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mac and cheese came out grainy. why?

I followed the recipe, cooking the butter and flour to make a roux, then added the milk and shredded extra sharp cheddar, then the macaroni. It came out grainy as if the cheese didn't blend correctly, and it didn't have much flavor. What did I do wrong? Too high heat? Not enough butter or flour in the roux? Please help me make a creamy mac and cheese next time.

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  1. I always add the cheese after I've taken the roux off the heat. Maybe the cheese separated.

    I use the mac and cheese recipe from Joy of Cooking and it always works well for me - very rich and creamy. http://www.simonsays.com/content/book...

    1 Reply
    1. re: SarahEats

      Agree totally about the recipe for Mac and Cheese in JOC. The instructions for the Bechamel and cheese are very clear. If the cheese doesn't have a lot of flavor, a little dry mustard can give it some bite. Use a vibrant cheddar type cheese for best results.

      Even though you were dissatisfied with your results, I imagine those for whom you cooked it ate with appreciation. Go ahead and try again. I like the advice about adding the cheese off heat, but if you aren't cooking your sauce on high heat, you shouldn't have trouble with the cheese, I think.

    2. Grainy cheese means the heat was too high. Do it like Sarah says and blend the cheese in off the heat.

      1. I agree w/ the posts above. As for flavor, a good amount of S&P is all you really need as long as the cheese is decent enough quality. Mustard powder and cayenne pepper (or Tabasco) make for good enhancements though.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Carb Lover

          a pinch pf fresh nutmeg is great too...

        2. Too high of heat - yes...

          A little smoked paparika is tastey in stovetop mac and cheese. Also, needs salt. I use white pepper so the kids can't tell I added pepper - they have an aversion to black specs in their mac and cheese.

          1. One way to kick up the flavor is to use crutons insteead of breadcrumbs for the crust. Also , the Gourmet cookbook has you add butter and cheese to the breadcrumbs!
            You can play around with types of cheese as well...I like a little blue.

            1. I would agree with the above posts about the heat. Also, I don't know what quality cheese you bought but many supermarket or generic brands have a higher water content than you would find in a quality cheese this can produce some very odd results when melted.

              1. It curdled.

                Curdling can be avoided a few ways, only one of which involves heat.

                1. Use 'fresh,' somewhat recently purchased, unopened cheddar. Opened cheddar that's been in your fridge for months on end has a tendency to dry out/be harder to melt/have a greater propensity for curdling.

                2. Use whole milk. Fat is a stabilizer. Skim milk/1%/2% produces sauces that are more likely to curdle. If you want to hedge your bets even further, add some cream. 2 T. cream for every C. of milk is about as much cream as you want to use. Milkfat has a tendency to mask flavor. Too much cream and you'll start impairing the cheesy taste.

                3. Use very low heat to melt the cheese. Grate the cheese to facilitate melting and make sure your sauce never comes close to a boil. Remove the simmering bechamel from the heat and let sit briefly before adding the cheese.

                4. Simmer your bechamel for at least 7 minutes before adding the cheese and whisk vigorously. This helps the starch granules swell/break down, and, in turn, do a better job of stabilizing.

                5. Add a slice or two of a good brand of American cheese. I use Kraft deli deluxe. American cheese contains ingredients that facilitate better melting/stability. American cheese is so stable that, as far as I know, it can't be curdled.

                Roux should always be equal parts butter and flour. Bechamel is traditionally

                2 T. flour
                2 T. butter
                1 C. milk

                but since cheese provides a good deal of thickening, a thinner bechamel is required.

                1 T. flour
                1 T. butter
                1 C. milk

                works well for me.

                2 Replies
                1. re: scott123

                  I agree with those proportions for the cheese sauce - I used to think thicker was always better, and it just didn't mingle adequately with the macaroni. Now I err on the thin side, and let the extra cooking of the mac help to thicken the dish.

                  I do cook the bechamel until it's boiling around the periphery, and over fairly high heat as well, and then take it off the heat and let it rest for a couple of beats while I pick up the waxed paper with the pile of shredded cheese on it and dump it all in. The cheese cools the sauce down a bit, too. Then I use an old three-tined cooking fork to stir cheese and sauce together.

                  I must say have absolutely no problem with using 2% milk, plain sharp cheddar cheese that's been in the fridge for a month, non-hydrogenated canola margarine instead of butter. And I do advise blending a heaping teaspoon of dry mustard into the flour, and a dash of cayenne as well, when you're making the bechamel.

                  1. re: scott123

                    and dont use very sharp cheddar since it will not melt evenly, use a milder one

                  2. I have found that adding the cheese a little at a time is a key. Keep stirring so it becomes blended into your sauce. And along the lines of Scott's suggestion, some processed cheese (Velveeta is my secret weapon) provides texture and stability that's tough to beat.

                    1. I caught a few minutes of Alton Brown's Good Eats the other night. He talked about three categories of cheese; hard rind, medium soft rind, and finally the spreadable type. One of them is typically grainy. Could your cheese be of the grainy variety?

