How to Make Cheese Sauce, Step by Step
Classic cheese sauce begins with béchamel — a simple white sauce made of butter, flour, milk, and a few seasonings. Cheese is then added to the white sauce to create cheese sauce (called a Mornay sauce in French cuisine). Here are the three basic steps to make cheese sauce:
- Butter and flour are cooked together to make a paste called a roux.
- Milk and seasonings are added to the roux to make a white sauce.
- Cheese is added to the white sauce to make cheese sauce.
It’s that simple, but the trick is knowing how to make the roux, how to add the milk without creating lumps, and how to add the cheese so the sauce turns out smooth and not grainy.
1. Make the Roux
- Measure out equal amounts of butter and flour. As a general rule, you’ll use 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour for every 1 cup of milk.
- Dice the butter into small cubes and melt it in a saucepan over low heat. Once the butter is melted, begin whisking in the flour.
- When all the flour is incorporated, continue stirring and cooking for a few minutes to activate the starch granules. This is what will thicken the sauce. If you’re making a white or light-colored cheese sauce, cook the roux for about 3 to 5 minutes over low heat so the mixture stays light in color and doesn’t brown. The roux is ready when it smells slightly nutty and loses any raw flour taste.
2. Add Milk and Seasonings
- Next comes the milk. If the roux is hot, the milk should be cool, but if the roux is cool, the milk should be hot. When you combine the ingredients at different temperatures, they heat up at a moderate rate — not too fast, and not too slow — creating a velvety-smooth sauce.
- Pour in the milk gradually while whisking the roux until the mixture is smooth, then add seasonings if you wish. Traditional seasonings for béchamel are diced or grated onion, a bay leaf, a couple cloves, and a pinch of nutmeg.
- Simmer the sauce until it gets to the consistency you want, then strain out any seasonings. If you’re in a hurry, you can simmer the sauce over high heat, but you’ll want to keep whisking to prevent it from burning.
3. Add Cheese
- Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the grated cheese a handful at a time. If the cheese doesn’t seem to be melting, return the pan to very low heat, but do not let it come to a boil or your sauce will be grainy.
- A note about cheese: Pre-shredded cheese is coated to prevent the shreds from sticking together in the package and can cause your cheese sauce to be grainy instead of smooth. It’s best to grate your own cheese to make cheese sauce.
You can create an endless variety of cheese sauces by varying the kind of cheese you use, mixing in different herbs, spices, and vegetables, and using milk, half and half, or heavy cream to alter the level of richness in the sauce.
Tips for Making Cheese Sauce:
- Shred, crumble, or finely dice the cheese before heating to ensure quick, smooth melting. The colder the cheese is, the easier it will be to cut.
- The less you heat cheese, the better. When making soup, sauce, or fondue, add the cheese last; then heat it only as long as it takes to melt. If it gets too hot it will get tough. Often, you can remove the pan from the burner; the residual heat will melt the cheese.
- Allow the shredded cheese to come to room temperature before adding it to a hot mixture.
- Starch (such as all-purpose flour, cornstarch, or potato flour) will keep the cheese from curdling. If using all-purpose flour, add it to the mixture before the cheese; it needs to be cooked for a few minutes to remove the starchy taste.
- Adding an acidic ingredient such as wine or lemon juice will help prevent the cheese from becoming stringy. This is why most cheese fondue recipes have a base of white wine. Simply sprinkle some lemon juice over the shredded cheese before heating it.
- Reduced-fat cheeses melt differently than regular full-fat cheeses. Reduced fat cheese will take longer to melt and will not have the same velvety consistency in the sauce. Be sure to shred reduced-fat cheese very finely, and allow it to melt over very low heat while stirring constantly.
How to Make Cheese Sauce for Vegetables
See how to make this simple, creamy Cheese Sauce for Broccoli and Cauliflower. You’ll start with a quick roux, then whisk in milk and sharp or white Cheddar cheese.
Top-Rated Cheese Sauce Recipes to Try
Try this recipe: Real Nacho Cheese Sauce
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