The Art of the Cheese Sauce
It takes years of skill, repetition and confidence in ingredients, as well as an understanding of how the ingredients work together, to become proficient in the art of sauce making. Add the element of cheese into this equation, and the task is even more difficult. Yet, cheese is a perfect ingredient in a sauce as it pairs so well with many of the foods eaten every day. It also can act as a good bridging tool to introduce people to foods with which they are less familiar.
When using cheese in a sauce, one is able to add flavor, color and texture. All three of these elements can change during the cooking process and need to be understood and controlled by the chef or manufacturer.
Béchamel and Velouté
While there are many sauces and styles of sauces, two in particular lend themselves well when looking to use cheese in sauces. They are Béchamel and velouté sauces. This is because the dairy and roux components are able to hold or suspend the cheese. Out of these two sauces, the best base for building a good sauce is a Béchamel, made with milk and a roux. A roux will add starch to a sauce, allowing it to be more stable and create the consistency and thickness required. The ingredients used are equal amounts of flour and a fat—traditionally butter—heated until the mixture has had the moisture cooked out of it. There are two basic types of roux—blond/white and brown—with varying degrees or shades of brown, depending on how long the flour has been cooked. (See sidebar “How to Make a Roux and Béchamel.”)
Velouté sauces are made by thickening a white stock with a blonde roux—such as chicken, fish or veal. Often, cream is incorporated, as well, to make the sauce even more rich and velvety in texture and mouthfeel. As with a Béchamel sauce, add the cheese at the end of the sauce-making process to avoid the same pitfalls mentioned above.
In addition to using a roux to incorporate starch into a sauce for thickening and stability, two other methods can be used. Stirring in a slurry (a mixture of starches, such as corn, potato, tapioca, or arrowroot and cold water) to a hot sauce will cause the starches to gel and thicken the sauce. Cold water causes the starch granules to separate before they are added to the sauce. A beurre manie is a similar preparation where water is replaced by butter that is kneaded or worked into a paste—which will cause the starches to separate. Adding the butter to the sauce at the last moment will thicken it.
While the above approaches and techniques work in test kitchens, manufacturing environments need more volume, speed and consistency. Commercial sauces are therefore engineered to gain the most efficiency in time, cost and product utilization, as well as food safety. This is a huge challenge and brings groups of people with different skill sets together to come up with custom solutions. In order to have stable cheeses and starches that will not change during the production, storage and reheating phases, food manufacturers have turned to food scientists to create modified flavor systems and starches that can be used in commercial sauce making.
These modified flavors and starches prevent congealing as well as separation, allowing for more ease of use and consistency on a large scale. Modified flavors and starches can also be turned into powders. These powders can be mixed into cheese sauces which will absorb moisture and thicken the sauce while adding flavor. Chemicals may also be added to prevent breakdowns of sauces that need to be reheated after manufacturing and storage.
Science borders on becoming an art form as fresh ingredients are replaced with flavor enhancers, dried or powdered dairy products, spices, herbs and vegetables—while still maintaining the quality and integrity of a natural cheese sauce. Creams, milk and water are replaced by dry dairy powders, fat and whey protein to create a rich, creamy sauce that is more resistant to fat breakdown and rancidity, as well as gaining cost improvements. An increased presence of chefs and food scientists is seen in this area, working hand-in-hand to get the best possible end-product.
In order to ensure food safety, the use of preservatives is essential, especially as shelflife and shelf-stability needs increase. Choosing the correct preservative or acid to complement the cheese and not change the flavor or texture profile takes years of expertise; not all preservatives and cheeses have the same impact on each other. The salt levels in these sauces also will increase, and pH levels will decrease. These factors will have an impact on the final taste of the sauce. Formulations will change depending on shelflife and whether the sauce needs to be frozen, refrigerated or shelf-stable.
The easiest and cleanest sauce, from an ingredient standpoint, is a frozen sauce with minimal shelflife. This also is the best format to reconfigure a sauce made in a kitchen to suit the manufacturing environment. Over the years, vast improvements in scaling up such sauces have been achieved—as customer demand drives advances in commercial cheese-sauce making—and as the collaboration between chef and food scientist improves and continues.
Choosing the Right Cheese
It’s important to choose the right type of cheese. Not all cheeses melt the same, and some cheeses will not melt at all; some actually become stiffer and drier as heat is added to them. Some good melting cheeses (stringy cheeses) are not good for sauce making. They might melt well on pizzas and sandwiches, but will not fare well in liquids. Avoid most fresh goat cheeses, ricotta, queso blanco and Indian paneer. These cheeses are manufactured using acid, not rennet. Rennet gives the cheese a soft, malleable structure that melts when heated. Using acid in the cheese-making process allows the water in the cheese to be repelled when heated, causing the proteins to stick together and form hard clumps or lumps.
The age of a cheese or the composition of its proteins play a major part in how the cheese will react in a sauce. As a cheese ages, the flavor will usually increase (up to a certain point) before it goes beyond its prime. This aging process adds flavor enhancement, but it also causes the fats and proteins to break down into shorter units. When melted, the aged cheese has less ability to blend and “cling,” which can result in a sauce that is grainy and appears curdled. Blending aged cheeses with younger cheeses will improve the flavor profile while still maintaining the rich, velvety consistency required of a cheese sauce.
More interesting and “high-end” sauces will enter the market as the food industry takes cues from foodservice. The “upscale” mac-n-cheese craze will continue, especially as it relates to gourmet iterations. Expect cheese sauces to move away from Cheddar-based to more unique and unusual cheese varieties. The big flavor boost will continue to gain momentum. Also, expect to see more varieties of chili peppers and other flavors making their way into cheese sauces and cheese dips.
Keys to Making Great Cheese Sauce
• When making a cheese sauce, fondue or soup, always add the cheese last; then heat it only long enough to melt the cheese. The less the cheese is heated, the better. Don’t let the sauce boil, or the cheese will become tough and curdle. Use the residual heat from the pan to melt the cheese.
• Break whole cheese down as small as possible to make it easy and quick to incorporate. Shred, crumble or dice the cheese. Do this while the cheese is cold, so it is easier to work.
• Once the cheese is shredded, crumbled or diced, let it sit at room temperature. This will allow the cheese to melt quickly when added to the hot liquid.
• Minimize the amount of stirring; otherwise, the cheese proteins can form globs.
• Use a thickener, such as cornstarch or potato flour, to prevent the cheese from curdling. Use all-purpose flour, but cook it first in order to remove the “raw” taste of the flour starch.
• Adding an acidic ingredient, such as lemon juice or wine, will help prevent the cheese from becoming stringy. 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.
• Don’t substitute milk or half-and-half when formulations call for cream: The higher fat content in cream helps to prevent curdling.
• Don’t add too much cheese. The flavor of cheese will make the sauce taste great, but there needs to be enough moisture to hold the cheese in suspension.
• Use the best and highest quality ingredients and products possible, not only for cheese sauces, but for all cooking.
How to Make a Roux and Béchamel
• Measure out equal amounts of butter and flour.
• Dice 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 making a white or light-colored cheese sauce, keep the heat low enough so the roux does not brown.
• Add milk. If the roux is hot, the milk should be cool, but if the roux is cool, the milk should be hot. Combining the two ingredients at different temperatures ensures they will 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 desired.
• Allow the sauce to simmer until it has lost its “floury” taste (about 20 minutes), then strain out any seasonings or lumps.
• 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.
• Avoid high heat. Temperature abuse can coagulate the proteins in the cheese and cause a separation of fats and solids.