A few months ago one of my favorite food bloggers, PJ Hammel of the King Arthur test kitchen’s blog “Flourish“, posted a recipe for homemade “Velveeta”. I will admit a deep love of grilled cheese sandwiches and nacho cheese dip made with Velveeta. I will also emphatically state that I choose not to eat Velveeta because of all the faux-food ingredients. I’m no food saint, but I do try to keep the Frankenfood out of my diet. A recipe for homemade “Velveeta” (which turns out to be a popular recipe on “the internets” but was news to me!) sounded great. Commenters raved that it was “JUST LIKE the real deal”. Um, nope. It was close tho, in the same way fat-free, sugar-free ice cream is “close” to Ben and Jerry’s.
PJ didn’t satiate my desire for Velveeta, but she did spark a dream in my heart to figure out how to make creamy, silky, melty homemade “Velveeta”. The recipes I found online and tried all had two fatal flaws – they didn’t perfectly melt like Velveeta and they all had that wee bit of grittiness that you always get when you melt cheese (think the texture of homemade mac and cheese sauce).
My “research” led me to discover a cooking ingredient called sodium citrate. It is a naturally occurring salt found in citrus foods – as in a natural product that is safe to eat. It is also a miracle-working emulsifier. A small amount added to melted cheese buffers the proteins in the cheese and prevents them from banding together in clumps (that grittiness you feel on your tongue in a homemade cheese sauce is milk proteins hanging on to each other for dear life). I saw a recipe on a food science/gastronomy site for a cheese dip that contained a bit of sodium citrate which was supposed to create a completely silky-smooth melty texture. Huh. Why couldn’t I add that to my favorite “Velveeta” recipe? Maybe that would solve those soul crushing texture problems.
I ordered the smallest packet I could find and hoped for the best. Oh yeah. Success!!! My Velveeta set up perfectly, melted perfectly and made the silkiest, smoothest, yummiest nacho cheese dip EVAH! One unfortunate side effect is that my husband has converted from a nacho cheese loather to someone who gives me stiff competition whenever I whip up a bowl.
Sodium citrate can be used for other things, most of which are well beyond your average home cook (food spherules anyone?). But, you can add a bit to any cheese sauce recipe (like this one for my Italian Mac and Cheese) to give your sauces the most amazingly smooth texture. I’ve even used it to create a low fat Fettuccini Alfredo. Normally all that butter is what keeps the cheese proteins from clumping – the sodium citrate does the work of many Tbsp. of fat, and bonus: leftovers can be reheated without the sauce breaking into clumps of cheese and pools of grease! Currently you can get a 2 oz packet of sodium citrate on Amazon for $7. Wherever you get yours, make certain you are buying food-grade sodium citrate that is intended for cooking. And I know this is obvious, but this is a very different product from citric acid – they are not interchangeable.
Let’s make some Homemade “Velveeta”!
- 1 ½ tsp. powdered gelatin (such as Knox)
- 1 Tbsp water
- ½ cup plus 2 Tbsp. milk (I use whole)
- 1 Tbsp. dry milk powder
- ¾ tsp. kosher salt
- ¾ tsp. sodium citrate
- 12 oz freshly grated (NOT pre shredded) sharp white cheddar (you can use yellow, but go for sharp as it gives the best flavor)
Line a small loaf pan or small baking dish with cling wrap, making sure plastic extends over each side by several inches. Combine gelatin powder and water in small bowl and set aside for a few minutes to allow gelatin to soften. In a 1 cup glass measuring cup combine milk, milk powder, salt and sodium citrate. Microwave on high for about a minute – you want the milk just below the boiling point. Add softened gelatin to milk mixture and stir till everything is dissolved. Place shredded cheese in a blender, pour hot milk mixture over cheese and process, stopping to scrape down sides if necessary, until you have a totally smooth sauce. I have a Vitamix and I process my cheese mixture about 45 seconds. I believe you can also use a food processor, but haven’t tried that.
Working quickly use a spatula to scoop out the cheese mixture into your lined pan.
Smooth the top of the cheese mixture and try not to just grab a bag of chips and go nuts.
Fold the excess plastic over the surface of the cheese mixture, making sure it is completely covered.
Place your homemade “Velveeta” in the fridge for an hour or two to firm up. You now have 1 lb of faux-free American cheese to use in sauces and dips or slice onto sammies and burgers. Of course, if you plan to use the whole pound in the classic Rotel and Velveeta dip, you don’t need to bother with chilling it in the fridge. Scoop the mixture straight from the blender and add it to your recipe. If you don’t need the whole pound for your recipe, it’s easiest to mould the whole thing and slice off what you need.
Oh, if you want some killer nacho sauce: combine a hunk of your “Velveeta” with a few Tbsp of milk and any seasonings you like. Heat on low power in the microwave, stirring every 15 seconds, until melted. I’ve made dips seasoned with diced pickled jalapeños, diced roasted chiles, and even a mix of Sriracha and Sambal Oelek for a smokin’ hot Thai cheese dip, and I think horseradish and diced bacon would make a great dip for pretzels (think Pub Cheese). Enjoy!