By: Jennifer Andersom

Curdled. Lumpy. Grainy. Chewy. These are words that we never want to associate with cheese sauce. It seems so simple to melt cheese; yet, it’s all too easy to achieve disappointing results if our technique isn’t quite right. Once you know how cheese behaves at different temperatures and learn how to get around a few common pitfalls, you’ll be cooking with cheese like a pro!

When cooking with cheese, there are a few important points to remember, and the rest is just details:

  • The less you heat cheese, the better. When making soup, sauce, or fondue, cheese should be the very last thing you add to the mixture, then heat it only long enough to melt. Often, you can remove the pan from the burner and allow the residual heat of the sauce to melt the cheese thoroughly enough. Once you’ve added cheese to the mixture, never allow it to come to a boil or you will have a tough, curdled mess on your hands.
  • Shred, crumble, or finely dice the cheese before heating it to ensure quick, smooth melting. (Remember that it’s much easier to shred or dice cheese when it’s cold.)
  • Allow the shredded cheese to come to room temperature before adding it to a hot mixture.
  • Starch, such as all-purpose flour, cornstarch, or potato flour, will keep the cheese from curdling. If using all-purpose flour, it should be added to the mixture before you put the cheese in, since it needs to be cooked for a few minutes to remove the starchy taste.
  • Adding an acidic ingredient such as wine or lemon juice will help prevent the cheese from becoming unmanageably stringy. This is why most fondues have a base of white wine. In order to cut down on stringiness for any recipe that calls for melting cheese, simply sprinkle some lemon juice over the shredded cheese before you heat it.
  • Reduced-fat cheeses have different melting characteristics than regular cheeses. They will take longer to melt and will be more tough once they have melted. So, if you’re using reduced-fat cheese, be sure to shred it very finely, and allow it to melt over extremely low heat while stirring constantly. Many people who wish to reduce the fat in their sauces find that they get better results from using a smaller amount of strongly flavored regular cheese, rather than cooking with low-fat cheeses.

Gettin’ Saucy

Classic cheese sauce begins with a béchamel sauce, a simple sauce made of butter, flour, milk, and a few seasonings.

To begin, you will make a roux.

  • Measure out equal amounts of butter and flour.
  • Dice the butter into small cubes and melt it in a saucepan over low heat.
  • Once the butter is melted, begin whisking in the flour.
  • When all the flour is incorporated, continue stirring and cooking for a few minutes to activate the starch granules.
  • If you plan to be making a white or light-colored cheese sauce, be sure to keep the heat low enough that the roux does not brown.
  • Now all you need to do is pour in the milk. If the roux is hot, the milk should be cool, but if the roux is cool, the milk should be hot. Combining the two ingredients at different temperatures ensures that they will heat up at a moderate rate–not too fast, and not too slow–ensuring a velvety-smooth sauce.
  • Whisk the mixture until it is smooth, then add seasonings if you wish. The traditional seasoning for béchamel is some diced onion, a bay leaf, a couple of cloves, and a pinch of nutmeg.
  • Allow the sauce to simmer until it has lost its “floury” taste (this will take about 20 minutes), then strain out any seasonings.
  • Remove the pan from the heat and gently blend in the cheese. If the cheese doesn’t seem to be melting sufficiently, you can return the pan to very low heat, but watch it carefully and remove as soon as the cheese is melted.

Once you’ve mastered the basics of making cheese sauce, you can use your expertise to make an endless variety of sauces by varying the kind of cheese you use, mixing in different herbs, spices, and veggies, and using milk, half and half, or heavy cream to alter the level of richness in the sauce.