The best macaroni and cheese: traditional vs. Modernist

Mac & cheese

I’ve recently become completely enchanted with the Modernist Cuisine approach to macaroni and cheese: 4 ingredients, 20 minutes, foolproof and delicious. Three of these ingredients you probably already have at home: macaroni, cheese, and milk. The fourth ingredient, sodium citrate, is a bit more exotic. Luckily, I work in a molecular biology lab, and we use it to make RNA-preservation solution. When I first tried the recipe, I liberated 11 grams of the stuff for some very extracurricular experimentation*.

The resulting mac & cheese was ridiculously creamy and cheesy and I was instantly hooked. I ordered my own supply of food-grade sodium citrate (see footnote re: eating things you find in the lab and the wisdom thereof). And I’ve made it many times since then. The procedure is simple: heat up the milk, dissolve the sodium citrate in it, and then use an immersion blender to whiz the grated cheese into the milk. Add cooked macaroni. Devour.

*The Science Fare Team does not in any way endorse eating things you find in the lab. This is usually a bad idea. Don’t do this.

Modernist mac & cheese. Photo by Judith Levine.

Modernist mac & cheese. Photo by Judith Levine.

I was instantly smitten with the Modernist take, both for its ease and for its smooth, ultra-cheesy richness. But I was curious how it would stack up against traditional, bechamel-based mac & cheese in a head-to-head showdown. The obvious answer was science by dinner party: two kinds of mac & cheese on the table, with the unsuspecting guests doubling as blind testers.

Why cheese gets greasy

In contrast to the minimalist Modernist method, traditional mac & cheese is based on a bechamel sauce base. Melt butter, cook flour in the butter to make a roux, slowly add milk to make a thick sauce, and stir in grated cheese. Add cooked macaroni. Devour. This is more time-consuming and more finicky that the MC technique, and is prone to graininess or greasiness if the sauce is heated too much.

The thing about cheese is that, although it seems plenty solid, it’s actually an emulsion of fat and water. When you over-heat it, you break the emulsion and end up with some of the fats escaping the cheese in the form of an oil slick. (Think about mixing up a vinaigrette, only to have it segregate into two distinct layers of oil and vinegar a few hours later.)

The traditional way: melt butter, make roux, add milk and cook, add cheese. Photos by Judith Levine.

The traditional way: melt butter, make roux, add milk and cook, add cheese. Photos by Judith Levine.

In a bechamel sauce, the flour contributes starch molecules that get tangled up with the cheese’s oil droplets and keep them trapped in emulsion as the cheese melts into the sauce. The flour and milk dilute the cheesiness of the sauce, but keep it from getting greasy as long as it’s handled carefully.

The secret to smooth cheese sauce: Kraft singles

The Modernist approach skips the starch and goes straight for the big guns: an emulsion-stabilizing compound that’s massively more effective than flour’s piddling little starches. Sodium citrate is used commercially as a food preservative and tart-tasting flavoring agent, and the MC team discovered that it makes a perfect at-home stand-in for sodium phosphate. And what’s so special about sodium phosphate? It’s the secret behind Kraft processed cheese slices. In fact, if you look online for advice about fixing greasy mac & cheese, most people recommend tossing in a slice or two of processed cheese – co-opting its powerful emulsifiers.

So sodium citrate allows you to maintain a much higher cheese-to-milk ratio, but traditional mac & cheese is a staple of American childhood. Could the Modernist method compete with Mom’s approach?

Both: macaroni, cheese, milk. Modernist: sodium citrate. Traditional: butter, flour, powdered mustard.

Both: macaroni, cheese, milk. Modernist: sodium citrate. Traditional: butter, flour, powdered mustard.

For the taste-off, I chose Classic Macaroni & Cheese from Cook’s Illustrated to represent the traditional, bechamel-based version. Since the Modernist version works with nearly any semi-hard cheeses, I took Cook’s as my template and used an even mix of sharp Cheddar and Monterey Jack*. I wanted to standardize as much as possible between the recipes, to make sure that tasters weren’t swayed by cheese-related (as opposed to technique-related) differences.

*I recently saw a several-greats granddaughter of the guy for whom Monterey Jack cheese is named at a local event. I know this because she was publicly introduced as such. I live in a very special town.

Traditional on left (A), Modernist on right (B) .

Traditional on left (A), Modernist on right (B) .

The taste-off

I put out two vats of mac & cheese, labeled “A” and “B”, and gave everyone a plate, a fork, and a comment card.* I ended up with ten responses (I abstained), and the verdict was clear…

Modernist won, nine votes to one. Tasters thought it was creamier, cheesier, and more flavorful. One said that it “tastes more unhealthy, so that’s why I like it better, I think.” The one dissenting vote commented that the Modernist version was “a little more tart/sour” – perhaps his palate was sensitive enough to pick up on the flavor of the sodium citrate despite all that cheese.

*Actually, I did this twice because the pictures were so dreadful the first time around. It was all very noble and artistic and not at all motivated by wanting an excuse to turn two more pounds of cheese and pasta into vats of pure happiness.

Mac & cheese ballots

As a footnote, I fed the leftovers to my lab the next day and had them fill out even more ballots (I printed a lot, might as well use them).  Interestingly, they preferred the traditional recipe five to two, and many of them mentioned that they liked the texture better – the Modernist was described as sticky, gluey, and “Velveeta-like”. Perhaps it doesn’t take as well to microwaving.

