Broccoli with cheese sauce is an American classic, one of the handful of vegetable side dishes that almost everybody likes. And why not? Tender, flavorful broccoli topped with a robust, creamy sauce is hard to beat.
Element of Distress
The idea sounds tasty in theory, but in practice? Seldom. Promising-sounding recipes generally wind up as multiple variations on watery, mushy broccoli paired with bland, vaguely cheese-flavored sauce. To add insult to injury, most sauces slide right off the broccoli and pool on the plate.
Line of Attack
Instead of steaming or boiling the broccoli, as is customary, we’d roast it for deep, nutty flavor. And processed cheese would be definitely out—we’d combine Monterey Jack, cheddar, and Parmesan to get a cheesy, satiny sauce.
It’s time to take this American classic seriously. Broccoli plus cheese—sounds simple, right? Not necessarily. We’d tackle each component, one at a time.
First up on the block? The cheesy, cheesy sauce. We experimented with different sauces—the thick, the bad, the ugly, the separated—with varying amounts and compositions of flour, butter, cheese, chicken broth, half-and-half, milk, and/or water. The best-tasting outcome ended up with the richness of half-and-half (the higher fat content helped keep the sauce from breaking) thinned with water (to keep it from being too rich), added to the traditional roux of cooked flour and butter, plus cheese.
Now, about that cheese. We loved the hearty flavor of cheddar cheese, but using it alone was making the sauce gritty. We knew exactly why: As cheddar ages, the caseins (milk proteins) tend to clump together and break down; this creates the strong flavor compounds we enjoy in cheddar but also makes the cheese gritty. Using equal parts Monterey Jack and sharp cheddar worked much better. (That’s teamwork, ladies and gentlemen.) The Monterey Jack kept the sauce nice and creamy—its high moisture content promotes easy blending—and the sharp cheddar provided the flavor. And how in the world would we gild this cheesy lily? A quarter cup of nutty Parmesan added the sharp, cheesy punch that we sought after.
Which leads us to poor broccoli, frequently misunderstood and maligned because of a non-ideal but popular cooking technique: Boiling. It leaves broccoli wet and limp—only slightly better than something from the frozen foods section. (Ouch.) Steaming resulted in decent broccoli, but with minimal flavor. Cue the magic oven door: Let’s roast! After a bout of roasting, the broccoli had a distinct nutty taste that perfectly complemented the cheese flavor. Besides yielding tastier broccoli, roasting had another advantage: It produced drier broccoli than steaming or boiling, which meant that the cheese sauce stayed put instead of sliding right off.
There you have it: smooth, deeply cheesy sauce over firm, pleasantly nutty, well-cooked broccoli. Pairs best with pleasantly nutty eaters, we’re told.