Why It Works
- Sodium citrate, a type of salt that is commonly added to club soda and processed cheese, can turn the cheese of your choice into a perfect cheese sauce.
- Extra grated cheese folded in creates tiny pockets of stretchy, intensely flavored melted cheese.
- A buttery panko bread crumb topping bakes up crisp, with a light crunchiness.
If you want completely smooth, pourable cheese sauce that resembles the texture of the boxed stuff, give this “modern” mac and cheese recipe a try. (But this classic version, with lots of stretch and extra cheese, is delicious, too.)
This version calls for sodium citrate, an ingredient that's been in the modernist pantry for many years now, but has yet to break into the mainstream home cook's arsenal. There's nothing new about this particular salt—you can find it in many foods and drinks you already eat. Not only is it a common ingredient in club soda, but, more importantly for us, it's how processed American cheese, with its superior melting abilities, is made.
We've long avoided using sodium citrate in our recipes here at Serious Eats, because it's not readily available at most food stores. But now, thanks to the ease of ordering online, a supply of food-grade sodium citrate is only a mouse click away. I really don't see any reason not to recommend it now.
The great thing about sodium citrate is that you can turn any cheese into a gooey, Velveeta-like melter. Gouda, Gruyère, Fontina, extra-sharp cheddar, you name it: Grate those cheeses and whisk them into a solution of sodium citrate and water (you could also use milk, but I used water because it's always available, and the sauce comes out just fine), and they transform into a perfectly pourable, totally smooth cheese sauce. It couldn't be easier.
Start by heating water in a saucepan, then whisk in sodium citrate until it's fully dissolved.
Next, blend in the grated cheese—I used sharp cheddar here—with a whisk or immersion blender, allowing it to melt into the solution as you go. If you have any trouble with it breaking, an immersion blender is your best bet for pulling it back together.
The result is a totally smooth, totally pourable cheese sauce made from your cheese of choice. I season the sauce with classic baked mac and cheese flavorings, like hot sauce and mustard powder, but I also add some powdered garlic, which gives it more depth and, dare I say, sophistication. (I add these flavorings to my béchamel version as well.)
After folding this sauce with the pasta, I fold in an additional half pound of grated Gruyère, for those tiny bits of stretchy melted cheese.
The result is an even gooier, creamier sauce that's more in line with the texture of the boxed stuff, but it still has those elastic strands that pull and stretch when you lift a scoop. If I had to pick a favorite, it might still be the béchamel version, because that's the one that speaks to my childhood memories the most. If you're unsure which one is right for you...well, then I guess you'll just have to make the tremendous sacrifice of trying both.
Baked Mac and Cheese, Two Ways
1 pound (450g) elbow macaroni
5 tablespoons (75g) unsalted butter, divided
4 teaspoons (20g) sodium citrate (see notes)
1 1/2 pounds (680g) grated sharp cheddar cheese (see notes)
1 teaspoon (5ml) hot sauce, such as Frank's RedHot
1/2 teaspoon (2g) mustard powder
1/4 teaspoon (1g) garlic powder
1/2 pound (225g) grated Gruyère cheese (see notes)
1 cup panko bread crumbs (2 ounces; 55g)
Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). In a medium pot of salted boiling water, cook elbow macaroni until just shy of al dente, about 2 minutes less than cooking time indicated on package. Drain, then transfer pasta to a large mixing bowl and toss with 2 tablespoons (30g) butter until butter is melted and pasta is evenly coated. Set aside.
In a large saucepan, bring 3 cups (720ml) water to a simmer. Whisk in sodium citrate until fully dissolved. While maintaining a gentle simmer, add cheddar cheese in small increments, using an immersion blender to incorporate it completely into the sauce before the next addition. When all the cheese is added and the sauce is smooth and glossy, blend in hot sauce, mustard powder, and garlic powder. Season with salt, if necessary.
Scrape cheese sauce into pasta and mix until evenly coated. Let cool slightly, then add grated Gruyère and mix well. Scrape pasta into a 9- by 13-inch baking dish and smooth surface into an even layer.
Add panko to a small mixing bowl. Melt remaining 3 tablespoons butter, then add to panko and mix until evenly coated. Season with salt. Scatter panko all over surface of mac and cheese in an even layer. Bake on top rack of oven until browned and bubbling, about 45 minutes (ovens can vary; check often to prevent top from burning).
Let mac and cheese rest 15 minutes, then serve. Leftover mac and cheese can be refrigerated for up to 5 days; it reheats surprisingly well in the microwave or oven.
Food-grade sodium citrate is available online. Buy it once, then have a supply for making awesome cheese sauce and cheese dip for years—you won't regret having it in your pantry.
For the cheese, any semi-firm cheese, such as cheddar, Swiss, Gruyère, Fontina, or Jack, can work here; feel free to use whichever appeals to you.
Make Ahead and Storage
Casserole can be assembled through the end of step 3, then covered and stored in the refrigerator for up to five days before baking. Increase baking time by 15 minutes if refrigerated.