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.
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.)
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?
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.
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.
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!