Brow Beat

What in the World Is Cheese Powder?

Bright orange cheese powder close up
Julia Gartland

I don’t mean to blow up your workweek, but I recently discovered that it’s possible to make anything taste like Doritos without ever touching a chip.

Some, such as Wylie Dufresne, James Beard Award–winning chef and a father of molecular gastronomy, might say I’m late to this epiphany, like when I called to ask if he’d heard of cheese powder, a dehydrated, concentrated version of the fresh stuff.

“Can you tell me someone who hasn’t?” he said, broaching the topic of Kraft mac and cheese packets as evidence before I could careen into my Opening Argument (a description of an eye-opening joyride I took on nuts.com after two glasses of wine).

The cheese powder I purchased at such scale that a midsize cat could use it as a bed and the pulverized, neon flavorings of Kraft are close cousins: variations on a theme, Dufresne explained. The latter may have been laden with more unpronounceable additives and dyes historically, but it is nonetheless a form of powdered cheese.

In fact, the first dairy products to be spray-dried—a method of dehydrating a liquid, like melted cheese, by mixing it with a substrate and spraying it through a nozzle such that when the mist dries, the flavor remains on the substrate—at an industrial scale were dehydrated just after Kraft created processed cheese in the early 20th century, the New Yorker reports. Today, there are a couple of ways to make cheese powder, including spray-drying as well as freeze-drying, or simply dehydrating as if to make “moon cheese” or “popped cheese,” then blending the resultant lumps.

“For a while, cheese powder got a bad rap because it had more whey and oil and anti-caking agents than actual cheese,” Dufresne told me. Today, though? “You can get pretty good versions of cheese powder.”

And with it, one can flavor crackers without fretting about the introduction of moisture, add vim and nuance to breadings, or create a shelf-stable signature blend of mac and cheese sauce to be mixed with warm milk, butter, and elbow noodles at a moment’s notice. For the home cook, cheese powder’s conveniences are multifaceted: concentrated flavor, a lack of texture-threatening moisture, and a pantry life well beyond that of fresh cheese (one year compared to, in some cases, mere weeks).

Popcorn covered in bright orange cheddar cheese powder
Julia Gartland

“Cheese is expensive. Very expensive. And perishable. And delicate. Every time you cut into an intact cheese, its time on this earth becomes limited. Every time you pull one out of the special refrigerated cave it lives in, you are killing it slowly,” wrote Anthony Bourdain in Medium Raw. If, as he wrote, “you have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese” as a restaurateur, then cheese powder—with its accessible price point and interminable shelf life—presents an opportunity for low-stakes friendship.

Dufresne’s team recently created a homemade version of cheese puffs with black rice they pureed, piped, and puffed, then dusted in a medley of cheese powders. Chef Ed Szymanski of New York City’s Dame recalls using cheese powder to make nachos in quantity for family meal. L.A.-based food stylist Max Rappaport points out powder’s food-for-the-’gram gifts, too: “Don’t underestimate the difficulty of cooking with regular cheese. When making cacio e pepe, Parmesan and pecorino love to separate, leaving stringy cheesy protein strands and fat floating around your pasta instead of a glistening cheese sauce. On set, if I need a velvety smooth cheese sauce, I may turn to cheese powder.”

The nuts.com varietal I acquired in white cheddar for $10.99 turns out to be second in popularity to their Trump-toned one, which outsells the paler product 20 to 1, according to partnerships specialist Jackie Tylko. A shocking and exciting tidbit from the product page reveals that it takes 3 pounds of fresh cheese (cheddar and blue) to make a 2-pound batch of powder. King Arthur Flour’s Vermont Cheese Powder, though smaller in stature, packs just as much of a punch for $10.95.

Which, for the superpower to make anything taste like a Dorito in the blink of an eye, seems like a steal.

How to Use It, if You Dare

• Sprinkle it relentlessly over buttered popcorn
• Add a spoonful to the seasoned flour mixture for breaded cutlets or battered and fried chicken
• Make DIY “boxed” mac and cheese by whisking a few tablespoons of one or more powders (make a house mix!) into warming milk on the stove, plus butter
• Give a sad cauliflower pizza crust some flavor liftoff—and added moisture control—by adding a few tablespoons of powdered cheese to the dough
• Sift over cracker dough before baking, or replace a few tablespoons of flour in your cracker dough recipe with powdered cheese for an even cheesier flavor (!!!)
• Whisk a few big pinches of it into eggs before soft-scrambling them in browned butter
• Toss freshly made French fries (or fake frites) in a mixture of cheese powder and garlic powder
• Dust freshly fried or baked potato chips with it
• Whisk it into labne with some caramelized shallots for a dip
• Knead some into parkerhouse roll dough after the first proof

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