Everyone and their cousin make some form of Velveeta and Rotel. It’s delicious, but it’s not the smooth subtle goodness you’re served at Mexican Restaurants. One of my earliest frustrations as a young cook, was trying to recreate queso blanco. Even with the internet booming in the early 2000s, there was little information on how to make the stuff. So, with no clue where to begin I went to the source. After “speaking” with numerous staff from numerous Mexican Restaurants, I realized three things. 1) I’m an idiot who needs to learn a foreign language. 2) Some sort of white cheese is used for queso blanco. 3) I was going to have to figure this out myself.
The next few months I failed over and over again. My first attempt was simply to melt a block of white cheddar in a sauce pan. This resulted in a rubbery oily glob that triggered the first of many tears. Cheese is basically fat and water interlocked with protein. When you melt cheese the protein gets unbundled and the oil, AKA fat, and water become fluid. We’ve all heard that oil and water don’t mix. Once the protein matrix deteriorates, fat and water tend to separate. The trick to fighting this is to form an emulsion. There are a few classic techniques to achieve this. Fondue, AKA the Henry Winkler Haircut, is “everyone’s” favorite 70’s food trend. Acidic wine plays a supporting role, not just adding flavor, but helping maintain an emulsion. French chefs use a roux, starch and fat cooked together, to achieve the same effect. Feel free to take either of these paths toward tip-top dip, but consider the following technique, as well.
Sodium Citrate is grate!
alarmist websites are cool with the stuff. So don’t sweat it. You’ll also finally be able to make ridiculously delicious queso blanco at home.
The recipe is based on this one, from the folks over at Modernist Cuisine. You can find sodium citrate sometimes in Kosher Grocery stores labeled Sour Salt, but check the ingredients, as there are different varieties. I bought mine through Amazon. It’s cheap and will last you forever. This recipe will work with nearly any kind of cheese, but you may have to adjust the water % based on the cheese moisture content. You’ll have to experiment. I provide percentages so you can scale this recipe.
8oz Pepper Jack Cheese (I like Boar’s Head) [100%]
7oz (3/4 cup + 1/8 cup ) cold water or wheat beer [88%]
9 grams Sodium Citrate (about 2 and a half teaspoons) [4%]
Shred Cheese and set aside.
Combine water and sodium citrate in a medium sauce pan. Whisk until dissolved.
Heat sauce pan over medium heat until water simmers.
Add cheese a handful at a time while continually whisking.
Continue to slowly add cheese allowing the water to come back to simmer occasionally.
Once all the cheese is incorporated pour into a bowl and enjoy.
This technique is pretty killer. It’s allowed me to recreate queso blanco for the first time. If that’s not reason enough to buy sodium citrate, think of the creamy mac ‘n cheese you could knock out. Melted cheddar over broccoli? Get some!
Oh, and if you’re a little more ambitious, fry up your own tortilla chips. Makes a huge difference.
Until next time,
When I was a youngster, McDonald’s served my ideal burger. The thin little patty was not the star, rather just a member of the condiment and bun ensemble. Although my preference was a result of McDonald’s ubiquitous marketing, I had also never tasted a properly cooked burger. Every substantially sized burger I encountered was dry and bland. No matter how many condiments I used to make the beef pucks palatable, the desiccated mass of overcooked protein stood front and center, ruining everything. It wasn’t until my twenties, when I first experienced a great burger. While I savored the crispy crusted, juicy, flavor bomb of beef (that’s what he said), I soon became angry. How had I gone two decades without experiencing true love?
'n Shake has been employing the smash technique since the 30’s and a more recent chain has incorporated it as their name, Shake Shack is often credited with perfecting the method.
Shack burgers use the smash to maximize crust formation, but leave enough thickness that allows for a medium to medium-well center. When I realized one of my gurus, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, had already tackled recreating the Shake Shack burger, I had to give it a go. I didn’t follow his instructions to a tee, in fact; really all I did is smash ground beef in a hot skillet, but I was impressed with the results. Salty, crusty burgers were enjoyed by my family. Even my 15 month-old was impressed. While literally chewing on the idea of the smash technique, I got to thinking how I could make the burgers even better.
Since entering prime grill season, I’ve been enjoying the flavor boost of combusted fats over hot coals. What if I could add smoky grilled goodness to the maillard munch of a smash burger? Pressing a burger through my Weber grate would just end as a sacrifice to the Grill Gods. As much as I’d like to win their favor, especially from Chip Hardwood, the God of Smoke, my family’s bellies take precedence. While pondering this issue, my peripheral vision picked up on a hanging cast iron pan. That’s it! The solution is a pan that can handle serious abuse. My plan was to start a blazing hot fire covering enough space to heat the pan while also allowing for an area to finish over hot coals.
