Who Wins the Title of Best Mac & Cheese Ever?
I have high standards when it comes to macaroni and cheese. Everyone in my family knows my sister's version — made with three types of cheese and a buttery Panko topping — by heart. At least once a week you can find one of us whipping it up, whether for ourselves, a potluck, or to bring to a friend (often by request).
Her version, now dubbed "Maddie's Mac and Cheese," is straightforward and easy to make, yet results in the cheesiest, creamiest casserole that tastes, to me, like home. So this month, when I tested four of the most popular mac and cheese recipes out there — from Ina Garten, Ree Drummond, Alton Brown, and Sunny Anderson — I knew wasn't going to give out a perfect rating that easily. These recipes would have to tick all the boxes: easy to make, impossibly creamy (with, ideally, some type of crunch on top), and deliciously cheesy without being too rich.
For consistency's sake, I tested all four of the recipes with elbow macaroni (the shape they all call for, although Ina offers the option of cavatappi, too), boiled the pasta in a pot of water seasoned with 1 tablespoon of kosher salt, and used Cabot cheese when possible (Gruyère being the exception).
Here's how they ranked, from my least favorite to the very best.
The Most Like Kraft: Pioneer Woman's Macaroni and Cheese
If your idea of perfect mac begins with a powdery cheese packet, you'll enjoy this recipe from Ree, which tastes just like a box of Kraft. In fact, you can serve it straight from the stovetop or bake it in the oven, which, along with her list of optional spices (cayenne, paprika, or thyme), makes it the most versatile of the bunch. It became lost, however, amidst more exciting recipes. I wish it used a blend of cheeses instead of just cheddar, and I was frustrated that she calls for four cups of noodles, which is almost a full box but not quite.
Read more: I Tried Pioneer Woman's Macaroni and Cheese
The Most Unique: Sunny Anderson's Spicy Macaroni and Cheese
Sunny kept me on my toes as I was cooking through her recipe — each step was a new surprise. Instead of a classic béchamel sauce, you whisk together the dairy, flour, and an egg, then pour the mixture over noodles and some cubed cheese in a casserole dish. But what I hoped would be an ingenious shortcut ended up resulting in an unevenly cheesy casserole — more like random pockets of partially melted cheese instead of a smooth and silky cheese sauce. I did, however, like that she calls for more than one type of cheese, and I thought the spiciness from the pepper Jack was a solid twist on a classic dish.
Dressed to Impress: Ina Garten's Mac and Cheese
Ina wins the award for fanciest mac and cheese (read: the most expensive but also best for discerning palates). Thanks to the heavy dose of aged Gruyère, it tastes the richest and has the most distinct flavor, and although I found it to be a bit overpowering, many of my taste-testers (a group of roommates and friends) picked Ina's as the winner. It was easy to make, was full of smart techniques, and was the creamiest of the bunch. If you make it, consider leaving off the tomatoes, though.
Read more: I Made Ina Garten's Mac and Cheese
The Very Best Macaroni and Cheese: Alton Brown's Baked Macaroni and Cheese
Following Alton's recipe as it was written was frustrating: The instructions were bare and definitely not designed for newbies. But it was so creamy and flavorful and bubbly and cheesy that it edged out Ina in the final vote. Thanks to a few flavorful pantry ingredients (bay leaf, paprika, ground mustard), it satisfied my craving for classic mac and cheese without being boring. Plus, the buttery breadcrumb topping made Alton's the closest to Maddie's Mac and Cheese.
The Big Takeaway Lessons from All Four
- Generously salt your pasta's cooking water: Whether your recipe calls for it or not, go ahead and add at least one tablespoon of kosher salt to the pot of boiling water. This will season the pasta from the very first step, adding flavor to the final dish. Don't bother adding oil to the water, and definitely don't rinse your noodles after you drain them, which will wash off the starchiness that helps the cheese sauce cling to the pasta. As a general rule of thumb, elbow noodles take about five minutes to cook to al dente. And speaking of noodles, feel free to get creative: I actually find shells and cavatappi to be much more interesting than elbows.
- Warm your milk before adding it to the roux: After creating a roux with butter and flour, slowly stream in warm milk instead of adding it in cold (you can either warm the milk in a liquid measuring cup in the microwave or in a small pot on the stove). This technique, used in Ina's recipe, will help the bechamél sauce thicken more quickly.
- Use a blend of cheeses: I find the best mac and cheeses are made with at least two kinds of cheese, which makes for a creamier and more interesting sauce. If your recipe only calls for one, swap out half for another cheese you like. Fontina is always a good option, because it's an excellent melter. I like to reserve a bit to sprinkle on top with the breadcrumbs before popping it in the oven.
- Always top with something crunchy: Yes, we all love mac and cheese for its creaminess, but you'll be thankful for some crunch to break up all that richness. Don't bother toasting it first — simply toss breadcrumbs (either fresh or Panko) with some melted butter and scatter over the cheesy pasta before baking. If the top of your mac and cheese doesn't brown as much as you'd like, stick it under the broiler for a minute just before serving.
What's your number-one tip when it comes to macaroni and cheese? Tell us in the comments below.