipe works great with a variety of cheeses, so use whatever combination you like. Some of our favorites include using Jack and Stilton and folding in roasted bell peppers and wilted baby spinach; Gorgonzola and fontina with walnuts and sautéed mushrooms; Gruyère with roasted cauliflower and roasted tomatoes; sharp cheddar and Swiss with roasted apple and crispy bacon bits; and goat Gouda and cheddar with caramelized onions and black olives. The possible combinations are endless!

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Discussion

  1. Carol Melancon October 23, 2012 Reply

    From a Mac & Cheese addict from way back, thank you so much for this. If I ever have to pick a last meal, this will be it.

  2. dkliman October 26, 2012 Reply

    As was mentioned in a thread in the forum and here http://forums.egullet.org/topic/136959-cooking-with-modernist-cuisine/page__st__720__p__1809026#entry1809026 I am excited to try this recipe again with a little baking soda to do with my citric acid to get the sodium citrate needed… i’m hoping it works this time!

  3. Tarjei T. Jensen October 28, 2012 Reply

    The amount of sodium citrate in the recipe seems to be off by a factor of 10 compared to the calculator.
    1.3g vs 11g

    • Judy October 30, 2012 Reply

      Hi Tarjei,

      The amount of sodium citrate varies depending on which recipe you are using. The generator was based off the recipe for the Melty Cheese Slice. While it still works in principle, it was confusing to people so we removed it.

      Judy

  4. Grant November 5, 2012 Reply

    omg, the cheese came out really sour tasting, not sure what happened =/

    • Judy November 6, 2012 Reply

      Hi Grant,

      Did you make sure to use sodium citrate rather than citric acid?

  5. Daniel November 13, 2012 Reply

    If one is chilling this sauce for service later, what would you suggest as the best method for reheating without splitting?

  6. Hunter November 29, 2012 Reply

    Can the cheese sauce be made without an immersion blender? Will a whisk work? Can you transfer the mixture back and forth between the pot and a regular blender?

    • Andrew January 30, 2013 Reply

      I can’t speak for the more exotic cheeses, but for cheddar the answer is yes. I halved the recipe and found my immersion blender spitting cheese sauce all over the kitchen.

  7. valereee December 19, 2012 Reply

    How does this recipe differ from the original from MC? I feel like I’ve seen the original recipe somewhere and it included other ingredients — maybe carageenan?

    • Judy December 19, 2012 Reply

      Hi Valeree,

      You are correct. The original called for carrageenan. We simplified it for the new book.

  8. Downs1000 December 20, 2012 Reply

    Can this still be topped with a breadcrumb and parm mix then baked without affecting the cheese sauce?

    • Judy December 20, 2012 Reply

      Yes! In fact, we have a variation of this in Modernist Cuisine at Home that includes a bread and cheese crumb topping and is baked.

      • Downs1000 December 27, 2012 Reply

        Thanks… I made the cheese sauce the day ahead and chilled it and reheated nicely, didnt break, and did bake however, in my planning, i didnt make enough cheese sauce for the pasta i cooked so it came out pretty dry. It was my fault and i should have tripled instead of doubling the cheese sauce. Pretty tasty nonetheless just dry.

  9. GreenBake January 5, 2013 Reply

    What would be the primary difference between using Sodium Citrate and something like Xanthan Gum to keep the cheese emulsion from breaking? I image it would be taste and to a lesser degree texture.

  10. Anna January 15, 2013 Reply

    I don’t have a digital scale yet , but am dying to try this recipe. What is the closest tsp or tbs measurement for the sodium citrate ?

  11. Sue January 26, 2013 Reply

    How does it work if you use low fat cheese and whole wheat macaroni?

    • Downs1000 February 1, 2013 Reply

      Hi sue,

      I made mine with whole wheat rotini and it wasnt affected at all… I baked mine so it dried it out a little so make extra cheese sauce if youre planning to go that route. As for the lowfat cheese… I cant apak to that. I am one of those people whod rather go for a longer walk the following day than use low fat chese!!! Good luck?

    • Sam Fahey-Burke March 5, 2013 Reply

      If you use low-fat cheese, the sauce will still emulsify but won’t be as thick as what we normally serve.

  12. Steve January 31, 2013 Reply

    I was wondering about making the sliced cheese with beer. Does the alcohol content of the beer affect the ratio of other ingredients required?

  13. downs1000 February 4, 2013 Reply

    I had a hunch about making this into a dip to be held in a crock pot set low… Worked perfectly, People wouldn’t have known it wasn’t the Cheese-like “stuff” that starts with a capital V. Tripled the recipe, made it with about 25% beer the rest liquid was milk, I only used about 1/2 the citrate to keep it a little looser, added some ground beef with my favorite taco seasoning, diced some jalpenos and added a strained can of Roasted tomatos with Green Chiles, put in crock pot to low and it was perfect for the hours of feasting yesterday. Left overs are being consumed TONIGHT!

  14. elaine March 4, 2013 Reply

    Id like to try this what does the 11grams equate to for the sodium citrate.? I saw this asked several times but the it was not answered please reply what measurement does 11 gram quate to using a measring spoon cup etc? thanx

    • Judy March 4, 2013 Reply

      Hi Elaine,

      We actually don’t recommend that you use volumetric measurements for the sodium citrate. The best thing to do is to use a digital scale. Aside from that, some readers have found luck with adding a small amount of the sodium citrate at a time until they get the desired consistency.

  15. Blaine May 13, 2013 Reply

    I couldn’t bring myself to use water, so I used chicken broth. Man, that’s good! I did half cave aged cheddar and half Gouda. Just dynamite.

  16. Non June 3, 2013 Reply

    Hmm stores nearby sell food grade sodium phosphate, would the scaling be the same as for the citrate. I would guess it’s lower, can you advise on what % would work?

  17. Jay June 5, 2013 Reply

    I don’t have a digital scale and no money in my budget (today) to buy one. My Sodium Citrate was delivered and i made mac and cheese using this recipe. I exchanged 11g of citrate for 2teaspoons and a pinch.I added 1 tsp at a time.added bacon bits and jalepeno pieces. Catfish was its side kick! (yuh-ummy)

  18. Mike December 31, 2013 Reply

    Thanks, Jay, for the volumetric conversion. That will get me started anyway. I have a digital scale and some sodium citrate, but since I’m in Hawaii and the sodium citrate was already exposed to air, the scale is kind of useless. (A good deal of the weight is already water.)

  19. Tom Matsaev May 10, 2014 Reply

    The recipe looks very cool, but when I tried myself the cheese came very sour. I’m sure that I’ve use d”lemon salt” but that’s still very sour. Help please :(

    • Caren May 12, 2014 Reply

      Hi Tom- Sorry to hear about the results. Double check to make sure you are using sodium citrate and not citric acid. Both are are referred to as “sour salt”.

      • Tom Matsaev May 13, 2014 Reply

        Hi Caren, I got my “lemon salt” from a local shop and they didn’t know what’s even sodium citrate.
        Thanks for the help! Will buy from you the sodium citrate… :)

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