There’s nothing more comforting than making your own velvety cheese sauce for mac and cheese or another dish. But what if the texture gets grainy or gritty? I have dealt with this dozens of times in my over 50 years of cooking experience. It’s actually easier to fix than you think. You can solve this problem if you have some lemon juice or cream.
To fix grainy or gritty cheese sauce:
- Remove the cheese sauce from the heat and let it cool for two minutes.
- Add either a spoonful of lemon juice or cream.
- Vigorously whisk to bring the sauce back together.
Warning: Don’t add both lemon juice and cream, as this can make the problem worse.
Of course, the best way to deal with this is to not let it happen in the first place by following a few best practices, you can make this “grittiness” highly unlikely. In this article, I will go into more detail on fixing grainy cheese sauce, cover the reasons why it might be happening, and then share my secrets on keeping the sauce creamy for more than just one day.
Cheese Sauce Rescue 101
If, despite your best efforts, your cheese sauce does end up with a grainy consistency due to curdling, don’t fret — you still may be able to save it!
Below are three emergency steps you can try out before throwing in the towel.
1. Remove the Cheese Sauce From the Heat
If you notice curdling, immediately remove the cheese sauce from the hot burner.
You want to stop the cooking as fast as possible, so pouring the sauce into another pan and then resting the bottom of that pan in a cold bath of ice will help diminish that residual heat.
2. Add Lemon Juice
Next, whisk a spoonful or two of lemon juice into the cheese sauce.
The acid in the lemon juice interferes with the protein separation and can detangle the molecules. You will hardly taste much lemon in the sauce, if at all, but nevertheless, try and only put the amount needed to save your sauce and no more.
Alternative to Lemon Juice: Add Cream
If you don’t have lemon juice on hand, you can substitute a few spoonfuls of cream to get the job done.
The fat in the cream will stabilize the sauce, and the lower temperature of the refrigerated cream will also help bring the sauce’s temperature down. You’ll want to make sure not to add too much cream as it can affect the flavor of the cheese sauce.
Reminder: Do not add both lemon juice and cream to the sauce; the problem is likely to worsen due to the acid in the juice reacting with the cream.
Pro tip: White wine can be used instead of lemon juice or cream to help the curdling stop. Plus, it might liven up your sauce by giving it a fun twist.
3. Stir Vigorously
Have a good whisk?
Once you have added the small amount of lemon juice or cream, you need to whisk it as vigorously as you can. Please don’t do it so much that it sloshes out of the pan, though!
One of my guilty secrets is that my favorite kitchen utensil is my whisk. I think I use it more than spoons! Make sure you get a good one. It’ll make fixing grainy cheese sauce much easier. This is the one I use; you can pick it up on Amazon.
Why Is My Cheese Sauce Gritty?
Curdling is the main reason your cheese sauce will have a grittier texture. To understand how to make the perfect sauce, it’s useful to identify why this can happen.
Cheese contains proteins, water, and fat from milk. If the proteins in the cheese bind together and separate from the water, they will seize up and form curds. Although cheese curds can be an irresistible treat on their own, you don’t want those grainy clumps in your warm bowl of mac and cheese.
Luckily, there are a few tricks you can apply while you’re cooking, so you can prevent curdling from occurring in your cheese sauce.
Tip #1: Keep the Heat Low
When it comes to cheese, slow and steady is the way to go. High temperatures can often cause curdling, so it’s best to opt for lower heat. You want to avoid boiling cheese sauces at all costs. For this reason, the cheese should go in last, after the base of the sauce has been removed from the heat.
When you do add the grated cheese, add it in slowly — one handful at a time — and fold into the sauce until each handful is fully incorporated before adding the next.
Tip #2: Add the Eggs Last
If your cheese sauce recipe calls for eggs, it’s best to add these last, as they can quickly turn the sauce watery or grainy.
You can whisk the egg mixture in another bowl before pouring it into the cheese sauce, but make sure that you gradually add them.
Pro tip: Additional acids, such as other dairy items, as well as salts, can make cheese sauces curdle. Moreover, acids can turn any creamy sauce sour or watery. For this reason, it is better to avoid it.
Tip #3: Make a Solid Roux
If your cheese sauce is built on a strong foundation, there’s a good chance it’ll remain creamy and smooth until the very end.
