Simmer Down: How to Conquer Cheese Sauce for a Perfect Mac 'n Cheese
These are the best tips to ensure you don’t break your sauce.
I can’t make a cheese sauce to save my life. I’ve tried so many methods: starting with a roux that transforms into a bechamel, boiling pasta in milk and tossing in shredded cheese while saying a hail mary, crying when the sauce eventually breaks but still whisking vigorously in hopes that it will miraculously come together. Cheese sauce is so difficult to pin down due the temperamental protein structures found in the cheese; get it too hot, and the whole thing dissolves into a pool of curds and oil. There is nothing worse than a macaroni and cheese with a gritty sauce.
To save me from myself, I’ve tapped Allison Arevalo for help. She’s the owner of Brooklyn’s Pasta Louise, one of the co founders of Oakland’s Homeroom (a restaurant devoted entirely to macaroni and cheese), and the author of The Mac + Cheese Cookbook. She knows a thing or two about perfecting a cheese sauce.
Perfecting the Base
“I’ve made a lot of mac and cheese,” Arevalo begins. “I worked a really long time on the recipe for cheese sauce.” Arevalo does it two ways: at Homeroom, the sauce began as a bechamel and would then be heated in a pan and mixed with selected cheeses before being tossed with fresh pasta and baked. “At Pasta Louise, we have cheese sauce in the refrigerator so people can make it at home. Our cheese sauce here doesn’t have the same bechamel beginning. We use butter, heavy cream, corn starch instead of flour, and then we mix all the cheeses in and then refrigerate it for people to reheat at home.”
The key to cheese sauce, whether you’re reheating it at home like Arevalo mentioned or making it from scratch, is a bit of patience and some scientific know-how. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s so simple. It’s just mastering a few things and depends on how you want to make it as well.” For the bechamel, Arevalo says it’s all about knowing how not to burn the flour or butter and whisking it enough in its early stages to ensure the sauce itself isn’t lumpy. “The trick is to not cook it over high heat. Cheese breaks down and it separates so quickly. If you’re going to cook your mac and cheese over a high heat then it’s going to separate and you’re going to have a pool of grease on top and it will be terrible.” Been there—she’s right.
Selecting the Right Cheese and Pasta
In addition to not scorching your roux, something that helps prevent breaking your sauce is knowing which types of cheese to put into it. “You need a cheese that melts really well and you need a cheese that has a really strong flavor. If you use mild cheddar, it’s going to just taste like cream sauce. You’re going to taste maybe flour and the butter, you’re not going to get that cheesiness.” Arevalo suggests an aged cheddar and likes to mix hers with Monterey Jack, which has great meltability. “I also really like adding a salty cheese—so either pecorino or a parmesan cheese. It doesn’t melt so well but it does give it this extra dimension of flavor,” Arevalo says.
Once the cheese sauce is silky and ready, you’re also going to need the right pasta shape to help carry all of that flavor. There is a method to the elbows madness. “The cheese sauce works really well with a pasta that has ridges and thicker walls. If the pasta is too thin, it just falls apart and gets mushy,” Arevalo explains. That’s probably why it’s common to see rigatoni, elbows, shells, and cavatappi in cheese sauces. “What you have to do is cook the pasta once, maybe rinse it off to cool it down so it doesn’t overcook, and then you cook it again in the cheese sauce so you want something that’s thicker and is not going to break down.” If you’re using fresh pasta, which is what Arevalo serves at Pasta Louise, the pasta doesn’t need to be precooked—you can toss it in the cheese sauce and bake it straight away.
A Little Bit of Strategic Cheating is Okay
I won’t deny it: after destroying my twelfth batch of cheese sauce, I’ve seriously considered buying sodium citrate and making this nightmare go away. Both sodium citrate and sodium phosphate are chemicals and emulsifiers that can be found in things like ice cream, jams, and processed cheese—like Kraft’s—which prevents the fats and waters found in cheese from separating. It’s what makes American cheese slices so gooey in grilled cheeses and can keep nacho cheese smooth. The emulsifying salt doesn’t have much flavor, but can save those of us doomed to wreck cheese sauces over and over again.
I asked Arevalo if it’s okay to cheat a little, and she was perfectly supportive. “Honestly, I feel like people should feel free to cheat. I have two boys and I’m not embarrassed to say I’ve made them Annie’s mac and cheese sometimes,” she says. “I think whatever gets you in the kitchen and cooking is totally fine! I wouldn’t call it cheating—it’s just another way of doing it.”
So if you keep stumbling with yet another gritty cheese sauce and want to try a different method, mixing a bit of sodium citrate with your sauce can do the trick. But if you’re ready to brave the waters of yet another cheese sauce, you can also try this recipe from Arevalo:
Louise's Really Cheddary Mac + Cheese
- 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 1/2 cup shredded monterey jack cheese
- 1/2 cup shredded parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoons cornstarch
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 pound butter
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Toss the cheeses with cornstarch in a large bowl. Heat the butter and heavy cream over medium-low heat. When the butter is melted and the cream is hot, turn off the heat and whisk in the cheeses until melted. Add the salt, stir, and taste for seasoning.
Add your favorite shape of cooked pasta. Stir and enjoy!