Monday, April 15, 2013

Perfect Nacho Cheese

I have a love-hate relationship with nachos. We ate them all the time as kids, and they are still one of my favorite snacks. My go-to version of nachos is really simple. I grate a little sharp cheddar cheese over a plate full of tortilla chips and then microwave on high for 25 seconds. The cheese and chips combine into a greasy, salty, snack that forms the wonderful foundation for a variety of toppings.

Concession-stand nachos, on the other hand, are not something I enjoy. The yellow goop doesn’t taste like cheese, and the spicy flavor is sharp and one-dimensional. Also, it’s usually served with bland, round tortilla chips. The texture of the sauce is good, but the flavor combination just isn’t right. At $7 a tray, I've never understood why anyone buys these.

In my opinion, great nachos are made by letting good cheese shine. Since great cheddar doesn’t melt into a smooth sauce, you have to add something to the cheese to keep the oil and water together. The classic recipes for cheese sauce call for a roux, which is a blend of equal parts flour and butter. This works well, but it also smothers the taste of the cheese. That's the reason your homemade mac n' cheese can't really complain when the blue box claims to be "the cheesiest."

Thankfully, there is an easy way to make a cheese sauce that will capture the delicious flavors of any cheese: just add a pinch of sodium citrate. Modernist Cuisine at Home gives two different recipes to make this work, and they have been nice enough to publish both of them on the web. The first version creates an amazing sauce, but it hardens rapidly when poured thin over chips. And don't even think about dipping this stuff--the slightest amount of cooling causes it to harden into a chip-crushing lump of cheese. This is perfect if you want to mold your own American cheese, but it is terrible for a cheese sauce. The second Modernist Cuisine at Home sauce is also excellent, but it tends to be a little too thin. They claim that this sauce is ideal for mac n' cheese, but it doesn't really stick to the noodles. I think that it's probably best thought of as a base for a cheese soup.

This adaptation improves upon the second Modernist Cuisine at Home recipe by thickening it with a touch of xanthan gum. You'll be using two ingredients that you may be unfamiliar with, but you'll end up with a perfect cheese sauce that you'll want to cover everything with. I love to throw in a little liquid smoke and hot sauce for a flavorful treat, and sometimes I mix it with a little thai sweet chili sauce to mix things up. It is excellent in any of these mixtures over chips, pretzels, or steamed vegetables, but my very favorite way to eat it is over a bowl of freshly cooked pasta. I hope Kraft has a great legal team, because this sauce really is "the cheesiest."

Special Equipment
Immersion blender (ideal) or countertop blender (both are optional)
Kitchen scale (it is too hard to determine the appropriate amounts of cheese, sodium citrate, and xanthan gum without one. But trust me, it's a great investment)

Full Ingredient List
300 grams milk
270 grams sharp cheddar cheese, grated
30 grams parmesan cheese, grated
0.6 grams xanthan gum

Step 1: Melt the cheese into the milk

300 grams milk
11 grams sodium citrate
270 grams sharp cheddar cheese, grated
30 grams parmesan cheese, grated

Stir together the milk and sodium citrate. Over low heat, slowly wield in the cheese. Continue stirring until all the cheese has melted.

Step 2: Thicken the sauce

0.6 grams xanthan gum

Add the xanthan gum to the cheese mixture. Blend until fully incorporated and no lumps are present. Note: If you don't have a blender, just add a couple of drops of vegetable oil to the xanthan gum. The resulting oil and xanthan gum slurry will incorporate perfectly into the sauce without any lumps.


  1. yum. I agree with everything you said about nachos above. I will have to try this recipe out. Also, I just bought mark a pressure cooker for his birthday so he can finally make the best beans ever whenever he wants. (and so i can make risotto and not feel bad about the kids not liking it because it didn't take a full hour of high maintenance cooking!) Don't tell him though :)

    1. You will love your pressure cooker Holly! I know Mark will love it. Your secret is safe with me :-D