I love macaroni and cheese. I have a habit of ordering it at restaurants whenever we go out. Because as much as I love my husband, his one fault is never making mac ‘n cheese at home (and as you all know, cooking is not my thing). And although I consider myself the luckiest daughter-in-law ever (I could not ask for a better mother-in-law) her one mistake was making Kraft Dinner during my husband’s childhood but adding no butter and using skim milk. The result is that she scarred her son against macaroni and cheese for life. Sigh.
That’s why I was especially interested to read in this month’s Cook’s Illustrated (shockingly, the subscription is in my husband’s name, but I like to read it and tell him which dishes to make, which as you can imagine, he just loves) about the easiest-ever macaroni and cheese. Reading the headline, I thought: “Finally – I should be able to make this at home.” And then I hit the words: sodium citrate, and went: “Crap. Never mind.” Because who has sodium citrate laying around? Uh, no one.
And then I googled sodium citrate and found it on Amazon (of course) for the low low price of $15 for a 16-ounce jar. Whoo-hoo. Back in business.
In case you’re not familiar with how sodium citrate can change your life, let me fill you in. Sodium citrate is an additive that’s used as an emulsifier in lots of foods, including jam, ice cream and candy. If you’ve ever made homemade mac ‘n cheese, you know that using an aged cheddar or any aged cheese often results in a greasy, lumpy mess, even if you go to all the work of making a Bechamel sauce first and then fold in the shredded, aged cheese.
It turns out that you can skip the Bechamel if you dissolve a tiny bit of sodium citrate in water, bring it to a simmer and then use a whisk (or immersion blender if you have one) to add handfuls of shredded or crumbly aged cheese. Within five minutes, the sauce is creamy and homogeneous. And it’s fast: add some cooked macaroni and you have a delicious mac ‘n cheese in less than 10 minutes.
In its article on easiest-ever macaroni and cheese, Cook’s Illustrated also does an excellent job of explaining why aged cheeses break up when heated: “Cheese is an emulsion of fat and water bound up in a protein gel. When it’s exposed to heat, the fat liquefies. As it gets even hotter, the protein network begins to break apart, the emulsion breaks down, the fat and water begin to separate out, and the cheese begins to melt and flow. Then the protein molecules find each other again and begin to regroup, this time in clumps or strings rather than in that tidy gel formation. The result is melted cheese with a pasty, lumpy texture and pools of fat.” Yep, been there. Done that.
Cook’s Illustrated continues: “Adding sodium citrate doesn’t simply adhere to the cheese proteins, it changes them. When you add it to a cheese sauce, the calcium ions in the cheese proteins are replaced with sodium ions. This changes the structure of the protein in such a way that the protein itself becomes a stabilizing gel, holding the fat and water together so the sauce remains super smooth.”
The article goes on to provide additional ways of making mac ‘n cheese without sodium citrate, including using a 1:1 ratio of American cheese to aged cheddar. It turns out that the emulsifying salts in processed cheese, when used in the correct ratio, will prevent a cheese sauce from “breaking.” This eliminates the need to make a Bechamel sauce (hallelujah) but you do need to add a bit of Dijon mustard and a small pinch of cayenne pepper to give it a kick in the flavor butt so that it’s not too bland.
I also like to also add browned panko bread crumbs to the top of my mac ‘n cheese for an interesting texture, but, let’s get real, what I like even more is skipping the entire kitchen experience and ordering mac ‘n cheese at both The Old Fashioned and at Graze, two restaurants in downtown Madison on the capital square. Both use aged cheddars with Bechamel sauces. The Old Fashioned uses cavitappi noodles, and Graze makes their own shell-shaped pasta from white flour. Both are delicious. Every time I go there, I think: “I should take a picture.” And then I eat it all.