Why is my cheese sauce grainy?

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Are you wondering why your cheese sauce turned out grainy, gritty, and curdled? Well we have answers! In this article we explain why cheese sauces sometimes turn out gritty and grainy. First we explain exactly what is happening when a cheese sauce becomes grainy. Then we describe practices that are mostly likely to result in a cheese sauce that is grainy and curdled. Finally, we provide tips for preventing your cheese sauce from coming out grainy the next time. 

Why is my cheese sauce grainy - a n infographic with different ways to prevent cheese sauce from getting grainy

Why cheese sauce becomes grainy

When a cheese sauce is gritty or grainy that means that the cheese sauce has curdled. When a cheese sauce curdles the proteins in the cheese denature and start to clump together. As the proteins clump together they start to separate from the liquid base of the cheese sauce. These little clumps of protein are the ‘grains’ that you feel or see in your cheese sauce. 

What causes cheese sauce to become grainy

What causes cheese sauce to curdle and become grainy? Here are the main reasons that your cheese sauce might be grainy.

  • The sauce has been overheated. The main reason cheese sauce curdles and becomes grainy is because it has been overheated. High temperatures cause the proteins in cheese sauce to denature and start to clump together. 
  • A lot of acid has been added to the sauce. Acid can also cause cheese sauces to curdle. If there is a lot of acid in your cheese sauce it is more likely to curdle and become gritty or grainy. 
  • The sauce has rapidly changed temperature. This one mostly applies if your cheese sauce is already at a high temperature. If your cheese is subjected to a rapid change in temperature it will be more likely to curdle. For example if you take cheese directly out of the freezer and add it to a warm sauce it will be more likely to curdle.  

 

Preventing cheese sauce from getting grainy

There are multiple ways to prevent your cheese sauce from getting grainy. First we will provide a quick summary of the most popular methods for preventing cheese sauce from turning out grainy. After that we will go into more detail on how and why these methods work. Here are the most common ways to prevent cheese sauce from getting grainy.

  • Add starch to your cheese sauce
  • Add emulsifiers to your cheese sauce
  • Add fat to your cheese sauce
  • Grate your cheese finely
  • Let your grated cheese warm to room temperature before adding it
  • Make sure to add the cheese at the very end
  • Lower the heat before the cheese is added
  • Continuously stir the cheese sauce until the cheese melts
  • Add acid after the sauce has stopped cooking

Add starch to prevent cheese sauce from getting grainy

Why does adding starch to your cheese sauce prevent it from curdling? Starch coats the proteins in milk and cheese and makes it more difficult for them to bind together. This makes it much more difficult for them to form grainy clumps. 

Cornstarch and flour are the two most common ingredients used to add starch to cheese sauce. If you decide to use flour you should add a little flour and a little butter to make a roux then cook the roux for a few minutes. This should be the first step of making your sauce. If you use cornstarch you should mix some cornstarch with cold water then pour the mixture into your sauce before the cheese is added. 

Add emulsifiers to prevent cheese sauce from getting grainy

First of all, what is an emulsifier? In simple terms, emulsifiers help bind the different components of your sauce together. If your cheese sauce is loaded with emulsifiers it will be much harder for the proteins to separate from the liquid and clump together. Adding a strong emulsifier to your cheese sauce is the most foolproof way to make sure your sauce does not curdle. 

One common household ingredient that happens to be an emulsifier is mustard. That is why mustard is a common ingredient in cheese sauces. Some cheese products such as Velveeta and American cheese already have emulsifiers in them. If you add a little bit of one of these cheeses to your sauce it will help prevent your sauce from curdling. 

Sodium citrate is another example of an emulsifier that you can add to your cheese sauce to prevent it from curdling. Sodium citrate is used in many industrial kitchens to prevent large batches of cheese sauce from curdling. 

 

Add fat to prevent cheese sauce from getting grainy

Why does adding fat prevent a cheese sauce from curdling? Fat works in a similar way to starch. It gets between the proteins and prevents them from clinging to each other and forming clumps. Sauces that are made with cream rather than milk are much less likely to curdle. This is because of the high fat content of cream.

Grate cheese finely to prevent cheese sauce from getting grainy

Why does grating cheese finely help prevent a cheese sauce from curdling? Grating your cheese as finely as possible works because finely grated cheese will melt more quickly and uniformly. That means that you can use a lower temperature and melt your cheese in a shorter amount of time. The less heat you apply to your sauce after the cheese has been added the better!

Use room temperature cheese to prevent a grainy sauce

If you are worried about your cheese sauce curdling you should let your cheese warm to room temperature before adding it to your cheese sauce. If you use cold cheese that is fresh out of the freezer or refrigerator then your cheese sauce will be more likely to curdle. This is partially because the sauce will be cooled quickly so more heat will be required to melt the cheese. Rapid temperature changes can also have unwanted effects on different ingredients in the cheese sauce.

Add cheese to the sauce last to prevent a grainy sauce

If you want to prevent your cheese sauce from curling you should make sure to add the cheese to the sauce at the very end. Some recipes tell you to add the cheese then continue cooking the cheese sauce while some final ingredients are prepared and added. Doing this puts your cheese sauce at risk of curdling. You should use as little heat as possible after the cheese has been added to the cheese sauce. 

Lower the heat before cheese is added to prevent a grainy sauce

Lowering the heat before the cheese is added is the most important step you can take towards preventing your sauce from curdling. If your sauce is on high heat or medium high heat you should lower the heat to low or medium low and let the sauce cool down for a few minutes before adding the cheese. Right before adding the cheese to the sauce you should remove the sauce from the heat source entirely. 

Stir the cheese sauce to prevent it from getting grainy

If you stir your cheese sauce continuously after the cheese is added this will help prevent the sauce from curdling. This helps prevent the sauce from curdling because it prevents any one region of the pot from getting too warm. 

Add acid to the sauce last to prevent sauce from getting grainy

The more acid that is added to a cheese sauce the more likely it is to curdle. If you are adding a lot of acid to your cheese sauce you should wait to add the acid until the sauce is off the heat. If the sauce is not hot then it is unlikely to curdle when acid is added. This is the one exception to the ‘add cheese to the sauce last’ rule.

Our favorite cheesy recipes


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This copycat Outback Steakhouse mac and cheese is nearly impossible to mess up! That is because the cheese sauce uses Velveeta cheese which is packed with emulsifiers. 


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If you are looking for an easy cheesy dish with an easy to make cheese sauce you should check out this recipe for cauliflower au gratin.

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