The Science of Mac and Cheese

According to Modernist Cuisine at Home, sodium citrate is the key to “silky smooth” mac and cheese.  And there is no substitution.  The cookbook claims you can find it in the kosher aisle of grocery stores.  Not true.  And not even in NYC where kosher sections abound.  Frustrated after searching in dozens of stores, I came close to ordering it online (which I will suggest for most home cooks).  However, since I’m a firm believer that I should be able to find almost anything in NYC, I refused to give up on my quest.  Fortunately, I was successful thanks to my trip to Kalustyan’s, where I finally found this elusive ingredient.  Now I was ready to experiment with the MCAH version, which I made for a Derby de Mayo party over the weekend.

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This is how MCAH shows the cheddar mac and cheese will look — without baking.

The Recipe 

As has been my experience with past attempts at duplicating recipes in MCAH, a few more details would’ve been helpful.  The instructions said to use water or milk to blend in the sodium citrate.  Once again, there was no explanation of the difference between the two options or mention of what type of milk (from skim to whole).  After googling a bit, I noticed that those who used skim milk found it to be slightly challenging.  And the pictures in the cookbook showed water.  So for this first effort, I went with water.  You’ll need to measure the sodium citrate using a food scale.  So make sure you have one of those on hand as well as an immersion blender.

The initial step of dissolving the sodium citrate was easy.  But when it came time to add the cheese, problems occurred.  It was a thick, gooey mess and not a silky sauce.  So I heated it more and added a little milk, and ended up with the  right consistency.  I went with my own recipe for cooking the pasta because theirs seemed overly complicated, and I’ve made enough baked mac and cheese to know how to cook the pasta and bake it.  Plus, this recipe was really all about the cheese sauce.

The Verdict

Although the cheese was thick and oozey, I’m not sure that this was the best recipe ever.  But that might have been my cheese choices (sorry Trader Joe’s).  You can use basically any type of cheese you want- as long as you have about 4 cups.  In any case, apparently it was a hit.  I only managed to have one forkful since it was gone in about 30 seconds (that’s what happens after people imbibe a few too many mint juleps).  Next time I will try it out with milk and a different type of cheese to how the result differs.

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Baked Mac and Cheese
Serves 4-6.

Ingredients

3/4 cup of water
13 grams of sodium citrate (measured with a food scale)
2 cups of elbow macaroni
3 and 1/2 cups of swiss/gruyere cheese
1/2 cup of parmigiana reggiano
Half and half (or whole milk or cream)
1/4 cup of bread crumbs or panko
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Red pepper or cayenne (optional)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  In a medium sized saucepan, add water and sodium citrate.  Whisk until dissolved.  Heat over medium low until simmering, then gradually add the cheese and mix in with an immersion blender.  (I think you can get away with a handheld mixer or whisk if you don’t have one, but you might need to add the cheese even slower.)  Keep heat high enough to melt the cheese but not to burn it.  [Note: This part is tricky, so I ended up lowering the heat and then it got too thick, but maybe you’ll be luckier than I was.]

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My version: thick and gooey.  This is before I added milk and reheated.

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Compare it with this photo from MCAH.

Either before or after, you can parboil the macaroni.  Bring a pot of salted water to boiling, then add the pasta and cook for 2 and a half minutes.  Pour into a colander and run a little cold water over it.  Keep wet.  (The recipe calls for freezing a baking tray and cooling the pasta on this without draining– I thought this was too much effort and unnecessary since I know how to cook pasta.  I will also say that my pasta wasn’t overcooked when it was ready to eat.)  If not using the past right away, toss with a little olive oil so it doesn’t stick together.

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This was how the cheese was by the time I added it to the parboiled pasta before adding the milk and reheating. I put it all back in the pan.

Otherwise, add the pasta to the cheese sauce.  And stir till mixed well.  Add in salt, pepper and spices as desired and to taste.  Even if the sauce was thin initially, you might need to heat it up more at this point if the pasta won’t mix in.  Just use common sense – if it’s too thick, heat it and add some more moisture (pasta water or milk).  If it mixes fine and is creamy, then you’re good.

IMG_0471

The right consistency.

Now spread the mixture in a baking dish.  Sprinkle some parm on top and add some bread crumbs or panko if desired.  Heat until bubbly — about 12-15 minutes.  If not crisp on top, broil for a couple minutes.

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Moments before it was all gone.

[Note: If you don’t want to bake it, cook the pasta till al dente and then add it to cheese mixture.  Add spices to taste and serve.]

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One thought on “The Science of Mac and Cheese

  1. Pingback: Is There Really Such A Thing As “Perfect” Mac ‘n Cheese? | eatdrinkadventure

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