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The Food Lab: Vegan Nacho Sauce That's as Good as the Real Thing

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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Editor's Note: Welcome to the third year of The Vegan Experience! All month we're exploring the vegan lifestyle, from dining out to eating in, developing a slew of delicious recipes for vegan appetizers, snacks, and entrees along the way. For more posts in the series, check here!

There's a reason my wife married me, and surprisingly it's got nothing to do with my debonair charm, my rugged good looks, or my dashing sense of adventure. No. She married me on the promise of cheese sauce. Pools and pools of gooey, tangy, salty, creamy cheese sauce. And you know what, dear? I delivered on that promise.

It was several years ago—not one year after our nuptials*—that I started investigating how to make gooey cheese sauce out of almost any cheese, and less than a year after that, you had it: an unlimited supply of cheese sauce. Married life has been pure bliss since that day, I can tell you.

*Let the record show that it took you nearly two years to let me get that puppy I always wanted.

Bliss, that is, until vegan month rolls around. The one month of the year when my dear wife's fries have to go un-dipped, her nachos un-topped, and her baked potatoes un-smothered.

In the interest of maintaining order in our happy home, I decided that it was time to finally tackle that issue head-on. The goal? To develop a recipe for a nacho sauce that is every bit as creamy, gooey, and smother-worthy as the real deal.

Going Faux?

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Now, some of you may be scratching your heads here. Haven't I come down against faux products in the past?

Yes, I have, and that stance still holds. My issue is not with vegetable-based meat or dairy substitutes, per se, but with vegetable-based foods masquerading as meat. Tofu hot dogs just taste like bad versions of hot dogs, whereas a good grain- and vegetable-based burger patty (such as, oh, this one right here) can take the place of a regular beef patty—you can cook it the same way and serve it the same way—and be completely delicious in its own right, without trying to taste exactly like a burger patty.

What we're going for here is something similar: a sauce that hits all of the same notes as traditional nacho cheese sauce—tangy, a little spicy, and salty—with the same textural qualities—rich, mouth-coatingly gooey, creamy, and fatty—but made with 100% standard supermarket staples with a flavor that is downright delicious in its own right. A flavor that doesn't leave you thinking, "this is pretty good... for vegan cheese.

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The first order of business was to get a quick lay of the land by seeing what solutions other folks have come up with in the past. I made a few of the most popular vegan nacho sauce recipes on the internet. Most of them rely on ground cashews as their base, using paprika, powdered garlic or onions, lemon juice, and a crap-ton of nutritional yeast (a concentrated source of umami) for flavor.

The end results are not all that different from the spicy cashew cream I use to top my Spinach and Hominy Enchiladas. That is to say, not at all bad, but not really nacho-like, either, in flavor or texture.

To crack the code, I decided to look at exactly what's in regular nacho sauce that makes it tick, and work backwards from there. Here's what we've got.

  • Lots of fat. You know why cheese sauce is so mouth-coatingly rich and delicious? It's got plenty of fat. And more importantly, that fat is generally a highly saturated fat, which means that at a given temperature, it's thicker and creamier than more unsaturated fats.
  • Some water. The other key element in nacho sauce is water, generally introduced in the form of milk or whey. This is what helps keep the fat smooth and flowing.
  • Proteins. Cheese and nacho sauce are relatively high in milk protein (in some cases, milk protein is added directly to the cheese sauce). This protein provides not only flavor, but also structure, helping with emulsification. Speaking of which, cheese sauces have also got...
  • Emulsifying agents. Without an emulsifier, it's extremely difficult to get fat and water to play nicely together. In commercial nacho sauces, this emulsifier comes in the form of melting salts (like sodium citrate), or gelling agents (such as sodium alginate).
  • Flavorings. These are what make nacho cheese taste the way it does. Of course, some of that flavor comes from the milk and cheese itself, but nacho sauce generally also contains a blend of spices and vegetables.

Fixing Flavor

Flavor is always the easiest thing for me to nail down, so I decided to start from there.

Swapping out the lemon juice for some pickling liquid from a jar of pickled jalapeños and the swapping the powdered alliums for fresh onions and garlic helped in the flavor department, as did adding some paprika, a touch of cumin, and single chipotle chili packed in adobo sauce (it's amazing how their mild smokiness can add such dimension to sauces), but it still wasn't quite right—it tasted almost too fresh and "real."

