Key to ‘the best’ mac and cheese boils down to science

A 'chemical game' that ups your mac and cheese game (WTOP's Rachel Nania)

WASHINGTON The secret to the best tasting mac and cheese doesn’t involve homemade pasta or expensive, artisan ingredients. It just requires some chemistry.

Matthew Hartings takes a hard stance on mac and cheese. The American University chemistry professor and author of “Chemistry In Your Kitchen” said if it’s not made with cheddar cheese, it’s not worth eating.

The only problem? Cheddar cheese is a pain to work with.

“You have to do 50 million steps just to make sure that the cheddar doesn’t crumble up on you and start leaking oil. So you make a roux and have to be really gentle and careful, but you need to have cheddar if you want to have good macaroni and cheese,” Hartings said.   

The good news is, Hartings discovered a way to sidestep the challenges of cheddar. He throws an emulsifier into the mix, or a substance that helps water and oil “get along.” In the case of mac and cheese, that emulsifier is egg.  

“And so when you use eggs when you’re making your macaroni and cheese, the natural emulsifiers in those egg yolks help to keep the proteins and the oil from your cheese in tact so you don’t get the oily mess on it and you don’t get that crumbly cheese,” Hartings said.

“It’s a really excellent way for making a smooth macaroni and cheese sauce.”

Hartings has been focused on the chemistry of cooking for about a decade — he even teaches a class at American University on the subject. He said chemistry is all about change and understanding how things change, and food is a great example of that.

“We do amazing chemistry every time we step into a kitchen,” Hartings said.

“When we cook food, there are so many chemical changes that happen, and really complex chemical changes that happen.”

This weekend, Hartings will be one of the thousands in attendance at the USA Science and Engineering Festival. There, he and his students and colleagues will make spaghetti noodles out of juice, extract DNA out of strawberries and play with oobleck a liquid mixture of water and cornstarch that turns to a solid when it encounters a strong force.

He’ll also answer any questions visitors have about chemistry in the kitchen, including how to make a creamy ice cream — a popular topic he often tackles. It turns out, the key lies in “really tiny” ice crystals.

“Ice cream that has not been made properly, you can taste grittiness to it. It’s kind of crunchy, and that crunch is from large ice crystals,” Hartings added.

There are a number of ways to get to those small ice crystals, including adding an emulsifier.  

“If your water and oil are mixed, the water can’t separate to form big ice crystals, so that’s one way of doing it,” Hartings explained.

Another way is to freeze the ice cream mixture fast, either with an industrial ice cream maker or dry ice or liquid nitrogen. Then, enjoy. 

Now in its fifth year, the USA Science and Engineering Festival will feature a number of other exhibits and demonstrations, including a flight simulator, virtual reality environments and more. The free event, which is expected to draw more than 300,000 people, offers kids of all ages a chance to learn more about subjects ranging from cyberspace to outer space.

Hartings said with so many activities going on, there’s no doubt kids will learn something new.

“Just having those experiences and seeing people who do science on a day-to-day basis is a really powerful thing in terms of helping children understand what they can do and what they can be as they grow up,” Hartings said.

The USA Science and Engineering Festival will take place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 7, and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 8. The event is free, but preregistration is required.

And now you want to make mac and cheese? Find a recipe that blends cheddar with eggs from Virginia Willis on Food Network.


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