Dear Chef: A Tale of Two Cheeses

Two weeks ago I introduced a new a new feature on Rosemary Renaissance, “Dear Chef.” I invited you all to ask me questions, send me recipes to try, or throw down with a culinary challenge. (Go ahead, make my day)

You all gave me plenty to work with, so I’m happy to introduce the inaugural Dear Chef post: tackling a reader question about woes with mac and cheese:

I’ve been tinkering with a stovetop mac and cheese recipe and I had a bit of a problem with it the second time around. Last time I made it, I used medium cheddar cheese, 6 ounces of it, instead of 4 of white cheddar and 2 of pepperjack. The sauce was a very nice semi-thick consistency, but the problem was it wasn’t quite flavorful enough. So this time I used sharp cheddar, 6 ounces of it. The sauce was much tastier, but it had a thinner, almost grainy consistency. I want to be able to use sharp cheddar, and yet get a thicker sauce. What should I do?

Well dear reader, I suspect your problem stems from the fat content of the sharp cheddar compared to the medium cheddar. The consistency of cheese is affected by how much fat is in it. Brie – a cheese with one of the highest fat contents – will basically become a sauce by itself when heated. In contrast, sharper, harder cheeses like Parmesan or Asiago have lower fat content; in order to create a sauce with the right consistency, butter, milk or cream need to be added along with a thickening agent.

Whether my pop-science explanation is accurate or not, that is what you’re going to need to do to solve your cheese conundrum. When you’re creating your cheese sauce, add an additional fat source (it doesn’t need to be much, maybe 1-2 tablespoons) and a thickening agent. The most common ingredient is flour, although it can also result in a grainy and, well, floury, flavor if you need to add too much. The other option is cornstarch, which is more powerful and requires less to accomplish the same goal. Without experimenting myself I’m not sure which would work best, but one of them ought to do the trick.

If not, then you might need call in the air support: tapioca malto-dextrin. Derived from the same tapioca that’s used to make pudding – without any of the sweet flavor – tapioca malto-dextrin is a powerful thickening agent. It’s particularly unique in that it can thicken and even solidify fats and oils, whereas flour and cornstarch are only effective on water-based mixtures. It’s probably unnecessary in the situation, but its a nice card to have up your sleeve.

Now, go forth and make Macaroni and Cheese that has both great texture and great flavor!

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One Comment to “Dear Chef: A Tale of Two Cheeses”

  1. A major factor that affects the graininess of an aged melted cheese is the tyrosine crystals formed in the aging process. They pack tremendous flavor but don’t melt smoothly on their own. Quinn is right though, adding fat and a binder will do the trick.

    I would second the use of flour, though make sure it is cooked first in the form of a roux. Turns your sauce into a classic sauce mornay, which is what most think of for mac and cheese. Cornstarch and maltodextrin break down over time (and I’m not sure how maltodextrin holds when heated).

    I would say that you wouldn’t need cornstarch, and definitely don’t need maltodextrin. A little roux will do the trick, without affecting flavor too much.

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