Cheddar cheese sauce is an easy, creamy, indispensable, and versatile homemade go-to in your recipe repertoire, whether destined for burgers, tater tots, broccoli, chili, nachos, cauliflower, baked potatoes…get the picture? Here’s how to make it.
Adapted from Spike Mendelsohn | The Good Stuff Cookbook | Wiley, 2010
This cheddar cheese sauce creates a spectacular topping so stupendously rich and gooey and versatile you’ll want to slather it onto everything by the ladleful. And when we say everything, we mean everything, including the ridiculously indulgent Uncle D’s Chili and Cheddar Burger. Or a classic Uncle D’s Chili. Or a baked potato. Or a roasted sweet potato. Or fries. Or broccoli. Or macaroni. Or nachos. Or cauliflower. Or tater tots. Or, well, use your imagination.
Any which way, this homemade cheese sauce recipe is a keeper. As the author says, “Warm, oozing cheese is never a bad idea.” Amen to that.–David Leite
Notes on Ingredients
- Whole milk–We love the richness and creamy texture that whole milk gives this cheese sauce, but you can substitute reduced-fat milk.
- Cheddar cheese–For the smoothest and creamiest cheese sauce, use full-fat cheese. Avoid pre-shredded cheese, as it doesn’t melt well.
- Cayenne pepper–Adding a little cayenne or hot sauce provides a major flavor boost. If you are extremely sensitive to spice, you can reduce the amount of cayenne or hot sauce.
How to Make This Recipe
- Heat the milk over medium heat until bubbles begin forming around the pot’s edges.
- Melt the butter in a separate saucepan. Sprinkle the flour over and stir constantly until it becomes thick and paste-like.
- Slowly whisk the warm milk into the flour and butter roux. Cook until the mixture is thickened.
- Add the cheese and whisk until the sauce is smooth. Season with cayenne, salt, and pepper.
Can you reheat cheddar cheese sauce?
Reheating cheese sauce can seem daunting—all that solidified dairy, seemingly immovable. But wait, it can be done. The best way to do it is not in the microwave but on the stovetop. Slowly reheating over low heat, and stirring frequently, is the best way to ensure a smooth sauce on the second day.
Can I make this sauce gluten-free?
Our readers have had success swapping in almond flour for the all-purpose flour here to make a gluten-free cheese sauce.
How do I avoid grainy cheese sauce?
The temperature of your sauce and the cheese are two of the biggest culprits behind grainy cheese sauce. When adding your cheese, make sure your sauce is over very low heat. You can even pull it off the heat while stirring the cheese.
Also, low-fat or pre-shredded cheese can cause the texture to become grainy. Stick with full-fat hand-shredded cheddar here.
- When heating the milk, avoid letting it boil, which can cause it to curdle. Likewise, do not let the cheese sauce boil after the cheese is added.
- If your sauce isn’t completely smooth, you can strain it through a fine mesh sieve before serving.
- Cheese sauce can be stored in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 3 days.
More great sauce recipes
☞ If you make this recipe, or any dish on LC, consider leaving a review, a star rating, and your best photo in the comments below. I love hearing from you.–David
Cheddar Cheese Sauce
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 tablespoons (1 oz) unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cayenne or store-bought or homemade hot sauce to taste
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Pour the milk into a large saucepan, place it over medium heat, and let it warm until you see small bubbles forming along the edge of the pan.
- Meanwhile, in another saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter.
- Sprinkle the flour over the bubbling butter and stir constantly until a thick paste, or roux, forms. It may become quite thick and almost paste-like. This is okay. And if it doesn’t become crazy thick, that’s okay, too. Expect this to take 1 to 2 minutes.
- Constantly whisking, slowly pour the warm milk into the flour and butter mixture in a steady stream. Continue cooking and whisking almost constantly until the mixture thickens considerably, about 5 minutes. It should be thick but still spreadable and pourable.
- Add the cheese and whisk constantly until it completely melts. Season with the cayenne or hot sauce and salt and pepper to taste. If you’re the fussy sort, you can strain the sauce through a sieve to remove any lumps before serving. The sauce will thicken even more upon cooling.
- Avoid boiling–When heating the milk, avoid letting it boil, as this can cause it to curdle. Likewise, do not let the cheese sauce boil after the cheese is added, or your sauce may be grainy.
- Storage–Cheese sauce can be stored in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 3 days.
