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The secret ingredient every cheese lover needs to know about

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

Sodium citrate is how the melty cheese magic happens

If you love cheese, chances are you've had a grainy, oily disaster with cheese dip, mac and cheese or cheese soup at least once in your life. It's enough to leave you wondering how food manufacturers do it (and what chemicals they're using). The good news is, one such chemical is sodium citrate, which is safe and available to consumers.

What is sodium citrate?

Sodium citrate may sound like one of those food additives you should avoid, but it's a perfectly natural byproduct (the salt) of citric acid. It has a variety of applications, but with cheese it emulsifies oils. In other words, it helps keep your melted cheese or cheese sauce from separating.

If you're turned off by how chemical it sounds, don't be. It's no different from using baking powder for leavening in bread. And it's easier to use than making a roux.

What's it like?

Basically it looks like very fine sugar. Alone, it has a mild bitter/salty flavor (like the diluted version of lemon pith if it were lightly salted), but it's very faint even in its pure form. You typically use very little, so it doesn't flavor your food, though you should use it in the lowest concentration possible. Store it at room temperature, even after opening. You can buy it from Modernist Pantry (Amazon, $12).

How do you use it to make melty cheese?

The best part of sodium citrate is the effect it has on cheese. You can turn any cheese, no matter how oily or grainy it would normally be when melting, into Cheez Whiz-worthy melty goodness in a matter of minutes.

All you need is a little hot liquid, some cheese and the sodium citrate.

Start with any liquid — water, milk... even beer. Heat the liquid until hot but not boiling. Then dissolve the sodium citrate. The amount you need depends on a number of factors, but it's usually only a few grams.

Then add your shredded cheese a little at a time, and whisk to combine, adding a little more as it melts. If your cheese is harder (like sharp cheddar), you may want to use an immersion blender to boost the effects of the sodium citrate. But usually you'll need no more than a whisk.

While you can also add a number of spices and flavorings after the cheese has melted, you should start with a simple recipe, like pepper jack cheese queso. Once you've gotten the hang of it, you can use sodium citrate in soups, mac and cheese and more.

More cheese recipes

The best cheese for grilled cheese sandwiches, according to science
Ham- and cheese-stuffed chicken rolls — easy to make and addictively good
Everything you need to know about frying cheese (no, not mozzarella sticks)

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