Food Mysteries: Broken Alfredo (Sauce)

Friend of The Food Geek Greg Turner of Kitchen Sojourn tells a sad tale of a broken Alfredo sauce, a tale that I am not unfamiliar with. Back in the day, I used to make Alfredo sauce much the same way he did, and while it was tasty, you could feel the arteries clogging while you were chewing, not just after you swallow. Also, it's a finicky sauce. Let's take a look at general path he took to make it:
heat some heavy cream (about 1/2 a cup) over medium heat

Begin adding fresh grated Parmesan cheese, whisking gently

Taste

Add more cheese, whisk

Taste

Add some butter, a little cheese, whisk

Taste

At this point the detail become a little fuzzy. I may have added a splash of milk (2%) to the mix because I was all out of cream. Then, on the final addition of cheese, the sauce absolutely came apart, separated like curds and whey and I was left with a soupy mix of small cheese crumbles (each about the size of a bacon bit) and a watery liquid that was more like skim milk than heavy cream.

A perfectly good, perfectly tasty recipe. Unfortunately, at some point he had to use a milk for a bit of the liquid, and he added a bit more cheese, and the whole thing broke. Clumps of cheese and mess everywhere. Delicious mess, but not delicious enough.

The great thing about this Alfredo sauce is that it's a combination of fat, fat, umami-laden cheese, and salt. You give to guests, they enjoy, and shortly thereafter you break out the home defibrillator. The evening ends with a toast to your health, and everyone considers the dinner a success.

The bad thing about it is that it's, well, too much of a good thing. There's a much easier way to make this kind of sauce that incorporates most of the flavor with not nearly as much death-dealing cholesterol and in a non-breaking manner.

Consider this: with the above recipe, what's providing the structure for the sauce? It's not the cream, and it's not the butter. It's certainly not the salt. Which leaves the cheese.

What you're attempting to do is to melt the cheese in the right way so that the protein loses its rigid form and turns into a connected mesh around the liquid and fat. You are, in effect, making a stretchy bungee-cord net, but out of cheese, for all of the rest of the ingredients.

What most likely went wrong? With a cheese sauce, chances are that there was too much stirring, and the net collapsed into little patches of protein strands, much as if you stretched the strings of the bungee-cord net too far and several broke at once. The fats in the cream and butter stayed with the cheese, because the cheese also contains fat, so it all just stuck together and the water was the odd man out.*

In any case, you're going about this sauce the difficult way. Don't force the cheese to define the structure. Let something else do that work for you, and allow the cream and cheese to provide flavor. Get some sort of starch to do the heavy lifting, and maybe an egg for some emulsification. Try a bechamella.** There's Mario Batali's, which is perfectly good. Add some cheese to it at the end, and you're set. No muss, no fuss. That's an egg-free version, but you could do eggy if you wanted to. That's what I do with my macaroni and cheese.

So, in this case you have the starch in the flour that absorbs liquid and, once it reaches a temperature around the boiling point of water, springs out in all directions. Instead of being a taut bungee cord, it's more like a bunch of springs that are still trying to push out of the confined space. Nothing's getting out of that structure, but it's not in such a precarious position as the protein net.

Also, because you're not forcing the cheese to provide structure, you don't have to use cream, as the cream is less likely to curdle for reasons which I won't go into now, but involves casein. Some other time. In any case, plenty tasty***, healthier, and less fussy. How great is that? That a heap of great.

*- Had the fat separated from the sauce, I would have suspected overheating it. Then the protein strands would have bunched together and squeezed out all the fat.

**- Or, if you haven't gone to the Italian re-education centers like I have, a béchamel.

***- You can go overboard on the cheese reduction, though, so don't skimp there. You still want to taste the parmesan.