I tend to be a bit of a food defender/apologist. I can’t idly stand by and listen to someone say “American cheese isn’t even cheese”. I do my best to not sound like a “know it all” or a snob. American cheese is cheese but it doesn’t act like most cheeses as it melts. When melting a fresh cut piece of cheddar the fats and proteins separate. What’s left is a bit of melty cheese and an oil slick. This isn’t as presentable as we would like it to be. We don’t want those fats to drip off of our burger, saturate our grilled cheese, or make a gritty mac and cheese. We want them to be smooth and uniform with every bite. American cheese is absolutely a cheese, but why is it so different? American cheese has a special set of ingredients that emulsify the fats and proteins. But even if you don’t like American cheese you can turn almost any cheese into a melty cheese slice. The biggest issue is that people are not sure what ingredients to use for their cheese. A quick google search will yield a number of recipes and ratios but it can get confusing if you are new to melty cheese making. So we are here to help you understand the difference between the two main cheese emulsifiers Sodium Citrate and Sodium Hexametaphosphate (Hex or SHMP for short)
“How do I make melty cheese at home?”
Sodium citrate and Sodium hexametaphosphate are known as emulsifying salts. While both considered emulsifying salts they do not have the exact same function. So let’s start by looking at sodium citrate and how it works. Sodium citrate is the salt from citrus fruit. Sodium citrate also seems tailor made for cheese emulsification. When sodium citrate is added to cheese and some liquid, the sodium citrate does a few important things. The sodium citrate will bond with both the water and fats, that is the basis of the emulsion. The second thing sodium citrate does is soften the proteins and replaces some of the calcium bonds. This is important because the calcium is what holds the proteins together. So this allows the fats and proteins to melt at the same time giving that signature melty texture. Sodium hexametaphosphate can do these same things but not as effectively as sodium citrate. Sodium hexametaphosphate is much better at calcium sequestering than sodium citrate but not commonly used as the only emulsifying salt in a melty cheese. One benefit of using sodium hexametaphosphate alongside sodium citrate is that it will make for a firmer final cooled product. The sodium hexametaphosphate helps with the emulsification of the proteins and fats to be more evenly distributed. This means the final cooled cheese will be easier to slice. This is not to say that sodium citrate can’t make a firm sliceable cheese, it just makes a better one when sodium hex is added as well.
When choosing a melting salt it really depends on whether you want a smooth cheese sauce or something that can be molded and sliced. Sodium citrate is your best bet for a baseline cheese emulsifier but if you are looking for a sliceable cheese slice out of your favorite local cheese we do suggest adding some sodium hexametaphosphate help keep it firm and slicable.
Give our Foodie Favorite Nacho Cheese sauce recipe a try! Toss out that sad, canned nacho cheese and add in your favorite cheese for a velvety smooth texture and rich, real-cheese flavor. Let sodium citrate turn boring old nachos and cheese into the star of the show.