Not long ago, I worked with a student who was CRAZY about macaroni and cheese. Like, this woman said she could happily eat nothing but mac and cheese for the rest of her life. (Honestly, I love it that much, too!)
The problem was, she could not make the dish to save her life — even the most basic mac and cheese recipe failed for her. Every time she tried she either ended up with a burnt clump or a lumpy, separated mess. She was super bummed that she could not seem to make her favorite dish.
After our first lesson together, we discovered what the problem was: she was cranking the heat ALL THE WAY UP to melt her cheese. This is a problem because cheese is an emulsion — meaning, it’s a suspension of liquid in fat — and if you heat it too quickly it will break.
What this looks like is a mess of separated cheesy lumps and liquids that refuse to come back together. It’s a huge disappointment (and waste of ingredients).
While working with my student, I showed her how to make a roux with flour and melted butter, then slowly add hot milk. The next step was crucial: I asked her to remove the pot from the heat before adding the cheese.
If the milk sauce (aka, béchamel) is hot, that’s more than enough heat to melt the cheese. The burner does not need to be on… and in fact, melting cheese over intense heat will cause the cheese to break.
Once she learned this trick, she was off to the races! The mac & cheese she made that day was DELICIOUS and she emailed me a few weeks later with a few photos of her macaroni adventures, and they all turned out perfectly. YAY!
If you’re striving to make the world’s most delectable macaroni and cheese, I put every single thing I know into my book, Melt: the Art of Macaroni and Cheese (also available in paperback). It also talks about working with cheese in general, which is handy if you’re a MAJOR chess lover!