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Melty cheese is one of my all-time favorite things. The goo of a fantastic grilled cheese. That stretch of a great pizza with extra cheese. A pot of bubbling fondue. A heavy ladle of queso over a pile of tortilla chips. Mac. And. Cheese. Full stop. I am also an unapologetic fan of American cheese. I like it best for topping burgers, and do not stand betwixt me and a bowl of Velveeta Rotel dip or you might lose an arm. There is nothing at all wrong with American cheese, and I think those who deride it as "not food" are missing the point. Would I slap a brick of American on a cheese board? Nope. But I am an equal opportunity cheese lover, and my fridge always has some good old yellow American right there next to the triple cream brie and Bulgarian feta.
The quest for the perfect melted cheese
When it comes to cheese sauces and dips, meltiness becomes paramount, and problematic. Because while American melts like nothing else, it is not really ideal for all dishes. I like my queso leaning in a creamy jack direction, my mac towards cheddar, my fondue nutty Emmenthal or Gruyère and my fondue towards Taleggio. The problem with making sauces and dips from these premium natural cheeses is a tendency to split, break, get lumpy and greasy.
Traditionally, this is mitigated by a combination of fats and thickeners. Making a roux of butter and flour, then adding milk to make a white sauce before adding the cheese helps to get that smooth, creamy, emulsified result we all want. It also adds fat, carbs, and other flavors that dilute the cheese flavor. It isn't bad, it just isn't as pure or punchy.
The secret to melting all cheeses!
I am not a molecular gastronomy girl, that work is too fussy and sciencey for me generally, but I recently discovered a product that is pretty magical when it comes to cheese sauces. Sodium citrate is a powder that is often used in the production of my beloved American cheese and is a prime component of that fabulous melt factor. Turns out you can buy it online and make your own magic. And by magic, I mean you can turn any cheese into smooth velvety cheese sauce, without all the additional ingredients or fuss.
Ancient aged cheddars, Gouda, Gruyère, even hard cheeses like parmesan, they all work. Imagine a cacio y pepe sauce you could make ahead, or a queso with the texture of Velveeta but the flavor of a great pepper jack, or a mac and cheese that is pure deep cheddary goodness.
How to make your own melted cheeses with sodium citrate
The ratio could not be simpler. For every cup of grated cheese (about 3 ounces) you will need a quarter cup of water and a half-teaspoon of sodium citrate. Heat the water to a simmer, add the sodium citrate to dissolve, then whisk in the cheese of your choice a bit at a time until you get a smooth and creamy mixture. You can use an immersion blender if you want it extra smooth.
That's it. The whole thing. Water, cheese, and magic dust and you get a sauce that tastes only of the essence of cheese, with all that textural joy. Even better? Because it is just cheese and water, you are actually making a much lighter healthier version of cheese sauce, that is also gluten free! So easy, a kid could do it. My favorite application? I combine all those bits and bobs of leftover cheeses from a cheese board, grate them all up, and make a cheese sauce version of fromage fort; it makes a killer faux fondue or dip for chips.