STORY TIME: Several years ago, I had surgery to remove all four of my wisdom teeth. I was advised to eat softer, easy-to-chew foods while recovering. Miserable, swollen, and doped up on painkillers, I ate macaroni and cheese exclusively for every meal that week.
It was the greatest week of my life.
YOU GET IT. Mac and cheese is one of those foods that just completes me. I am definitely in the majority when I say this. It is among the finest of melty cheese delivery systems ever conceived.
Honestly I still can’t see blue and yellow together without my brain autofilling KRAFT® MACARONI AND CHEESE. It could be dish soap. It could be the Swedish flag. It doesn’t even matter. I have been CONDITIONED.
This is probably why it took me a super long time to question the fact that everyone’s favorite cheese sauce was from a packet of day-glow orange powder. I am not going to tell you what I have since learned about this powder. I’ll just say the good news is that at least the second to last ingredient actually references cheese. After Yellow 5 and Yellow 6.
Well. All right. But cheese is the # 1 ingredient of my SOUL. It stands to reason that it should also be the #1 ingredient in my cheese sauce.
So I did what I do best and asked the internet. And the internet provided.
Let me tell you about the magical ingredient called sodium citrate. Sodium citrate is the sodium salt of citric acid (which occurs naturally in citrus fruits). In a cheese sauce, sodium citrate allows the proteins to become more soluble which creates a smooth emulsion without curdling.
So science science, blah blah. What’s my point? My point is that with nothing but water and just a pinch of sodium citrate, you can use literally any cheese you want and make the perfect, smooth melty cheese sauce of your dreams. We’re talking gruyere, gouda, cheddar, muenster, you name it. A nacho cheese sauce made of BRIE. The sheer possibilities are overwhelming. I am overwhelmed.
This was definitely more ideal than cheese as my #1 ingredient. This was pretty much cheese as my only ingredient. This is a pure, unadulterated cheese sauce without added thickeners, flours, or preservatives of any kind. Like homemade Velveeta, but incomparably better! Plus, mad scientist food chemistry!! SIGN ME RIGHT UP.
Sodium citrate can be easily purchased online and will last you for ages. HOWEVER: I understand that this isn’t exactly up everyone’s alley, so I’ve also provided a simple, more classic (still low-carb!) cheese sauce recipe for your macaroni and cheese needs.
To keep this low-carb and grain free, I’m using the same noodle I used in my ramen recipe – a ziti-shaped shirataki noodle. Again, you’re more than welcome to substitute in zucchini noodles (aka zoodles), kelp noodles, spaghetti squash, cabbage, or just some plain old gluten-free noodles (keeping in mind the carb count would change).
So come join me for some saucy sodium citrate science! Lab coats and safety goggles optional, but encouraged.
The Cheesiest Mac & Cheese, and Saucy Sodium Citrate Science (Low carb, gluten free, vegetarian adaptable)
Recipe adapted from Modernist Cuisine
Yields: Around 6 servings
3-4 packages of ziti or elbow shaped shirataki noodles/tofu shirataki
11-14 grams sodium citrate (I used a scale)
Water, around 1/2 cup or just enough to dissolve the sodium citrate
3-4 cups cheese of your choice (I used a light mild cheddar)
12 oz. chicken, cooked
1 cup zucchini (or broccoli, spinach, etc), diced
1-2 tbsp grated parmesan, optional
Olive oil spray
If using shirataki noodles, empty bags into a colander and drain all the liquid. Rinse well under water.
Drain noodles and transfer to a hot pan without any oil, grease, or liquid. Heat on medium-high for 5-10 minutes, or until noodles release steam and shrink slightly (but not too much!).
Add diced zucchini to pan and sautee until slightly browned. Set aside.
Place water in a large saucepan, add the sodium citrate, and stir until dissolved. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
Gradually add cheese to the simmering liquid, using a wire whisk to combine after each addition, until all of the cheese is melted and smooth.
The process of deliciousness.
TIP: If the sauce begins to separate, add a pinch more sodium citrate and a splash of water. Bring back to a boil, and continue whisking until sauce is smooth again.
Once the cheese sauce has reached the desired consistency, add in cooked chicken and the shirataki and zucchini mixture. Combine until evenly coated in cheese sauce.
Spray an 8″ x 11″ casserole dish with non-stick spray or olive oil. Transfer mac and cheese mixture into dish and sprinkle with grated parmesan. Place under broiler for 5-10 minutes (keep an eye on it!) until golden brown. Serve hot! (Cheese will thicken slightly as it cools.)
And as promised, a more traditional recipe for cheese sauce:
Recipe adapted from The Keto Kitchen
1 cup heavy cream or milk of choice (half & half, almond, coconut, etc)
2 oz neufchâtel or cream cheese, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 tsp dry mustard
1 1/2 cups cheddar, shredded
12 oz. chicken, cooked
1 cup zucchini, diced (or broccoli, spinach, etc)
1-2 tbsp grated parmesan, for topping
1/8 tsp garlic powder
Salt and pepper, to taste
Bring the cream or milk to a simmer in a small saucepan, and whisk in the cream cheese and mustard until smooth.
Stir in 1 1/2 cups of the cheese, salt, pepper, and garlic and whisk just until the cheese melts, about 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat, pour over the shirataki, zucchini, and chicken and stir to combine.
Spray an 8″ x 11″ casserole dish with non-stick spray or olive oil. Transfer mac and cheese mixture into dish and sprinkle with grated parmesan. Place until broiler until browned, about 5-10 minutes. Serve hot!
Nutritional Info (As calculated with shirataki, zucchini, and sodium citrate sauce):