Regardless of the tasters, I’m going to continue making mac & cheese the Modernist way. Easy, foolproof – it’s so stable you can make the sauce ahead of time and refrigerate or even freeze it before use – and as my friend noted, it “tastes more unhealthy”. Especially when you add bacon, and you should. Serve alongside a big green salad, to preserve the illusion of health. Enjoy.

Have you tried the Modernist mac & cheese recipe? What do you think of it? If you haven’t, try it and let us know!


About Carolyn Tepolt

As a PhD student in Biology at Stanford University, Carolyn studies adaptation in invasive marine crabs. As part of her degree, she drove 5,000 miles from Newfoundland to California, stopping only for sleep, tea, and Carhenge. For special occasions, she bakes ridiculously elaborate, deeply nerdy cakes. Carolyn is an editor for Science Fare.

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20 Responses to The best macaroni and cheese: traditional vs. Modernist

  1. Carolyn's Boyfriend Dan August 14, 2013 at 7:33 am #

    As a completely independent reviewer with no biases whatsoever, I can certify that the Modernist version is superior. Even more so when bacon is added.

  2. Adam August 14, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    Love the bacon addition, obviously. We’re also thinking of doing a SoCal replicate of this experiment. We’d have to complete it with colour-changing cocktails and spheres of something.

    • Carolyn Tepolt August 14, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

      Adam, you should definitely do a SoCal edition of the taste-off – and let us know how it goes! I’d be curious to see if you get the same result.

  3. Danna Staaf August 14, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    Okay so . . . grease is bad why? I think my husband will be deeply offended when I tell him of the modernist technique. True Mac and cheese should have delicious little puddles of melted butter and deconstructed cheese. And WHY MUSTARD?!

    • Carolyn Tepolt August 14, 2013 at 6:51 pm #

      Danna, mustard is a pretty good emulsifier, which I think is why Cook’s calls for it. (It’s often called for in vinaigrettes because it slows the oil / vinegar separation considerably.)

      Typical powdered mustard isn’t terribly spicy – when you make the condiment mustard, you mix powder with cold water to jump-start the enymatic process of creating (very spicy!) mustard oil. Just adding mustard powder to a dish that’s cooked usually results in very little of your typical “mustard” flavor, but does add emulsifying power. So don’t worry, the traditional mac & cheese didn’t taste at all mustardy!

  4. Tara November 28, 2013 at 12:50 am #

    awesome! now that I have mac and cheese eating american kids at home, I need to pay special attention to this post… especially after a very bad bechamel sauce version that I did on my own for a school potluck. the modernist approach sounds tantalizing yummy and simple!

  5. Kathi January 29, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    Is the sodium citrate safe to eat? Whats are the side effects? I can not find it ANY Where . I live in a pretty progressive county Delaware county PA 19342 or 19063.. No where to be found. I am really anxious to try this.

    • Dutchess (@DutchessPDX) February 20, 2014 at 11:34 am #

      Sodium Citrate is perfectly safe, commonly used as a food additive (it’s approved for use in food by the FDA) and is basically another kind of salt. Regular table salt we all have home is Sodium Chloride. This is also a sodium salt, just made with Citric Acid (this is what gives citrus fruit their sour taste).

  6. MiniLaura April 12, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    The link to the Modernist recipe is a broken link. Can you list the amounts of the four ingredients?

  7. Brenda December 4, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

    I was wondering if club soda could sub for the powdered sodium citrate?

    • Kathi McCarron December 4, 2014 at 5:00 pm #

      I am very interested in this topic as I teach culinary.

    • PJ December 26, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

      Club soda does not contain sodium citrate. So, no, you cannot substitute club soda for sodium citrate.

      • Obs May 20, 2015 at 2:14 pm #

        Some do. Probably not enough, though.

  8. Becky J. January 1, 2015 at 6:27 pm #

    I am a pretty skilled cook and yet somehow the traditional bechamel based cheese sauce usually gets away from me, even when I follow a recipe to the letter. Another experiment you may want to consider is to compare the modernist recipe to Alton Brown’s “Stovetop Mac and Cheese” which does not rely on a bechemel but instead uses eggs as a thickener. It always turns out perfectly smooth for me. Until I got some sodium citrate (fairly recently), the AB Stovetop was my go-to mac and cheese. For me it’s kind of a tossup between the AB version and the modernist version, they’re both smooth and cheesy. My husband loves the modernist version. But anyway, it would be very interesting to see a similar taste test between them.

  9. Micaela (04522053) April 18, 2015 at 5:50 am #

    Would the modernist version be considered a branch off to molecular gastronomy? Being a Consumer Science student currently, I am captivated by the phenomen and methods within Molecular gastronomy as it is the direct link between science and food which are 2 great passions of mine.

  10. Cheryl M April 18, 2015 at 5:56 am #

    Could sodium citrate be substituted with sodium alginate as sodium alginate is also a spherification agent?

  11. redzonerocks May 11, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

    I’ve tried both, and while I love modernist techniques for me the flavor complexity and mouth feel is better with traditional. The ultra smooth texture of the modernist cheese does very much have a “melted Velveeta” type of feel. I will say that if you have some exotic cheeses then the modernist approach will help you retain the distinctive taste of the cheese without getting masked with the butter and flour. But for good ol cheddar based mac and cheese, old school works best for me.


  1. Shorelines » Blog Archive » Under the apron, into the genome - June 23, 2015

    […] Science Fare, with other graduate students from Stanford. In one post, Tepolt describes how to make macaroni and cheese with the same special salt solution she uses to preserve RNA in the lab, sodium citrate. She […]

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