I had good luck with this technique. While it didn’t impart as much grill flavor as I had hoped, I was able to make delicious smashed burgers without destroying my kitchen. Below is an adaptation of Kenji’s recipe, for the grill. I recommend using ground chuck because it contains enough fat to keep these medium / medium-well burgers from drying out. I wouldn’t go much lower than 15% fat for these burgers.
Thanks for reading, everyone. I hope you enjoy the post. This might be a good one for Father’s Day. Please question or comment below.
First of all, thank you! It’s been overwhelming to have so many readers engaged, sending in questions and comments. Four food centric posts in and we’ve already received over 75 emails. With so many avid cooks reaching out, I decided to do a mail-bag post this week. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get to all the questions received, but I’ll try to make this a regular thing so long as there is interest. Let’s get to the questions.
"Ryan! I’ve been learning so much from your posts. You seem to have a knack for distilling the most crucial aspects of home cooking. The best part of it all is that you present ideas in such a humorous and accessible manner. Love you, nephew! Take care! (Auntie Loretta / Seattle, WA)"
Gee, thanks Aunt Loretta. That’s not really a question, but I appreciate the sentiment.
"Hey Ryan, long time listener, first time caller. So what up with MSG? Is it bad, good, what gives? (Ted Logan / San Dimas, CA)"
Great question. First off, MSG (monosodium glutamate) is delicious. I have a bottle in my spice cabinet. I am still learning how to season with it, but it certainly can make your food taste better. MSG adds umami (savory-ness) to food. Unfortunately due to anecdotal comments from the medical community, shoddy research, and a bit of xenophobia, MSG is maligned by the public. Luckily, scientists have debunked the early research and have found MSG to be perfectly safe. A number of prominent chefs in America are also speaking up about the benefits of cooking with MSG, which is helping to remove stigma. I’m a fairly science literate person, so I’d be happy to go over research that is contrary to my opinion. Just add a comment below.
"Dear Ryan, I’m a big time home cook. I love the content here. One thing I wish you’d speak more about is the rumor floating around about Drake stealing your dance moves. (Amy Stoch / Cleveland, OH)"
Ha! I get his one A LOT! Unfortunately I can’t speak on this topic as there is current litigation in progress. I hope to speak freely on the topic once this matter is settled.
"Yo, Ryan, I’m a college kid who sustains himself primarily on Instant Ramen Noodles. I’d like to kick them up a notch, if you know what I’m say’n? Any suggestions? (John Blutarsky / Faber College)"
Thanks for the question, John. The most obvious and delicious addition to instant ramen is an egg. As soon as it comes off the boil (or the microwave), crack an egg and drop it in. I like to brighten my ramen with a splash of acid, lime juice or black vinegar preferably. A little Sambal or Sriracha are great for adding heat as well as some garlicky funky depth. Chopped scallions are another one of my favorite additions. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Whatever you think might work, give it a whirl. Hell, Roy Choi has been known to add cheese to his instant ramen.
"Good day, Ryan, thanks for all the great cooking tips. I’m in the market for kitchen knives, you have any suggestions? (Connor MacLeod / New York, NY)"
I don’t have anything novel to say on the topic. I’ll echo the sentiments of Michael Ruhlman; don’t buy a “Set” of knives. Spend your money on a 7 to 8 inch chef knife and a paring knife (maybe a bread knife if you bake a lot). Whether it’s stainless or carbon steel, western or Japanese; the most important things about the knife is that it’s comfortable in your hand and sharp. KEEP YOUR KNIVES SHARP. It may sound counter intuitive, but sharp knives are safer. You use much less pressure when cutting with a sharp knife. Trying to mash a dull knife through a tough cut is a good way to get injured.
Sharp knives are also much more enjoyable to use. I’m amazed at how few people maintain sharp knives at home. It’s my biggest gripe when cooking at a friend’s place. I can deal with cheap pans and electric burners, but there is no making up for a dull knife. I beg you, keep your knives sharp. If not for you, do it for your friends.
That’s all the time I have this week. I will get to more of your questions in the near future. Thanks again for reading.
Dinner & a Movie
Bringing you food and drinks so that you can make movie night that much more delicious.
"Food is essential for life; therefore make it good"
Shannon does it Julie & Julia style as she cooks through a cookbook and shares thoughts and recipes along the way.