06 July 2010

Mac & Cheese Pt. III: Cheesy Choices & Mornay

Who doesn't love cheese? Ok, anyone with allergies, please don't answer - you'll skew my data!

We're up to Part III of my Stovetop Mac & Cheese Series - so close, you can almost taste it? ...ok, bad pun, I'll admit! We've gone over the bases upon which our cheesy sauce will be built: the roux, and how to use it to create a classic French Béchamel Sauce. I'll be wrapping up the sauce discussion shortly, but before you can finish your cheese sauce, you first have to make a crucial decision: "What kind of cheese?"

Most people will automatically jump straight to Cheddar. Not so fast! While Cheddar is, indeed, delicious (for me, the sharper the better!), the cheese world has so many options, why limit yourself? You need at least 3-4 cheeses to make a truly stellar and earth-shattering Mac and Cheese. But how do you know what to choose?

In my humble opinion, you need to carefully weigh two considerations: taste and texture. Some cheeses are great  melters, and add a creaminess that makes your tongue very happy indeed, but don't really lend a huge cheesy punch. Other cheese are flavor powerhouses, but can get gritty or add a funky texture to your noodles.

The Melters

A creamy texture is key to a delicious, satisfying, stick-to-your-ribs, down-home, (insert adjective here), macaroni and cheese. These are some cheeses that will lend that classic texture, without having to resort to American or (gag) Velveeta. Most semi-firm cheeses will melt well, but these are a few of my favorites:

  • Muenster: one of my favorites for texture, but doesn't give a huge cheesy flavor.
  • Gouda: a great saucy melter; even better, use Smoked Gouda in a vegetarian friendly mac for bacon-esque flavor that will please meat-eaters alike
  • Mild Cheddar
  • Emmentaler: aka Swiss cheese -  they invented Fondue, they would know how to make a killer cheese sauce
  • Fontina
  • Gruyère: also common in fondue
  • Havarti
  • Monterey Jack
  • Lappi: I discovered this semi-soft cheese a few years ago at my local Whole Foods - if you can find it, get it!
  • Brie: cut off the rind and you'll get a similar texture to what you could expect from adding plastic "cheese" ahem, I mean,Velveeta
  • Cream cheese: whaa? Yeah, I said cream cheese. One great thing this unassuming cheese does well is helps to keep your mac stay creamy, even after reheating. 
  • Or check this list for some more semi-firm cheeses, and good substitutes (you know, in case you run out of Fontina and don't know what to do!)

The Flaverizers

Of course, a nice bite of cheesy flavor (or lack thereof) can make or break a good macaroni dish. Some of my favorites for flavor:

  • Asiago: great for sharp flavor, and a little sweeter than Parmesan, use sparingly
  • Parmesiano-Reggiano: Another good one for salty flavor, not as "cheesy" as some other choices though.
  • Blue cheeses: use sparingly, as the flavor can be intense. Some will be creamier than others - Gorgonzola is great
  • Sharp and Extra-Sharp Cheddar: a little dryer than their mild counterparts, they are better for flavor than texture
  • Feta: Ok, it won't melt completely, but can add a lot of flavor. The un-melted bits add extra bursts of tangy goodness.
  • Goat cheese: similar story to Feta above - it won't really melt, but gives great bursts of flavor

What to avoid

Some cheeses are downright disastrous for macaroni and cheese. They don't melt properly, or they get gritty. 

  • Mozzarella: great for melting on a pizza - lousy for melting into a sauce. This is a cheese that will maintain its integrity in an oven, and melts into a stringy texture. Especially bad is the fresh stuff - it will essentially soften, and stick to itself (and your pot) giving you a big clumpy mess.
  • Fresh cheeses: paneer, cottage cheese, ricotta - none of these will melt, and don't have particularly strong flavor, so just stay away
  • Excess amounts of dry/sharp cheese: Ok, so above I mention some sharp and/or dry cheeses for flavor. Basically, you want to use these sparingly, oherwise they can give you a gritty texture.
  • Pre-shredded Cheeses: Now, this isn't a hard and fast rule, but many processed pre-shredded cheeses are treated with preservatives and anti-clumping agents. Besides being completely contrary to my personal eating philosophy, some of these substances can effect the cheeses' meltability. 

Some final advice/tips

Make sure you grate the cheese. If you don't have a grater, cut your cheese into thin strips (like, matchstick size) before you make your sauce. Chunks will take forever to melt (if at all).

Make friends with your local cheesemonger. They will be knowledgeable about all of their products, and can help you expand your horizons beyond the Gouda-Cheddar-Muenster cheeses of the world, and help you find something truly spectacular. 

What, don't have a specialty cheese store around? Luckily, a lot of supermarkets are adding gourmet cheese sections. No, I don't mean the section with all the bags o' cheese, and pre-processed, store-brand cheese logs that you find in between the milk and eggs. Usually, you'll find the gourmet cheese section with the rest of the fresh foods: near the deli and produce. I recommend Whole Foods, because their people work within a very specific department of the store, and are trained to know their product - next best thing to a bona-fide cheesemonger.

Quick and Easy Mornay Sauce

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Servings: 4-6 Prep Time: 5 min. Cook Time: 10-15 min

Here's what you need:
  • 1 TB butter 
  • 1 TB flour
  • 1 - 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 2-3 ounces cheese (about 1/2 cup shredded)

Here's what you do:
  • Make a roux with your butter and flour.
  • Gradually stir in the milk to make a Béchamel Sauce, adjusting milk for thicker or thinner consistency, depending on your final application.
  • Add in your cheese in batches, whisking until smooth.
  • Serve over vegetables, eggs, pasta, whatever needs a little cheesy kick!

Tune in Thursday for Part IV of my series on Mac & Cheese: (Finally) The recipe for my Mac & Cheese!

Stovetop Mac & Cheese series - In case you missed it:


  1. Ohhh, I love all those different cheese ideas!!! I love the sharper, bolder ones myself, though Havarti rocks my world. :-)

  2. OH, me too, I love Havarti - Dill Havarti might be a nice choice.

    I forgot to mention in the post, I usually will go maybe 2/3 texture cheeses, 1/3 flavor cheeses, but whatever you like is fine :)


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