- Reheating–Warm the sauce in a small saucepan over low heat until warmed through.
If you make this recipe, snap a photo and hashtag it #LeitesCulinaria. We’d love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
The flavour of the cheese sauce is lovely, and the thickness is perfect. I just don’t like having to wash more pans than is necessary. When I make cheese sauce or any sauce that starts with a roux, I don’t heat the milk (or other liquid).
Emeril Lagasse’s tip for sauces made with a roux is not to warm up the liquid. Use cold or at least room-temperature liquid to avoid lumps. Ever since hearing that, I’ve always used it cold, straight from the fridge, and have never had any lumps. It may take a minute more to thicken the sauce, but I’d rather stir for another minute than have to wash another pot.
I used 2-year-old sharp cheddar and half the amount of cayenne. This gave me a nice sharpness and just enough heat. I used white cheddar, so the colour is much lighter than you would expect.
I usually mix shredded cheese into warmed cream/butter to make an oobleck-y sauce, so I was curious if this recipe would elevate my game. I cooked the roux for a bit longer than stated (4-5 minutes) until it smelled nutty, turned off the heat (I have electric), then added Tillamook shredded cheddar cheese and stirred until it was melted.
I suggest using a small silicone spatula instead of a whisk–I’ve tried whisks and ended up with what looks like a cheese-coated weapon. If you’re a zealous stirrer like me, make sure you’re scraping down the sides of the saucepan as you go (which is also easier with a small spatula).
I was worried about getting blown out of the kitchen using 3/4 tsp cayenne, so I used 1/2 teaspoon, which was plenty of heat for me. This sauce was delicious and stored for a few days in the fridge without separating. I poured some over roasted broccoli to hide its identity, and my 11-year-old squatter ate it. So, in summary, it’s kind of a miraculous sauce. It’s… Cheesus?
Whether you are a fancy project cook or a harried weeknight warrior, having the basic proportions for a sauce in your toolkit will pay you back over and over. Not only can you make a wicked spiced pasta dish with this recipe, but you can also drizzle homemade nachos or steamed veggies and have it all done in fewer than 20 minutes.
Keep an eagle eye on the butter and then the roux, and drop the temp if it seems to be cooking too fast. (Save those deeply caramelized roux for gumbo). This one doesn’t need long to bubble up and thicken, and then it will likely thin a bit before you drizzle in the milk. The recipe timing is spot on, and the suggested spicing made a perfect topping for steamed cauliflower.
In the future, I might use half ancho to mellow the heat of the cayenne. If I were making a mac and cheese dish, a dash of Worcestershire sauce or a favourite hot sauce would do nicely.
Add some mustard, and it nods towards a rarebit. Swap Gruyere for the cheddar, and you have another perfect pasta pairing. And if you use a combination of chicken or vegetable stock plus milk, you can deepen the savoury note for a gratin or croque monsieur.
What I love most about this recipe is that it makes me feel like the culinary queen I’m not. Why? Because its simplicity makes it easy to execute and has made it so I’m the kind of person who can “whip up a cheese sauce” at the drop of a hat.
There’s something sophisticated and satisfying about whisking milk, butter, and flour to make a roux, and adding cheese and hot sauce makes the experience feel decadent.
This tasty, versatile, and reheatable sauce can top tater tot potato nachos, veggies, burgers, chicken wings, and anything else you deem worthy of being slathered in cheese. (Or, if you’re like my kid, you’ll want to eat the “cheese soup” on its own with a spoon.)
The ingredients in this recipe are so few and simple that they’re likely already in your kitchen. If not, even a convenience store could supply you with what’s needed to turn naked nachos into a delectable meal.
When it comes to flavor, the kind of cheddar you use makes a significant difference, so I recommend using the appropriate cheese for your mood and budget. Sometimes, a cheap cheddar will do. Other times, a visit to the aisle where the fancy cheeses live is in order. Whatever you decide, remember this: cheese is life.
If you make this recipe, snap a photo and hashtag it #LeitesCulinaria. We'd love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
This cheese sauce is easy to make and very flavourful. I thought the amount of cayenne would overpower it, but it didn’t. It had a nice kick. I made this to serve over steamed broccolini, a classic combo, and it was really good! My boyfriend preferred to dip Ruffles BBQ potato chips, but he loved it too. As per the instructions on the site, I did reheat it the next day, and it turned out perfectly! I actually thought the flavour was better the next day.