                      1. I, too, had abit of grainyness after making Canteen's famous M&C recipe. The second time around, I amended a few things (based on this discussion) and the result was much better:

                        1) Scalded the milk - the first time I added the milk cold to the roux.
                        2) Added a few slices of white american - based on this discussion, I added this cheese with the cheddar, asiago, and parmagianno the dish requires.
                        3) Added cheese slowly, off the heat - once the bechamel thickened, I took it off the heat and added the cheese slowly. I also think I took more time to make sure the cheese sauce was smoother before adding back to the pasta.

                        These three things helped reduce/eliminate the graininess I first experienced, while not changing any of the initial ingredients (besides adding the American cheese).

                        9 Replies
                        1. re: Rocknrope

                          "1) Scalded the milk - the first time I added the milk cold to the roux."

                          The general rule of thumb for working with roux is hot roux, cold milk or cold roux, hot milk. When you add hot milk to hot roux, the starches gelatinize almost instantly and clump like crazy. With enough whisking and simmering you can usually break up most of the lumps, but it's a pain in the butt. It's a lot easier to use cold milk. Some people heat the milk beforehand- that's fine, but you want to make sure you're well below the boiling point. Warm but not hot is okay.

                          "once the bechamel thickened, I took it off the heat and added the cheese slowly."

                          A good bechamel should always simmer a bit. When the sauce has just thickened, the flour granules have gelatinized/swollen, but they haven't been broken down much and are a bit grainy/cerealy tasting. Simmering causes further swelling/disintegration/thickening and helps to improve the texture of the sauce. How long should you simmer bechamel? Well, there's not a lot of agreement on that. I've talken to chefs that swear by a 30 minute simmer. The longer you can simmer flour based sauces, the better, but... milk based sauces tend to brown/get a cooked milk taste. My recommendation is 5-10 minutes.

                          I'm glad, though, that you were able to improve upon your recipe. The next time give these tweaks a shot and I think you'll see even further improvement.

                          1. re: scott123

                            Scott, you seem knowledgeable in this area. Can you explain why my nice, smooth, delicious cheese sauce becomes separated, oily, and unappetizing in the oven? (mixed with pasta, of course...) Is the heat too high, or is my recipe flawed? or both?? Thanks for any advice!

                            1. re: rcsimm

                              Rcsimm, I have thought long and hard about baked mac & cheese. Unless you're talking very low heat or very high heat for a short amount of time, baked cheese sauces boil. Cheese sauces aren't meant to be boiled. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me why baked mac & cheese (M&C) is so popular. Here are my top two theories.

                              1. Curdled cheese sauce may not be that offensive to some people.
                              2. The bulk of the people making baked M&C are using less aged, less expensive and far more stable cheeses like American, Velveeta and nonsharp cheddar.

                              Unrinsed cooked macaroni contains a considerable amount of starchy residue, which, when the sauce is mixed with it, helps to stabilize baked M&C (like the flour in the roux), but... generally speaking, a baked mac & cheese requires a lot more stabilizing ingredients than a non baked version.

                              Cheese sauce science is extremely complex. I can't say I understand it fully, but there are quite a few aspects that I'm sure of.

                              Stabilizing ingredients/processes

                              Starch - flour, corn starch, starch released from pasta
                              Fat - milkfat and, to a lesser extent, butter
                              Milk proteins
                              Fresher milk
                              Younger, less aged cheeses
                              Fresh unopened cheese
                              Chemically enhanced cheese products - American, Velveeta, etc.
                              Hydrocolloid gums - xanthan, guar (these are especially useful for providing stability but not masking flavor like starch does)
                              Mustard - mustard contains emulsifiers which help stabilize sauce, but... I don't think it brings that much stabilization to the table nor is the taste favored by everyone. I'm not a big fan.

                              Destabilizing ingredients/processes

                              High heat
                              Older milk
                              Acids - acids from extra sharp cheddars and acidic cheeses like cottage cheese
                              Possibly salt - salt has anti-emulsification abilities. It's very possible that it has de-stabilizing properties as well.
                              Possibly agitation - heavy whisking may adversely affect a cheese sauce, I'm not sure.

                              All of the stabilizing ingredients have limitations. Some flour is good, but too much flour and the sauce starts tasting bready rather than cheesy. The proteins in milk are excellent stabilizers. These proteins could be augmented by adding milk powder, but... that could run into taste issues. The fat in whole milk is a critical player, but adding too much fat (in the form of cream) has a tendency, like too much starch, to mask the flavor of the cheese. Gums, if used to excess, can impart a slimy texture. American cheese, if used to excess, can impart a gluey consistency.

