I’ve continued experimenting with sodium citrate, because I want to master this ingredient so I can do all kinds of wonderful things with cheese. It’s so awesome I don’t even mind having to measure everything in grams. After experiencing success with a mac-n-cheese sauce, I decided the next thing to attempt would be loaded fries. I also thought it would be good to see if the recipe calling for less liquid—although intended for cheese slices—would work.
Using a small batch of shredded sharp cheddar (133 g, a number I chose to make the math easier), I used 5 g of sodium citrate and 30% of that weight (40 g) in water. Right away I noticed a problem: 40 g isn’t a lot of water, and wasn’t a good base for mixing a sauce. If that ratio is followed, the whole thing needs to be scaled up.
As it happened I decided to add more liquid, eyeballing it, and just kept whisking instead of ever getting out the immersion blender. This worked better than I was led to believe, which tells me sodium citrate is forgiving as long as it’s kept proportional to the cheese. In the end I probably ended up much closer to the cheese sauce recipe I’d used before, except this was with water instead of milk. The final cheese sauce came out nicely in spite of my needing to adjust it so much.
So much of this was by eyeball, it’s hard to give an exact recipe, but I’ll do my best.
Loaded French fries
- Crinkle-cut French fries, enough to fill about a 3-cup bowl
- 133 g shredded sharp cheddar
- 120-125 g water
- 5 g sodium citrate
- Bacon bits
Prepare French fries according to package directions. While fries cook, add sodium citrate to water (whisk well) and bring quickly to a simmer. Whisk in cheese in small handfuls at a time to allow it to melt. Continue whisking until all the cheese is incorporated and sauce is smooth. Salt cooked fries to taste, and put them in a bowl or on a plate. Smother with cheese sauce. Top with bacon bits.
Yes the fries have to be crinkle-cut. If you buy straight-cut fries you’re a monster. Waffle fries are okay though.
Cheddar was ideal for this recipe, but anything goes. Use whatever kind of cheese you like best that you think would work well on fries. I found this cheese sauce to be far superior to anything I’ve ever managed to accomplish by nuking Velveeta, mostly because of its texture. (When you nuke Velveeta, parts tend to burn and other parts don’t melt.)
The liquid portion of the basic cheese sauce recipe apparently isn’t only forgiving of variations in quantity, but composition as well. You can use any liquid you like: water, beer, wine, milk, cider.
Lesson learned: For any given weight of cheese, use about 93% of that for liquid and a hair under 4% for sodium citrate, and you can’t go far wrong for a killer cheese sauce. Or maybe you can, but it seems hard to screw up, which is one thing I love in a good recipe.
With that out of the way, I decided to try something more ambitious: melty cheese slices. The recipe for that called for 380 g of cheese, 115 g of liquid, and 14 g of sodium citrate. I tried this with extra sharp cheddar and cider, even though I was concerned that the acidity of cider might throw this off somehow.
I discovered two things right away: 380 g is a crapload of cheese, and this ratio of liquid to cheese did in fact work when using a higher volume—although it still took new additions of cheese a while to smooth out. I hit it repeatedly with an immersion blender, but a whisk did most of the heavy lifting.
When the mixture was all ready, I spread it out onto a cookie sheet I’d covered with plastic wrap. After getting that as thin as I could with a spatula—it was so viscous it didn’t want to spread much on its own—I covered it with more plastic wrap, and then I decided to try smooshing it out a bit. This worked well, but I’d use a roller the next time around.
After chilling the tray in the fridge for a couple of hours, I took it out and sliced the cheese (plastic and all) into 12 pieces. At this point, I discovered that the cheese slices were thicker than I wanted: about 1/8″, instead of a nicer 1/16″.
In spite of its thickness and strong flavor, I found that on a freshly grilled burger (with bacon of course), the cheese was surprisingly not overpowering. It melted very nicely on the grill, but I might have gotten slightly better results with a little more cider. The apple flavor was subtle but noticeable. (Next to try: grilled cheese!)
The next time I try making melty cheese slices—oh yes, there will be a next time, because this was fairly easy—I’m going to go off-book. What I’ve learned so far is that the liquid amount doesn’t seem to matter very much, and largely depends on the final consistency you want. So I think I’d scale this back on the cheese and sodium citrate proportionally, but leave the liquid alone or even add more. At 227 g for an 8 oz. block of cheese, the proper amount of sodium citrate is a little over 8 g. If I left the liquid at 115 g, that’s roughly 67% more liquid in the mix. (The percentage out of the total isn’t all that drastic a shift, of course.) My goal would be to get cheese slices that are bendier, and make them very thin. Actually, even 8 oz. may be too much cheese for that end.
Now for something that sounds a little weird: My wife has long had a habit of eating peanut butter and American cheese together (she rolls up the cheese after spreading), which I used to think was weird. Eventually she talked me into trying it, and I have to say it’s awesome. Given how well peanut butter pairs with apples, I thought I could manage the holy trifecta by spreading peanut butter on this apple cheddar. Turns out the extra sharp is just too powerful to go with the peanut butter, suggesting the ideal choice to achieve a peanut butter-friendly slice would be a mild white cheddar instead.
Now for random ideas. I recently discovered garlic basil cheese being sold at Walmart, by a company called Sincerely, Brigitte. It’s a prairie Jack (I didn’t know that was a thing) mixed with, of course, garlic and basil, and it’s beyond fantastic. Something like this seems like it’s doable using the melty cheese method: 30% liquid, forming the thick “sauce”, then folding in herbs. But that also got me thinking: You can probably do this with fruit, like strawberries or blueberries. Crazy people might enjoy mixing in nuts. The best of us would give serious thought to folding in bacon bits.
Update: Having tried this in grilled cheese (with bacon of course), I have to say the extra sharp is too strong for grilled cheese alone. It needs bacon or a burger to stand up to it. I remain, however, suitably impressed with its melting properties. I added it to a microwave bacon cheeseburger because they always skimp on the cheese, and it was just as gooey as I wanted it to be. The texture of the cheese slices is also just like what you get with American slices: shiny and smooth, not hard and dry like the cheese was when it started life as a brick. So the technique is sound, but next time I’m definitely using less cheese (and proportionally less sodium citrate), and upping the liquid ratio slightly. The apple flavor is present but it’s very subtle, and I wouldn’t mind it being a little less subtle with the cheese part being a little more so.