Aldona Bird, Contributors, Latest News

A little chemistry can help cheese melt better

Milk, water, whey, cream, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, milk protein concentrate, 2% or less of annatto and apo carotenal (color), calcium phosphate, cheese culture, enzymes, lactic acid, salt, sodium alginate, sodium citrate, sorbic acid (preservative), Vitamin A palmitate.

This ingredient list is from a store brand cheese product — one of those orange blocks of smooth cheese-like substance.

I try to limit highly processed food in my diet and don’t use cheese product, but sometimes wish actual cheese melted in the same way. The smooth, creamy consistency might at times be nice for quick and easy dishes, like stovetop mac and cheesy soups.

White sauce for mac and cheese or a roux for soup should result in similar consistencies, but in my kitchen these time-consuming processes sometimes turn out grainy, or the fat separates from the solids.

I recently learned a cooking chemistry trick for making a silky smooth melted cheese. I saw it on an Instagram reel — the poster said to mix 50 ml of lemon juice with half a teaspoon of baking soda and wait until the chemical reaction is complete.

Combining the acid and base results in a sodium citrate solution. To this solution, add 80 ml of water, milk or other liquid (say, beer, for a beer cheese dip). Warm it up and melt in 200 grams of cheese.

I tried this method for melting cheese, following it in spirit of rather than using exact proportions.

I juiced a lemon and added about half a teaspoon of baking powder. When the fizzing finished, I added a few more pinches until I was sure no acid remained to react, then added some water.

I shredded and slowly stirred in sharp cheddar cheese. I didn’t measure exactly how much, but got a nice creamy and thick consistency. I added most of the mixture to the quick potato soup I was making. The rest I dipped with chips. It tasted surprisingly like store-bought queso.

My mother taught me to make both queso and fondue using flour to help the cheese melt smoothly. Although I generally get good results, I have had a few embarrassing fumbles with both dishes.

In reading about the chemistry of melting cheese and why sodium citrate helps create a silky smooth melt, I learned that Jack cheese melts easily because it is made up of a fat and moisture emulsion. When heated, the proteins relax and the fats turn from solid to liquid and the moisture helps keep everything smooth.

Aged cheeses, however, have lost of a lot of moisture. This can unbalance the emulsion and make the fats more likely to break away and puddle. Additionally, during aging, proteins tighten into small clumps with the help of calcium ions, and don’t relax as easily when heated.

Adding sodium citrate (considered a “melting salt”) changes this process.

In an article on America’s Test Kitchen, I read “… the sodium substitutes itself for some of the calcium that’s helping the proteins cling. As the cheese is heated, the proteins separate from each other and again act as emulsifiers, strengthening the emulsion by holding fat and water together.”

I enjoyed learning the chemistry and using simply ingredients to replicate highly processed convenient products.

I will use it when in a hurry, making stove-top mac and cheese, or other quick recipes. This method of making homemade sodium citrate isn’t going to replace all my family recipes and methods for making sauces, but I think it is a handy kitchen trick.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email