There will be a nacho cheese fountain at my wedding reception someday. (If a wedding never happens, this is a formal request that there at least be one at my funeral.) Knowing this, you should now understand that the importance of nacho cheese in my life is paramount. So heed my advice: Sodium citrate is a magical tool of scientific wizardry that will forever change your nacho game.
There are all tastes in nacho cheese -- some people enjoy it sprinkled atop tortilla chips and baked, meaning those people enjoy miniature cement blocks of cold, hardened cheese. Those people are not me. Lovers of creamy nacho cheese sauce (that's me) must either make it at home with any combination of bechamels, creams and butters to coax it into a sauce-like consistency, or they can buy it pre-made. But if you look at the ingredients on a can of store-bought nacho cheese sauce (yes, it comes in a can, how terrifying), it'll look a little something like this:
Cheese Whey, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Modified Food Starch, Cheddar Cheese (Cultured Milk, Salt, Enzymes), Jalapeno Puree, Sodium Phosphate, Salt, Natural Flavors, Monosodium Glutamate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Vinegar, Color Added (Including Caramel Color, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6), Oleoresin Paprika.
To me, that's moderately gross. So I have some great news for you: You can make nacho cheese with nothing but real cheese, a tiny bit of water, and a little something called sodium citrate.
Sodium citrate may sound unfamiliar and possibly suspect, but it's basically just a form of salt that works as an emulsifier. More plainly stated, it's an agent that reduces the cheese's acidity, makes the proteins in the cheese more soluble, and prevents it from separating into a greasy mess; instead creating a smooth, creamy texture that will never "break." You probably won't find it at a normal grocery store, but it's available in specialty food stores and online. It looks like salt and tastes slightly sour (and of course salty), and you've probably tasted it before in club soda. Just the tiniest sprinkle of it will transform an entire block of cheese into a submissive puddle of its former self, so there's little need to be concerned that it'll increase the sodium level of your cheese sauce. (And if you're that concerned about your sodium intake, you're unlikely to eat a heaping plate full of delicious nachos anyway.)
Here's the other great thing about this cheese sauce: You can make it with whatever type of cheese your heart desires. Imagine blues, bries, fetas, Swisses ... and then imagine the topping options. You'll clearly be stretching the limits of Tex-Mex, but go ahead and give your brain a little stretch. It's good for you. And for nachos.
To making a serving of cheese sauce for four people, it's as simple as this:
8 oz. of your favorite cheese, grated (anything from Cheddar to Roquefort, goat to Gruyere)
1/2 tsp sodium citrate
Enough water (or beer or wine, if you'd like a little more flavor) to cover the bottom of a small saucepan (approximately 1/2 cup)
Tortilla chips, for serving
1. Add 1/2 tsp sodium citrate to bottom of a saucepan. Pour in just enough cooking liquid (i.e. water, beer, etc) to just cover the bottom of the saucepan.
2. Turn on the heat and bring to a simmer.
3. Add grated cheese. Stir until melted.
4. Voila! You're done. Pour over tortilla chips and enjoy. (Or pour into a big bowl and dip away.)
In the video above, we used:
1. Extra sharp New York State Cheddar and beer
2. Mozzarella and Parmesan
3. Goat cheese
Speaking of which, go watch the video above, and then add some delicious homemade nachos to your life.
Order your own sodium citrate at Modernist Pantry.
Video produced by Eva Hill
Story written by Kristen Aiken