“What hath God wrought?!?” one of my guests exclaimed as I frantically whisked a bubbling pot of cheese in the next room. At that point, I knew that all was going right with the evening.
But let’s take a half-step back. I write a lot about comfort food at The Takeout—stuff that tastes great, and but isn’t necessarily what your doctor would recommend eat more than once a month. I’m also a man of science, and a holiday gift of Modernist Cuisine a few years back hipped me to the joys of sodium citrate, the magical salt that makes any cheese into gooey, drizzle-able, dunk-able nacho cheese. I buy it in bulk, use it with great zeal, and proclaim its joys to anyone within earshot. Naturally, I’ve now nacho-fied an array of cheeses and am here to report on the results.
The tasting panel for my recent experiment was a crack team that included my wife Emily, my neighbors Scott and Maria, my sister Maggie, my beer sensei Shana, and fellow Takeout contributor Jenny Pfafflin.
My goal here was to go all over the damn cheese map. Cowardice does not advance science. With a standardized emulsion method of water and citrate (for cheese-versus-cheese consistency’s sake), I made the exact same kind of nachos out of 10 different cheeses. Each was served with beer, two kinds of chips (thin restaurant-style and thicker homestyle), and the cheap pickled nacho slices that baseball fans know and treasure.
We now join the latest frontier in nacho-cheese research, already in progress.
This dry, crumbly cheese was maybe the biggest surprise of the night. Pretty much everyone loved it. Cotija emulsified thick, creamy, and salty. It hit the classic nacho flavor notes, and was deep in flavor but not funky enough to throw anyone off. It’s basically the version of every tasty appetizer cheese you’ve ever enjoyed. Verdict: This cheese nachos.
This was our jump into the deep end. Our tasters described this cheese as “smooth AF,” “like a mac and cheese cup,” “gamey,” “tangy,” and “floral.” Basically everyone agreed that if you were going to melt some cheese onto some veggies (this being the primary way we eat vegetables in the Great Lakes region), sharp provolone is the one to use.
We’re well acquainted with cheddar-baed nacho flavor (Doritos for life!), but here my supposition was “what if we try… expensive cheddar?” Yes, it’s kind of a stupid idea, but it was still fairly tasty when the cheese cooled enough to gain back some texture (it started out quite thin). The tasters pretty much got “salt,” across the board as a flavor, with JP pegging it as a cellared cheese which should have stayed in a solid block. Sorry, aged cheddar.
Let’s get weird. I emulsified a bunch of camembert (and the rind, just to see what would happen) and served the result to the tasters. Scott and Maria picked up on the earthy notes; Emily hated it full-stop; and everyone else criticized the relatively thin texture. Le sad.
In activities like this, you can and often should write off a real weird tasting note as an outlier. But I couldn’t do that here, where half of the six tasters, put “breast milk” in their notes. This was a strange group. Caramel notes and slight sweetness dominated. Maggie initially wrote nice things, but then added to her notes that she “like[s] it less now that everyone’s saying it tastes like breastmilk.”
Velveeta + Rotel
Look, science is great, but I’d be an asshole if I failed to compare this against everyone’s standard crock-pot nacho cheese. I still eat this every year during whatever underwhelming Super Bowl is happening. The classic fared okay, but it didn’t dominate or even come close to our winner, and that’s my favorite part of this whole thing. Science wins again.
This was another stupid use of money, but a fun one. It was difficult in texture, even with our scientific wizardy. Notes included: “Gluey? Paste?” but still gave it points for its actual flavor (same note: “Into it!”). Shana loved the deep flavor that reminded her of “a funky Belgian beer,” which is the highest compliment that beer people pay. JP wrote “GOOD” and underlined it.
I’m sorry, everyone. I am a maniac for confrontational blue cheeses, so this was the biggest affront to my guests by a mile. Maggie dubbed it “gruel cheese;” Scott wouldn’t try it (but did provide the note “BAD”); and Maria damned it with the backhanded praise that it “Smells better than my 16-year-old’s room.” Shana fought a lonely battle for this cheese, but ultimately ranked it 5th on her list—by far its highest ranking.
Sheep’s Milk Feta
Emily and I love Greek cheeses, and I tend to make feta slices during the summer months using about the same citrate process. This one was by far the thinnest result, with unpleasant chalky notes but a redeeming saltiness that would probably kick ass with some honey mustard pretzels. This might still work with a better-quality feta, but the results here aren’t super promising.
The first pub to slap this onto a burger will deserve all the money it rakes in. The cheese melts perfectly, with light smoke and pleasing salty flavor. Honestly, it might be worth it to throw some pocket sand in the eye of a Philadelphian and sneak this onto a cheesesteak sometime.
Scores and Final Rankings
(Tasters ranked the cheeses 1-10, with average ranking in brackets.)
- Cotija (average rank - 1.67)
- Smoked Gouda (3.33)
- Provolone (3.67)
- Velveeta (4.5)
- Parmesan (5.5)
- Manchego (6)
- Eight-Year Cheddar (6.5)
- Feta (7.33)
- Stilton (7.83)
- Camembert (8.67)