It’s sodium citrate, and it’s responsible for the meltiness of American cheese.

December 07, 2020
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At least once a week, I’ll look at my phone or the corner of the laptop and realize that it’s time to make another meal, but I have no idea what to put together. The endless pandemic months have eroded my sense of time and normalcy, so unless I’ve had the wherewithal to pick up or order ingredients for a more well-rounded meal, I usually end up making something with a cheese sauce. A good cheese sauce, like a great vinaigrette, is pretty easy to make, can bring together all kinds of disparate ingredients into a meal quickly, and adds a little dairy luxury to your life. Usually I end up making stovetop mac and cheese with whatever pasta shape I have available, plus some roasted vegetables for, you know, nutrients.

My go-to cheese sauce uses classic French techniques that were drilled into me at culinary school. You make a roux out of flour and butter, about a tablespoon each, then whisk in half a cup of milk, and then, once it thickens, add in grated cheese until it comes together into a glorious cheesy lava. It’s great, but it has some drawbacks. I don’t always have milk around, which can complicate things, and back in the Before Times when I would cook for friends, the added flour would be a problem for folks with gluten intolerance. Which is why I was extremely intrigued when on an episode of their podcast Home Cooking, Samin Nosrat explained to her co-host Hrishikesh Hirway that the secret ingredient to making cheese sauce with the meltiness of Velveeta but the tang of whatever your preferred cheeses is the addition of sodium citrate. 

Sodium citrate, as Nosrat explained, is the ingredient that gives American cheese its signature composition. It’s why American cheese melts perfectly, whether over the top of a hamburger or in a grilled cheese sandwich. Which means that you could include a little American cheese in whatever cheese-based dish you’re making—or you could just buy a bag of sodium citrate off the internet and experiment at home. 

It’s a molecular gastronomy trick that you can use pretty easily at home, as I discovered. Basically, you shred whatever cheese you want to make a sauce from. Harder, shreddable cheeses work best here, your cheddars and Goudas and Parmesans, as opposed to something soft like Brie, but you can do your own experiments if you’re determined. I used about a cup. Then, bring a cup of water to a simmer in a medium-sized pot. Whisk in a teaspoon of sodium citrate until it's dissolved, and then whisk in all the cheese, gradually, until it’s melted and gotten to the cheese consistency you’re hoping for. Taste and season it with salt and pepper to your liking. 

This will make a thin, more pourable cheese sauce, but for a thicker sauce, reduce the amount of water that you’re simmering and proceed accordingly. You can adjust the quantity of cheese, water, and sodium citrate to the amount of cheese sauce you’re hoping for, and, if you have a lot of cheese, you can use an immersion blender to incorporate the cheese, as Daniel Gritzer advises in his Serious Eats recipe for modern macaroni and cheese. If the sauce is too thick for your liking, add a bit more hot water, about a tablespoon at a time, until it reaches the consistency you want. Leftover sauce keeps in the fridge—just warm it up in the pot over low and add in a bit more water until it loosens up to the sauciness it once was. That’s it. Toss it with vegetables, eat it with chips, pour it over a bowl of beans and rice—the rest is up to you. It’s easy, it’s cheesy, it’s an element of this year I actually want to keep.