Making smooth, creamy cheese sauce is easy once you get the hang of it.
The Big Melt Down
When cooking with cheese, keep these tips in mind:
- The less you heat cheese, the better. When making soup, sauce, or fondue, add the cheese last; then heat it only as long as it takes to melt. If it gets too hot it will get tough. Often, you can remove the pan from the burner; the residual heat will melt the cheese.
- Shred, crumble, or finely dice the cheese before heating to ensure quick, smooth melting. The colder the cheese is, the easier it will be to cut.
- 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, add it to the mixture before the cheese; 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 stringy. This is why most fondues have a base of white wine. Simply sprinkle some lemon juice over the shredded cheese before heating it.
- Reduced-fat cheeses have different melting characteristics than regular cheeses. They will take longer to melt and will be tougher. Be sure to shred reduced-fat cheese very finely, and allow it to melt over very low heat while stirring constantly.
Classic cheese sauce begins with a béchamel sauce, a simple sauce made of butter, flour, milk, and a few seasonings.
To begin, 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’re making a white or light-colored cheese sauce, keep the heat low so the roux doesn’t brown.
- Next comes the milk. If the roux is hot, the milk should be cool, but if the roux is cool, the milk should be hot. When you combine the ingredients at different temperatures, they heat up at a moderate rate–not too fast, and not too slow–creating a velvety-smooth sauce.
- Whisk the mixture until smooth, then add seasonings if you wish. Traditional seasonings for béchamel are diced onion, a bay leaf, a couple cloves, and a pinch of nutmeg.
- Allow the sauce to simmer until it gets to the consistency you want, then strain out any seasonings. If you’re in a hurry, you can keep the sauce over high heat, but you’ll want to keep whisking to prevent it from burning.
- Remove the pan from the heat and gently blend in the cheese. If the cheese doesn’t seem to be melting, return the pan to very low heat, but watch it carefully and remove as soon as the cheese is melted.
You can create an endless variety of cheese 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.