Shredded to Bits

Dear Home Ec 101,

My husband loves it when I make mac & cheese from scratch, but so far I’ve yet to find a recipe that I like.  It always just seems bland.  The thing is, I don’t think it was the recipes, I think maybe it’s the cheese I’m using.  I get a large bag of shredded mild cheddar because I can’t bring myself to buy the sharper stuff in the smaller (and significantly more expensive) bags.  Is there a way to add the tang of sharp cheddar without the expense?

Signed,
Mild  Melinda 

Heather Says:

I admit it, I buy the huge offbrand blocks of cheese for use in cooking.  While I’m sure some generics are better than others, the large no name bags of preshredded cheese are fairly low in quality, especially the cheddar. In my grocery store, ounce for ounce it costs the same as the much higher quality blocks of generic cheese.

Yes, there is a little work involved in shredding the cheese, but try a side-by-side taste comparison and you may find that it is worth breaking out the grater.

Additionally, the pre-shredded cheese is coated with cellulose to prevent clumping. While it’s certainly not anything to worry about, the off brand at my usual grocery store is pretty heavy handed which does nothing to improve the flavor.

When cheese is eaten alone or in small quantities such as blue cheese sprinkled on a salad, I do spend a little more on a quality brand. With some foods there is more satisfaction in a smaller serving of high quality and I have found this to be especially true for some varieties of cheeses.

Send your domestic questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.



17 Comments

  1. JayMonster on January 9, 2009 at 11:02 am

    For those that may not want “another gadget” around the house but still doesn’t want to shred by hand, check with the maker of your mixer (assuming you have one). We got the “mixer attachment pack” for our Kitchen-Aid Mixer which had a cheese grater, Pasta maker and other do-dads for less money (and space) than a food processor.

  2. Tracy on January 9, 2009 at 10:39 am

    Here is the recipe I use and its a hit every time I make it:

    1/2 lb elbow macaroni
    2 eggs
    1t. hot sauce
    2t. dry mustard
    4T. butter
    5 oz can evaporated milk
    1t. salt
    pepper to taste, I like alot
    10 0z. sharp cheddar cheese
    Cook pasta and return to pan. Over med-low heat add the butter, stir until melted. Mix the rest of ingrediants except the cheese. Add to pan and stir for a few minutes. Add cheese a little at a time stirring until melted. Serve hot.
    This is like the boxed stuff only better. Feel free to add more hot sauce or mustard if it suits you. I do but for those who dont like strong flavors I used only a little for this recipe.
    I also buy my cheese in blocks, shread myself and freeze in 2 oz. packages. I buy extra sharp cheddar because I love the tangy flavor of it.

  3. attila on January 9, 2009 at 8:37 am

    I hope nobody takes offense at this, but I can’t honestly see the need for pre-grated cheese. Unless you have only one hand, possibly, but you can get a grater with suction pads so you can use it one handed. Maybe it’s because I’m an English woman living in England; we do have pre-grated cheese on sale, but honestly, it’s one tiny section in hundreds of different cheese types and brands. If you buy it, you’re likely to get sniggers from other shoppers. You save loads of money getting a block of cheese that can be sliced, grated, juggled with, whatever. I buy a mature cheddar at the lowest possible price and it does the lot, inexpensively and tastily.

  4. gracie on January 8, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    I use a recipe similar to Amy’s, but i also add some Parmesan cheese to the mix with the sharp cheddar (i will freeze the block cheese and then thaw it out – it gets very crumbly and there is no need to shred it)

    for flavoring I use some powdered bullion for flavoring or i use dry mustard and cayenne pepper – what ever i have handy

    when making the white sauce base, you can use chicken broth (canned) or homemade left over – which might have even more flavor, i use half broth or water and the other half milk

    we actually had this last night with pork steaks (grilled out in sub-zero temps – lol) and vegetables

  5. Pam on January 8, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    OK …NOT healthy but delicious……Valveeta, cream, bacon….

  6. Dan on January 8, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    Just a reminder: As a comfort food, mac-and-cheese is kinda sorta SUPPOSED to be a little bland. After cooking for four kids for 10 years, it occurred to me a while back that they LIKE IT that way. The blander the better.

    When I cook for my wife and I, I get creative. When I cook for the kids, I keep it stupid. I mean simple.

  7. Sheri on January 7, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    I grate cheese in the food processor, too! It freezes beautifully. Spread it on a cookie sheet. When it is frozen, break it up if necessary, then repackage it in a ziplock. I use the cheese straight from the freezer for pizza, lasagna, and things like your easy chicken parm recipe.

  8. Keter on January 7, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Brain dump of cheese-related database ;o) …

    I make my own shredded cheese in bulk using a food processor and then putting the cheese in a ziploc with some rice flour and shaking it to coat the shreds. Keeps for over a week in the fridge.

    When cheese is too mild, there are two ways to quickly add zip to it, depending on the other flavors you will be using with the cheese: add yogurt (adds tang and a little sweetness), or add acid – apple cider vinegar, wine vinegar, or lemon juice (these tend to work better for cheese sauces). Any time you add acid to cheese, this tends to encourage string formation, so if your dish will be harmed by this, be prepared to stir. A little cornstarch dissolved in water also helps to emulsify.

