Why suffer through stodgy, gritty, greasy, or bland mac and cheese? We can steer you toward a delicious, foolproof homemade version.
One of the best things about macaroni and cheese is that you can make nearly endless variations. Here are four of the test kitchen’s favorite recipes for this dish. Here are four of the test kitchen’s favorite recipes for this dish (find links to recipes under related content).
THE CLASSIC: Classic macaroni and cheese features a Mornay sauce (béchamel with cheese added) and a bread-crumb topping.
THE WEEKNIGHT WARRIOR: We’ve developed a technique for getting homemade macaroni and cheese on the table fast. We simmer uncooked macaroni in a mixture of water and evaporated milk and then add lots of shredded cheese for flavor and a cornstarch slurry for thickening. After it’s topped with bread crumbs, our skillet mac and cheese goes right from stovetop to table in the same pan.
THE HEAVY HITTER: Custard-based macaroni and cheese is enriched with eggs and baked into a cheesy casserole. For our version, we toss mild cheddar with cornstarch to prevent it from breaking and reserve the flavorful sharp cheddar for the top of the dish. We use cream instead of milk to further guard against broken sauce, and we include extra yolks to produce mac and cheese that’s rich, smooth, and creamy.
REDUCED-FAT: We found four ways to reduce the fat (and calories) in our macaroni and cheese recipe. We replaced full-fat cheddar cheese with low-fat cheddar and substituted 2 percent milk for whole milk. A can of 2 percent evaporated milk added creaminess, and cornstarch replaced the butter roux.
MIND THE CHEESE(S)
For creamy sauce with deep flavor, two cheeses are better than one. Sharp cheddar gives our sauce good cheese flavor, while high-moisture, easy-melting Monterey Jack ensures a smooth texture. The amount of cheese matters, too. We’ve found that a pound of cheese to a pound of pasta is the right ratio for a dish that’s rich and full-flavored but not cloying or stringy. Finally, don’t be tempted to use preshredded cheese: It has added coatings that can negatively affect texture.
MAKE YOUR OWN CRUMBS
When we want a delicately crisp, buttery topping, homemade crumbs—which are easy to make in the food processor—are the way to go. After a run under the broiler, the topping is flavorful, golden, and crisp. And while some sources claim otherwise, we’ve found that fresh—not stale—bread makes the best crumbs.
COOK THE PASTA CORRECTLY
While we usually stress the idea of cooking pasta until just al dente for a pleasantly firm texture, we discovered that undercooked pasta can be too firm to readily absorb any of the cheese sauce. On the other hand, if the pasta is cooked until it’s completely soft, it will be soggy in the finished dish and won’t absorb any of the moisture from the cheese sauce, making for a loose, runny casserole. For perfectly tender, flavorful pasta and a thick but creamy sauce, cook the pasta until it’s past al dente and just tender. Bite into one noodle: It should be fully tender all the way through but not bloated or mushy.
MAKE A TRUE ROUX
A roux—a mixture of flour and fat—is the customary thickener for white sauces, like the one that binds this (and most) macaroni and cheese. In addition to thickening the sauce, the roux contributes flavor and color. The longer the roux cooks, the darker its color and the more pronounced its flavor, but its thickening power decreases. In this recipe, we make a medium, or “blond,” roux, which should be golden in color and smell like toasting nuts or popcorn; this should take about 1 minute.
Our favorite 13 by 9-inch Pyrex baking dish is a real workhorse—but it can’t go under the broiler. For recipes like our Classic Macaroni and Cheese, we needed an alternate choice. We tested baking dishes made from steel, cast iron, ceramic, and porcelain and liked the light weight of the latter two materials best. We looked for a baking dish that had the same shape and proportions as the Pyrex, and large, easy-to-grasp handles. Our winner stood up to the heat and was effortless to whisk in and out of the oven, even piping hot.