Why Variety Is The Key To The Perfect Cheese Sauce

Variety is the secret to most good cooking: Using an assortment of apples like Granny Smith and Honeycrisp in a pie, for example, will give it a much more nuanced combination of sweet and sour flavors. Variety is also the secret to a delicious and velvety cheese sauce, and the reason has as much to do with texture as taste. Reliably melty cheeses like mozzarella tend to be less flavorful with higher water content, while aged cheeses like parmesan have less water and therefore an inherently higher risk of clumping. Combining the two gives you the best of both worlds.

A stellar cheese sauce is the heart of any good homemade macaroni and cheese, and it starts with the French classic béchamel, which is basically a combination of flour and butter (otherwise known as a roux) with milk whisked in. The reason béchamel makes such a good base for a cheese sauce is that the starch in the flour helps keep the sauce from separating. (Cheese is basically a dairy fat and water emulsion, and melting it runs the risk of making an oily mess). When it comes to which kind of cheese to add to your béchamel, you have a decision to make: What should the ratio be between a young, melty cheese and a flavorful but clumpy aged one?

The perfect cheesy ratio

Two things happen as cheese ages for more than six months: They form umami-rich calcium-lactate crystals while at the same time, their clumps of protein bonds get tighter. While you definitely want the deep deliciousness of a good cheddar or Pecorino-Romano in your sauce, using them exclusively will likely lead to an unappetizing, clumpy mess. You don't have to be familiar with a specific cheese to know if it's aged — just look for ones that are hard and crumbly and then see if their flavor profile is appealing.

To make the perfect cheese sauce, use about half as much aged cheese as you do the younger, meltier ones like Jack and Gruyère. (A good rule of thumb for what constitutes a young, good-melting cheese is the ones that can be sliced easily at room temperature. Processed American-style cheeses are champion melters). Beyond this two-to-one ratio of fresh-to-aged cheese, what kind you use in your next batch of sauce is entirely up to you. Just remember to embrace diversity.