Adding a starchy, thickening agent to a cheese sauce can help retain its quality. And that’s where a roux comes in. A roux can be made in many different ways, but it usually begins by cooking equal parts melted butter and flour into a smooth paste.
This quick and easy how-to video is a lifesaver if you’re new to making a roux or if you don’t feel super confident with it yet. This is definitely a great resource to have bookmarked for future reference.
Pro tip: It’s better not to use any types of oil or cornstarch during the roux-making process, as it can cause lumps and clumps.
Tip #4: Try Grating Your Own Cheese
Sometimes extra preservatives are added to pre-grated cheeses. These powders can throw the balance off and cause the sauce to curdle more easily.
The solution is to buy blocks of cheese and just add in one extra step. Grate the cheese yourself and you’ll never have to worry about this issue.
Pro Tip: Get your cheese out of the fridge an hour ahead of making your cheese sauce. Ultra-cold cheese being added to a piping hot saucepan will increase the likelihood that curdling will occur.
How to Keep Cheese Sauce Creamy
Once you’ve mastered the art of delectable and velvety cheese sauces, you might want to enjoy your creation for the next few days. But will that smoothness last?
Absolutely! And here’s how you can keep that creaminess intact on day 2:
1. Add Milk or Cream
To a pan, add some milk or cream and begin warming it up. Once it’s heated a bit but not quite simmering, gradually whisk in your cheese sauce.
Again, low and slow is the key to that perfect and even consistency. When reheating a cheese sauce, always remember it’s better to start with a warm milk or cream base. You don’t want to shock it back to life.
3. Add Extra Cheese
This is a bit of a no-brainer, but adding a bit more cheese couldn’t hurt if you want to fluff up the sauce on the second day. Just make sure to integrate it slowly while mixing over low heat.
More Tips for Creamy Second Day Mac and Cheese
To keep mac and cheese-free of grittiness on the second day, there are slight variances to the method we shared above.
- First, it can be helpful to let the mac and cheese come to room temperature on the kitchen counter before beginning the reheating process.
- Warming a small amount of whole milk in a saucepan and then pouring it over the leftover mac and cheese reactivates the cheese and loosens the pasta.
- Finally, be sure to place the mixture into an oven-proof dish (you can top with breadcrumbs) and heat until the creaminess and gooeyness have made their comeback. I highly recommend getting these oven-safe bowls found on Amazon. These are the best things ever for heating food in the oven.
Why Is My Cheese Sauce Grainy?
Dairy sauces are prone to becoming grainy or gritty, and it’s due to curdling. Dairy products like cheese sauce are made from fat and milk. The proteins contained in the mixture have a tendency to try to separate. Too much heat, not enough fat, or too much acid are usually the main reasons graininess occurs.
You have to find that perfect balance of composition and heat to get that perfectly smooth texture. It’s just as much of an art as it is science.
1. Too Much Heat
We’ve already discussed this extensively, so I won’t rehash it too much. But, in general, excessive heat and any dairy product do not go well together. Think about what happens to eggs when you cook them too long over too much heat. It becomes rubbery and tough. When you heat cheese sauce, protein molecules want to firm up as well, and this is what curdling is.
2. Not Enough Fat
Fat is what causes the creaminess in dairy sauces. If you try to use something like skim or low-fat cheese or milk to create a cheese sauce, there often won’t be enough fat to create the creamy texture we all love.
3. Too Much Acid
While citric acid can be used to rescue, too much of it can also ruin the sauce. You have the find that perfect balance to almost shock the molecules back into place. But if the sauce is already creamy, it’s usually not worth the risk of adding lemon juice into the mix. The exception might be in making hollandaise sauce.
Of course, if you do add citrus, make sure you do it last after the heat has come down a bit. Otherwise, you will have a big nasty curdled mess. I speak from experience, and it’s not a pretty sight.
And that’s all folks — simple, right? We hope you found some of my explanations, tips, and tricks helpful. Though it can be a struggle to fix a grainy cheese sauce or a gritty mac and cheese dish, it is definitely doable with a bit of technical know-how and fast-acting hands.
Remember to do all you can beforehand to ensure curdling does not occur, but if it does, act quickly to remove it from the heat. Cool it down. Then whisk in either a small amount of lemon juice or cream. Hopefully, that will be enough to save your sauce!
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For more, don’t miss 15 Best Substitutes for Milk in Mac and Cheese.
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