                              If I had my heart set on a viable baked M&C, I would probably take a two pronged attack by making an extremely stable sauce and by attempting to bake it in such a way that the cheese sauce doesn't boil. If it worked, I'd decrease the stabilizing ingredients in ensuing attempts. Here's a rough sketch:

                              1 T. flour
                              2 T. unsalted butter
                              1/32 t. xanthan gum
                              2/3 C. fresh milk
                              1/3 C. heavy cream

                              2 slices Kraft Deli Deluxe
                              3 oz. freshly opened less aged cheddar, grated

                              Sprinkle the xanthan into the milk/cream with one hand while vigorously whisking with the other. Make a blond roux with the flour/butter (bubble gently for about 1 minute). Add milk/cream to roux and whisk until mixed thoroughly. Heat on medium high, stirring constantly until sauce is thickened. Reduce heat, and simmer, stirring/whisking occasionally for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, add American cheese and stir until melted. Add cheddar, let sit until melted, gently stirring occasionally. Once cheddar is incorporated, let the sauce cool.

                              Cook macaroni according to the directions on the box (use the smaller cooking time of the two listed). Drain without rinsing. Let cool.

                              Combine room temp sauce with room temp macaroni, mix and transfer to baking pan. Refrigerate until well chilled.

                              Pre-heat oven to 400. Bake until exterior is well colored.

                              This recipe definitely represents stabilization overkill. The sauce could probably be brought to a boil without adverse effect. If you end up with a creamy baked end product, I'd try backing off the stabilizing elements in ensuing attempts. Try one batch with a more traditional baking temp/time and without pre-refrigeration. Try another with an aged cheddar. Try increasing the milk/baking off on the cream. Whatever compromise you reach, I generally recommend erring on the side of caution due to the fluctuations in cheese chemistry from batch to batch, season to season.

                              I know that xanthan gum is both expensive and hard to find (Whole Foods carries it), but it's an invaluable player in the battle for uncurdled baked mac & cheese. I highly recommend obtaining it. If you're dead set against it, you probably could go heavier with the other ingredients, but the end result won't be as good. As I mentioned earlier, xanthan is one of the few products that adds stabilization without masking flavor.

                              1. re: scott123

                                wow! now that's detail! thank you so much for your response--I'm sure it will help me turn out a better baked mac & cheese. (are you a chef, or just an obsessed amateur?)

                                1. re: rcsimm

                                  You're welcome. I'm glad that you weren't overwhelmed by it. I took another look at it today and said to myself "WOW, that's just too much information!" :) Cheese sauce chemistry is just SO complicated. McGee goes into dairy science a little, but it only scratches the surface.

                                  "are you a chef, or just an obsessed amateur?"

                                  I'm both! :) I'm chef and I'm an obsessed amateur food scientist/molecular gastronomer.

                                  1. re: scott123

                                    I know it's been a couple years, but did you ever try any of this stuff? How did it work out?

                                    1. re: ratbuddy

                                      All you need for a smooth cheese sauce is evaporated milk and some processed cheese product like Velveeta as a small part of the cheese component. No flour or roux necessary if you use evaporated milk instead of other milk or cream.

                                      1. re: greygarious

                                        I've made a really excellent cheese sauce merely by melting roughly equal quantities of cheese and evaporated milk together. Just used a supermarket cheese, so this may have already contained stabilisers. Regardless, it's a remarkably good quick fix.

                            2. re: scott123

                              Thanks for the notes Scott! Yes, the milk was heated, but well below boiling, just not stone cold right out of the fridge as I had it last time. Not sure if that was key to the improvement, but it was a simple tweak.

                          2. As for the flavor profile, I would suggest some additions. More than one kind of cheese, dark beer or chicken stock, onions and garlic (soften, then make the roux right on top of them), sweet paprika, dried mustard (must also be added to the roux, not the bechamel, IMO), and to top it off, panko toasted in butter.

                            If you wouldn't like the extra sharp cheddar alone as a dinner dish (was it Cracker Barrel? That stuff separates if you look at it wrong) then don't use it for your mac.

                            Just my two cents, but I like to cook my roux as much as possible- can't stand even the slightest hint of flour taste when it hasn't cooked long enough.

                            1. Lidia Bastianich used a method on her PBS show today that I have not heard of before. She grated a variety of cheeses, then poured milk over them and said to let the bowl sit on the counter

                              for 30 minutes before heating the sauce. (I see no reason not to save on clean-up by doing this in the saucepan rather than a mixing bowl). She explained that the milk starts to dissolve the cheese. She did not use a roux or any starch in the sauce - just heated the cheese and milk gently until melted and blended. It was a pretty wet mixture that she added cooked pasta to before putting it in a baking dish. It looked moist but not runny when served. I am assuming that something about the soaking of the cheese stopped it from becoming grainy. I will try this, although it will annoy me no end if it works, since I dislike the Bastianich clan.( I only watched today because I was otherwise occupied and the remote's batteries conked out.)

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: greygarious

                                I heat heavy cream in a gratin dish, slowly add grated cheeses--Parmigiano, Cheddar. Gruyere and a bit of Roquefort--until it looks right, add s&p and the slightly undercooked penne. Stir for a minute and then bake at 500 for 10 minutes. Never separates, always wonderful. (If you want an out of this world baked pasta, consider this recipe from Al Forno in Providence:
                                They mix all the wet ingredients together cold, add half cooked pasta and then bake at 500. Rich beyond belief but absolutely amazing.