Easy Cheese Sauce

By Ann Fulton

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Four ingredients are all you need for this versatile, family-friendly sauce. Best melting cheeses, helpful tips, and recipe suggestions included. 

 

Four simple ingredients are all you need for a versatile, velvety, easy cheese sauce that has the power to transform plain pasta, baked potatoes, steamed broccoli, roast beef sandwiches, and more.  For added flexibility, this quick-cooking sauce can be modified with a simple cheese swap, and I’ve included a thorough list of the best melting varieties — and the ones to avoid — below.

As written, the following recipe calls for cheddar or Cooper sharp, which are family-friendly, economical options that complement a wide range of ingredients — and which happen to be favorites in our house!  That said, there’s lots of room to fancy it up; it’s just important to choose the right cheese.

Because of varying moisture content, not all cheese melts equally. For the smoothest, silkiest sauces, block cheese is usually recommended. (As a bonus, block cheese tends to be cheaper than pre-shredded.) That said, I’ve taken many a shortcut using pre-shredded cheese, and it can work quite well. In this case, know that some brands work better than others, and the fewer additives on the label the better.

With just 4 ingredients, this smooth sauce is perfect for drizzling and dipping on so many things...or use it for a speedy mac and cheese!

So which cheeses melt the best? American (including Cooper Sharp), Cheddar, Swiss, colby, fontina, Gouda, Gruyère, Havarti, Monterey Jack, and Muenster are good melters. Blue and other soft cheeses such as Brie and Camembert melt well, too — just be sure to remove the rind first.

Beyond cheese choice, what will ensure a smooth, flavorful sauce?

  • For the smoothest sauce, hand grate from a block of good quality cheese
  • You may freeze the block of cheese for a few minutes to make grating easier, but make sure the cheese is at room temperature before making the sauce
  • As an option to grating, the cheese may be finely chopped
  • Cook the flour in the butter for one minute to eliminate any “floury” flavor
  • For a gluten-free option, cornstarch works beautifully in place of flour — just use 1/3 as much, as noted in the recipe
  • Thicken the sauce before adding the cheese, and only heat until the cheese is melted — overheating can cause the cheese to harden and release fat, creating a lumpy sauce

Which cheeses don’t melt well? Feta, cotija, queso fresco ricotta, halloumi, and creamy goat won’t melt into a smooth sauce.  Mozzarella, provolone, and cheddar curds will melt but tend to be stringy.

So now that we have all the tools in place to make a deliciously smooth sauce, what are a few more ways to enjoy it?  

  • Stuffed baked potatoes — add chili, broccoli, bacon, chicken, ham, diced tomatoes and/or black beans, as desired
  • Simple sauce for pasta — stir in veggies and protein of choice for a complete meal
  • Dip for tortilla chips and sauce for nachos
  • Topping for cheesesteaks and open-faced roast beef sandwiches
  • Sauce for quick stovetop mac and cheese
  • Sauce for steamed broccoli, roasted cauliflower or your favorite sautéed veggies
With just 4 ingredients, this smooth sauce is perfect for drizzling and dipping on so many things...or use it for a speedy mac and cheese!

My kids are major fans, especially my younger son who’s a bit choosy about cheese sauce.  It’s best served right away, although leftovers are still quite good when gently reheated.

Easy Cheese Sauce
Yield: about 2 cups (recipe may be cut in half)
A side of steamed broccoli tastes especially good with this easy, kid-friendly cheese sauce!
Ingredients
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour or 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and several turns of the pepper mill
  • 1 cup milk (works best with 2% milk but I have used nonfat with good results)
  • 1-1/2 cups (6 ounces) freshly shredded cheddar cheese (Cooper sharp is a delightful option that’s especially delicious on cheesesteaks)
Directions

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. (Watch carefully. Once melted, the butter will brown quickly. Lower the heat to medium-low if starting to brown or if making a half batch.)

Add the flour or cornstarch and whisk or stir for about 1 minute over medium heat—the mixture should be simmering. Slowly whisk in the milk, and then add the salt and pepper.

Cook, stirring regularly, until slightly thickened, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the cheese, and stir until melted and smooth. Serve immediately.

Notes & Tips
  • For the smoothest sauce, choose a medium cheddar over an extra sharp variety.
  • Upon cooling, the cheese sauce will thicken and develop a skin on top. Simply reheat over low heat, stirring regularly, to bring it back to saucy perfection.
  • For a hint of kick, add 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper along with the salt and pepper.
  • If you decide that you’d like a thinner sauce after adding the cheese, stir in an extra tablespoon or two of milk.
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Comments

  1. Samantha

    I know this recipe is old now but I just found it and wanted to ask you about the times you said you’ve made pre-shredded cheese work! Any difference in how you’ve done the rest of the recipe in those instances? Do you still have the shredded cheese at room temp first?

    Reply
    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Samantha, I’ve had a lot of success with pre-shredded cheese since originally posting this recipe–I often use Sargento but have used grocery store brands as well–and there’s no need to do anything different with it. Freshly shredded works well, too, but I will add that a very sharp variety that’s on the dry, crumbly side won’t melt as well. (I mention this in the recipe notes.) You could experiment with other cheeses that melt well, like gruyere and fontina. That said, I think you’ll be very happy with a basic bag of pre-shredded cheese. Hope this helps!

      Reply
    1. Ann Post author

      I’ve never tried it, Natalie, so I hesitate to say for sure. That said, you can adjust the thickness based on the amount of milk and cornstarch or flour used, so I think you could make it work.

      Reply
  2. Gayle

    I always wanted to make my own mixture of Cheddar Cheese Sauce. I use Coffee-Mate instead of 2% Milk. I get very good results with Coffee-Mate Liquid. Is it ok to use Coffee-Mate instead of 2% Milk?

    Reply
    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Gayle, Using Coffee-Mate creamer would be similar to using cream instead of milk, which would be fine. I’m so glad you gave it a try and liked!

      Reply
  3. Sarah

    I made this just now and it seem very thin. I weighed the cheese (6oz) rather than measure (1.5 cups). That shouldn’t make a difference, though…? I have it in the oven now on cooked cauliflower and am hoping it will thicken further. Next time, I will try it with half the milk.

    Reply
    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Sarah, Weighing the cheese is very accurate, so you’re good there! Did you use 2 tablespoons of flour or 2 teaspoons of cornstarch? You could always add a touch more of either, but you’ll likely find that it thickens in time. If not, feel free to report back.

      Reply
  4. Michelle Post author

    I’ve made this three times since you first posted, using for broccoli, stuffed potatoes, and dinner nachos. It’s really easy and a definite keeper!

    Reply