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Sautéing the onions and garlic first in oil along with some sliced jalapeño pepper helped tame that raw garlic bite, but the real trick was to use a mixture of fresh garlic and garlic powder.

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There's something about powdered granulated garlic that is unique and reminds me of good junk food. I still like to sprinkle some on my pizza now and then. Sometimes you want that fancy San Pellegrino Aranciata and sometimes you just want Crush, if you know what I mean.

There was another big issue in the flavor department: The stuff still tasted overpoweringly of cashews. It wasn't immediately obvious to me how to maintain the thickness of the sauce while reducing the amount of cashew flavor, so I decided to move on for now.

Gaga for Goo

This is where I was after a couple dozen batches of sauce:

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It's smooth, thick, and saucy, but it wasn't really gooey. It coated your mouth in the way that thinned-out nut butter does*, not the way fatty nacho sauce does. Could playing with the ratio and type of fat help in that department?

*shocking, seeing as that's basically what it is.

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Knowing that animal-based dairy fats are more highly saturated than the vegetable-based fats I'd been using are, I tried using vegetable shortening in place of vegetable oil. Shortening is essentially vegetable oil to which extra hydrogen atoms have been added in a process called hydrogenation. It results in a vegetable-based fat that is saturated enough to behave more like an animal fat, giving you richer texture and more creaminess. It's what makes vegan pie crusts rich and the center of Oreos creamy.

Turns out, it also worked wonders for my sauce. Nacho sauce always contains a lot of fat, and I found that the flavor and texture of mine steadily improved up until we hit 6 tablespoons per cup of liquid.

Speaking of liquid, I also found that swapping out some of the regular water I'd been using for almond milk also improved matters. Almond milk not only has fat and protein in it, but more importantly, it contains emulsifying agents that help to keep my sauce shiny and smooth.

Still, all the extra fat and emulsifiers in the world weren't helping with the fact that there was simply no stretchiness or gooeyness in my sauce. How could I fix this?

I tried adding thickeners of various sorts, ranging from flour and cornstarch, and even considered breaking my supermarket-only rule by introducing some xanthan gum or agar, but none of it really seemed to help. Then, when I was in the middle of a batch thickened with potato starch, it struck me: have you ever tried making mashed potatoes in a food processor or blender? It doesn't work: the whole thing ends up as a gummy, sticky mess.

Why is that? It has to do with the specific types of starches that are contained within potato cells that get released when the cells are ruptured by the violently spinning blades of a food processor. In fact, there's even a classic dish from the French Pyrenees called Aligot which takes advantage of this fact: to make it, potatoes are cooked until very soft, then pounded and beaten along with garlic and cheese until you end up with an elastic mixture that can be stretched several feet out of the bowl on a spoon before falling back.

Sure, it's got cheese in it, but I've done some tests on that recipe in the past: even without the cheese, beaten potatoes become insanely elastic. Could I harness this trait to my advantage?

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I cooked up a new batch, substituting half of the cashews by weight with sliced russet potatoes (the starchiest potato of the bunch), toasting them a bit in the melted shortening before adding my water and almond milk.

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After simmering the mixture until the potatoes were just tender, I transferred them all to my blender and fired it up.

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Bingo. Not only was the resulting sauce texturally spot-on with a rich, full mouthfeel and a gooey, creamy, barely elastic texture, but those potatoes had also solved my flavor problem by diluting the impact of the cashews. All it needed was a little whisk of hot sauce (I prefer to call on my buddy Frank, but you can use whatever brand you like) and all the elements were in place.

How did I celebrate? Why, the way I often do: by feeding my wife delicious things for lunch.

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How do you like dem nachos?

The best part? By using this potato-cashew-shortening trick and applying different flavor bases to it, I could alter my sauce to work in a huge variety of applications, like this:

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...or this:

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...just to name a few. (Stay tuned, I'll be posting those recipes over the next few days.) The first year I went through The Vegan Experience, I lost a few pounds in the process. I have a strong feeling that ain't happening this time around.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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