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Sometimes when making a very simple cheese sauce (butter, flour, milk, cheese [cheddar, usually]), the final sauce has a sort of gritty or slightly pebbly texture (rather than smooth) - it seems like maybe the cheese hasn't totally melted, even if I continue to heat the sauce.

Why does this happen? How can I avoid it?

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Can you give more information on the method you are using to create the sauce. There are a few different methods and each would have different problems. –  Ian Turner Aug 3 '10 at 8:48
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Definitely: melt butter, add flour and cook (stirring), add milk slowly, allowing sauce to thicken and stirring to prevent lumps, heat to below boiling, add cheese and allow to melt, add seasoning. –  SarahVV Aug 3 '10 at 14:03

9 Answers 9

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Could be an unfinished roux (the butter, flour mixture). But most likely it's because the cheese was heated too quickly or too much, causing the protein to clump up.

Suggestions:

  • Melt with less heat
  • Use a double boiler (to reduce hot spots within the pan)
  • Toss the shredded cheddar with cornstarch first (starch helps reduce clumping)
  • Add cheese in smaller batches (easier to maintain correct heat level and stir cheese in)
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I've put chopped cheese into boiling white sauce before and never had the cheese split on me. Has this actually happened to anyone because it seems a little odd unless the type of cheese has a large influence. –  Ian Turner Aug 3 '10 at 11:27

I have two suspicions: One, you're undercooking your roux, the flour and butter mixture, and not fully incorporating the flour. Two, you're adding too much cheese too quickly and it isn't melting smoothly. Solutions: cook the roux until light golden brown, finely grate the cheese and add it slowly, stirring constantly.

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In my experience it's because of:

  • too much heat
  • too much acidity (for example from a shot of lemon juice)

Too much heat causes the protein in the cheese to clump. You can use a mixer to dissolve the clumps (mix at the highest speed).

Too much acidity also does the same. The more sour a sauce gets the faster it clumps when heating. Lemon juice gives a nice flavour but it's finnicky. When the sauce clumps you can save it somewhat using a mixer.

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Lemon juice was indeed my culprit. I ended up adding it after the dish was plated with sauce. –  Tim Post Jul 26 '11 at 8:48

I can think of a few reasons why you may be getting this grittiness. I use the following method when making cheese sauce, and it tends to turn out very smooth.

  1. Melt (hard) butter in pan at a low temperature.
  2. Add the appropriate amount of flour. (Better too little than too much, as adding more later should not hurt.)
  3. Whisk the butter-flour mixture quickly to create the roux, still at low temperature. (10 - 20 seconds)
  4. Add the milk and whisk quickly, mixing in the roux. Turn the heat up immediately and continue whisking.
  5. When the sauce is sufficiently thick, reduce the heat and add in the grated cheese. Stir until smooth again.
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This the method I use, though I usually cook the roux a little longer than that. It's weird, sometimes the sauce comes out great, sometimes the texture is totally off. –  SarahVV Aug 3 '10 at 14:06
    
Yeah, it's quite odd. Do you have the heat up very high when adding the milk to the roux? I just find a lot of whisking tends to help the smoothness enormously. –  Noldorin Aug 3 '10 at 15:01
    
Not too high, more like medium heat. –  SarahVV Aug 4 '10 at 1:04

Good cheddar has little chunks of calcium lactate on/in it - could it be that?

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I'm just using plain ol' cheddar, sadly, so probably not. –  SarahVV Aug 3 '10 at 14:04
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When you're in the UK go to a Tesco supermarket, and ask for Collier's Welsh Cheddar - it's amazing and it has the little chunks on it which definitely adds something! Or go to a good British cheesemongers as there is a good choice of artisan cheddar. –  Rich Aug 8 '10 at 10:35

I have found that adding gradually adding flour to the butter using a sifter reduces the likelihood of a gritty texture.

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Three other possibilities are:

  1. If you used pre-shredded cheddar it's sometimes dusted with an anti-caking agent which can make things tricky.
  2. Your cheddar is a reduced fat cheese which doesn't have enough fat content.
  3. The flour you are using for your roux shouldn't be a whole wheat/whole grain. You can cook that down and it still won't be as smooth or finely integrated as using an all-purpose flour.

Hope this helps.

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I've run into this problem the first few times I made macaroni and cheese from scratch. Things that I've learned are:

  1. don't use low fat milk -- the higher the fat content the smoother your cheese will melt/incorporate.

  2. once the base is made (the flour, butter, milk "sauce" -- bechamel?) take the pot OFF the heat.The more your heat your cheese sauce, the more it will get gritty.

  3. if possible, mix with a good melting cheese -- to make my cheddar sauce, I use 1 part moteray jack (which has no taste (IMHO) but is a really good melting cheese) to 1 part sharp or extra sharp cheddar cheese.

Hope that helps.

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At Modernist Cuisine, they wrote:

Cheese is an emulsion of dairy fat and water, but that emulsion tends to break down when it gets hot. The starch particles and milk proteins in béchamel act as emulsifiers, but they aren’t very good at their job and result in poor flavor release. ... ... Sodium phosphate keeps the water and fat droplets mixed when the cheese is melted. We use sodium citrate, which has the same effect and is easier to find. The resulting texture is as smooth as melted American cheese, but as complex and intense in flavor as any of your favorite cheeses.

and watch this video.

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While this link may answer the question, it is better to include the essential parts of the answer here and provide the link for reference. Link-only answers can become invalid if the linked page changes. –  SAJ14SAJ Jul 31 '13 at 0:18

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