    My experience with adding cream cheese to cheese is that it can be too rich – but it makes an amazing base for pimento cheese spread. As an aside, my experience with the way “lite” cream cheese separates when cooked has convinced me that it is not a food.

    Some people have suggested using cottage cheese to extend cheese sauces; so far I’ve had luck with this only in extending ricotta for use in lasagne. Nothing else worked out well. The casein content of “lite” cottage cheese makes it impossible to cook with (makes weird rubbery curds). ;o)

  9. jennifer on January 7, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    Not everyone has a food processor, but they are wonders for grating cheese. My husband gave me one years ago for my birthday for that very reason. I can grate 2 blocks of cheese in less than a minute. It does get messy, but nothing the top rack of the dishwasher can’t handle.

  10. Sheri on January 7, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    No need to bother with grating–I just cube the cheese, and then stir the dish about halfway through the cooking time (my husband doesn’t like a crunchy topping). I usually use half mild cheese and half sharp cheddar.

    I mix one pound of al dente cooked pasta with 3 cups of white sauce (made with dried mustard, black pepper, and sometimes rosemary), the cubed cheese, and some cubed ham if I have it around. Be sure to salt the white sauce pretty liberally.

    I think my version is pretty terrific, if I do say so myself!

  11. Pam on January 7, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    I agree with CJ about bleu cheese — another one to try is goat cheese.

  12. candice on January 7, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    I second that…pre shredded won’t work. Block cheese is the key!

  13. CJ on January 7, 2009 at 11:28 am

    p.s.
    Thanks for the feedback and ideas Amy mom and dani.

  14. CJ on January 7, 2009 at 11:27 am

    For tang without the huge price tag of aged cheddar, add some blue cheese along with your shredded cheddar/american/etc.

    The blue cheese gives it that “aged tang”.

    Or all of your leftover bits of cheese- especially parmesan and aged provolone. For a great taste twist, add some smoked cheese (cheddar, mozzarella, gouda, etc.)

    To up the flavor quotient (bland), we always sautee some sweet onion (and sometimes garlic) and add to the cheese sauce along with a couple of shakes of hot pepper or siracha sauce (not enough to make it spicy, but just enough to give it that “hmmm”).

  15. Amy on January 7, 2009 at 10:48 am

    I use powdered mustard, paprika (which mainly makes it pretty), and garlic salt in my mac and cheese. Buttery bread crumbs on the top don’t hurt, either.

    I’ve given up pre-shredded cheese in favor of block cheese (cheaper, tastes better). I use my Pampered Chef grater almost every day. Love it. I also find that I use less, because the flavor’s better, so fewer calories, etc.

    I cook by feel, so bear with me. When I make homemade mac and cheese, I cook a box of noodles (at the lowest end of the range – if it says 6 – 8 minutes, I cook it for 6, or even 5-1/2 minutes), make a white sauce (equal parts butter and flour, maybe 4 tbsp of each – melt the butter, add the flour, stir until completely incorporated, cook for a minute – that will also add a little bit of a nutty “brown butter” flavor, then add a couple cups, 2 or 3, of milk), then melt the cheese in the white sauce, add the mustard, garlic, paprika, salt, and pepper until it tastes right, add the noodles, put it all in a casserole, top with bread crumbs and pats of butter (or Ritz crackers!) and bake for a while (30 minutes at 350 or so, depending on what meat we’re having and what temp it bakes at!).

    What if you added a bit of sour cream, or maybe cream cheese, to the white sauce, right before you mixed in the noodles? Or maybe fold in some chunks of cooked ham and some peas, so you have a complete meal (well, if you add another veg or a salad or something).

    I think the sour cream/cream cheese idea is worth experimenting with – I’m thinking half a cup of sour cream, or half a “block” of cream cheese would be about the right amount, off the top of my head. Maybe add some fresh chives, or parsley, or whatever other herb you like?

    Also, try different brands of noodle. Have you ever noticed how tiny Kraft macaroni noodles are? The macaroni I’ve bought boxed has been a much fatter, thicker, larger noodle. That’s definitely going to affect the texture. Buy the smallest macaroni noodles you can find, or better yet, try different shapes, like cavatappi or ditalini… or shells? Maybe what you’re perceiving as blandness is really a textural issue? Personally, I don’t like big fat pasta – I prefer thin spaghetti or vermicelli over spaghetti or linguini, for example.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to take over the comments. I just love to cook and experiment. 🙂

    Amy @ http://prettybabies.blogspot.com

  16. mom, again on January 7, 2009 at 8:03 am

    You don’t need much of a very sharp cheese to improve the flavor, you can use a combination of mild & sharp.

    If your recipe doesnt include a sprinkle of dry or dollop of regular mustard, add some. plain yellow, dijon, brown or even the grainy kind.

    A sprinkle of cayenne powder in the sauce might help as well.

  17. dani on January 7, 2009 at 6:36 am

    My mom buys the blocks of cheese when we make mac and cheese. She buys a few when it is on sale, and then we have it when we need it! Also, it is not really necessary to grate the cheese, as it will be melted anyway, if it is easier for you, all it really needs is to be cut up in small blocks. Melting takes a little longer, but it saves you the mess of the grater.

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