Better Hot Hold Mac and Cheese: Steam Table Study Results


Consumers love savory cheese sauces. However, prepared macaroni and cheese entrees that are held hot at buffets, cafeterias, delis, pasta bars or similar settings face challenges. Namely, when hot-holding macaroni and cheese on a steam table, it can lose its rich, cheesy texture, leaving behind a tacky and mushy mouthfeel. 

Steam tables are among the most commonly used pieces of equipment in the food service industry, delivering hot meals to patrons and ensuring food safety. The formulation of the cheese sauce plays a critical role in its ability to hold up to prolonged thermal treatments.

In collaboration with a food manufacturer, Grande Custom Ingredients Group’s team of food scientists conducted a controlled study to prove that the use of Grande Gusto® in a cheese sauce formulation extended the time that the finished macaroni and cheese product could remain on a steam table. 

Food Service Steam Table Study

The goal of the Steam Table Study was to evaluate whether Grande Gusto, an all-natural whey ingredient that partially replaces fresh, processed or powdered cheese, would have desirable moisture retention properties and better product consistency when used in macaroni and cheese for extended periods of heat exposure.

Steam Table Study Methods

Two common steam table pan sizes were used. The control and Grande Gusto were kept at comparable temperatures of 140 degrees and tested in half-pan and third-pan sizes, each holding 2,800 grams of finished macaroni and cheese:

Cheese Sauce Formulas

Cheese sauces were prepared ahead of time and heated on the day of testing. The following formulas were used. 


The Grande Gusto 100 formula replaced 38% of processed cheese, with an increase in water.

Sensory Results

Regardless of pan size, there was no significant change in flavor. However, when comparing texture, the Grande Gusto formula had minimal changes from its original characteristics after two hours. The control, however, had mushy noodles, and the sauce became more gummy during the same period. 

Moisture Content & Viscosity Results

Using Grande Gusto in a mac and cheese sauce increased the resiliency of the product and allowed it to remain more consistent throughout the heating time. According to Bostwick Consistometer tests, the Grande Gusto sauce retained more moisture and stayed creamier than the control, which became thicker and tackier the longer it was exposed to heat. 

Why does this happen? Moisture migration from the cheese sauce into the pasta caused product deterioration more quickly in the control formulation. As the noodles began to break down, starch leeched into the sauce, compromising its texture.

The main cause of viscosity breakdown in macaroni and cheese is the starchy pasta. Formulators sometimes use egg-white noodles containing higher protein levels to help mitigate viscosity breakdown, but that can only do so much. The inherent properties of Grande Gusto help to shield the pasta from absorbing too much moisture, allowing the noodles to maintain their al-dente texture longer and slowing down the process of moisture migration.



Overall Conclusions

Grande Gusto provides more structure and texture consistency for mac and cheese formulations from beginning to end by slowing the breakdown of noodles in the sauce. This innovative ingredient can also help cheese sauce formulators reduce moisture migration in prepared foods by up to 66% when kept on a steam table. We learned that sauces using Grande Gusto can maintain up to three times more moisture than the control sauce. 

What might Grande Gusto’s results look like in a real-life application? Instead of changing out a pan of hot macaroni and cheese every two hours, an operator could extend that time without loss of product integrity. 

The Difference for Food Manufacturers

Food service companies will choose cheese sauce suppliers that deliver superior products that maintain their original quality for longer. With Grande Gusto, they can extend product life and profitability. Not only does Grande Gusto perform consistently during thermal treatments, but it is also freeze-thaw and acid-stable, making it ideal for a variety of formulations and conditions.

This Steam Table Study is one more example of how the food scientists at Grande Custom Ingredients Group collaborate with food industry R&D teams to help perfect their formulations and achieve their goals. 

Have a formulation challenge? We’ll work together to understand your application, equipment, processes and the conditions in which it’s prepared. Contact our team today to discuss how Grande Gusto can benefit your cheese sauce formulations and to request a sample.

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