By SCOTT HEIMENDINGER
Imagine your favorite cheese: perhaps an aged, sharp cheddar, or maybe a blue Gorgonzola or a gentle Monterey Jack. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to use those really good cheeses you love on nachos or as a sauce on macaroni or steamed vegetables?
But if you have ever tried melting high-quality cheeses, you’ve experienced the problem: the cheese separates into a greasy oil slick that no amount of stirring will restore.
A clever Canadian-born cheesemaker in Chicago discovered a much better solution around 1912. His name may ring a bell — James L. Kraft.
Kraft found that adding a small amount of sodium phosphate to the cheese as it melted kept it from turning into a clumpy mess of cheese solids swimming in a pool of oil. Kraft patented his invention and used it to make canned, shelf-stable cheese. He sold millions of pounds of the stuff to the American military during World War I. The technique ultimately led to the creation of Velveeta and a whole universe of processed cheese products.
You can apply the very same chemistry, however, to achieve much higher culinary purposes.
In place of sodium phosphate, we use sodium citrate, which is easier to find in grocery stores or online.
When making cheese sauce, we add 4 grams of sodium citrate for every 100 grams of finely grated cheese and 93 grams of water or milk.
We’ve offered both weight and volume measurements for this recipe. But as with most modernist recipes, a digital scale is best. Sodium citrate is widely available online. Feel free to substitute an equal amount of your favorite cheeses in this recipe.
Start to finish:
2 cups elbow macaroni
265 milliliters (1 1/8 cups) milk or water
11 grams (2 1/4 teaspoons) sodium citrate
285 grams (about 2 1/2 cups) finely grated white cheddar cheese
Salt, to taste
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, 5 to 6 minutes. Drain the pasta, but do not rinse it.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over medium heat, whisk together the milk or water and sodium citrate. Bring to a simmer. Add the cheese, a spoonful at a time, stirring well between additions. Continue stirring until the cheese is melted and steaming, then transfer the sauce to a food processor. Process until completely smooth, about 30 seconds.
Transfer the cheese sauce immediately back to the saucepan, and return to the heat. Once the sauce is hot, add the pasta, and stir until coated. Season with salt.