There is nothing quite like a big bowl of mac and cheese. This classic comfort food has endless variations. But sometimes, it’s hard to know where to start. Well, fear not – we’re here to give you some tips for making the best mac and cheese possible! We’ll also share a few of our favorite variations. So let’s get started!
Macaroni and cheese is a dish that has been around for centuries. The dish originated in France in the 18th Century! It’s captivated everyone from kids like my niece to U.S. Presidents (Thomas Jefferson was known for it, but I’m sure there’s more than that). Over the years, there have been a lot of variations on the original dish, and every experiment is a chance to make better mac and cheese. So what is the actual original, and what are the ways to make mac and cheese better?
Macaroni is a type of pasta typically made from durum wheat. The macaroni shape is short and tubular, with ridges on the outside and a hollow center. The noodles are made by forcing the pasta dough through a machine known as an ‘extruder’ to produce the tube shape, and then it is cut into the appropriate length.
Chefs call the cheese sauce Mornay Sauce. Mornay Sauce is a version of the commonly used White Sauce (Bechamel Sauce), an emulsion made with equal parts butter and flour, added to warm milk to thicken various recipes. The Mornay version adds shredded cheddar cheese to the original.
The original macaroni and cheese recipe used an oven, so if you’re a stickler for the original recipe, that’s the way. However, both methods are commonly used and can produce excellent results.
Baking mac and cheese in the oven will allow you to crisp the outside edges with a satisfying slight crunch. This effect is much harder to accomplish using the stove-top method. That’s why I prefer the oven-baked method. However, if you like a softer texture for your macaroni, I recommend the stove-top recipe.
This is a hotly contested topic with macaroni and cheese lovers. I think of mac and cheese as a side dish because it pairs so well with grilled meats, roasted vegetables, and salads. However, my niece and plenty of her friends are firmly in the camp that mac and cheese is a complete meal by itself.
If you will serve Macaroni & Cheese as a main course, I’d add some toppings in the ‘How to Spice Up Mac and Cheese’ section below. If you are going to serve it as a side dish, here are some of my top recommendations for mac and cheese pairings.
- Southern Comfort Food – Mac and cheese is a staple across the American south for a good reason. It goes excellently with many oft-repeated dishes like barbeque, fried chicken, and chicken-fried steak. Many restaurants boast about how good their mac and cheese is in this region.
- French Cooking – That’s right, macaroni and cheese originated in France, so it makes a lot of sense to include it as a side dish if your main course comes from the region. Some of my favorite French main courses to have with mac and cheese are lamb chops and Jambón-Beurré (French Ham Sandwiches)
- Seafood – You might not have expected this, but there’s a reason that lobster mac and cheese is something I get every time I’m in New England (or anywhere with good lobster). Mac and cheese perfectly complement the light flavors of many types of white seafood, like lobster, and would be an excellent choice as a side dish. Fried or grilled white fish, like cod, make perfect choices.
- Vegetables – I like roasted deep green vegetables to contrast with the soft cheesy macaroni. Go for broccoli florets or brussels sprouts.
- Other – You can serve mac and cheese with almost anything; steak, sausage, ham, meatloaf are all very good with mac and cheese. When you spice up your macaroni and cheese the right way, there are really no bad choices.
The recipe below is for the base Macaroni Pasta and Mornay Sauce, and fortunately, that part is pretty easy. Where you can get tripped up is by adding freshly peeled herbs (use a herb peeler), spices, and extra ingredients to the base recipe. Here are my best tips for improving your macaroni and cheese experience. They aren’t in any particular order, and you don’t have to use them all.
- Use freshly shredded cheese – pre-shredded cheese uses anti-caking agents like potato starch to prevent clumping. If you store extra shredded cheese, you make it yourself. These additive ingredients ruin cheese taste, so use the cheese you slice yourself if you want the cheesiest mac and cheese possible.
- Just a bit of Sodium Citrate or 1 Slice of Cheese – Sodium citrate is in the typical supermarket cheeses like Velveeta and Kraft. It’s their secret ingredient to get the gooey texture ideally every time. You can find sodium citrate on Amazon if you can’t find it in your local supermarket. You can also use a slice of regular cheese if you don’t have any sodium citrate because the store-made cheese slices have enough sodium citrate in them for the whole recipe, and one Kraft cheese slice won’t ruin the authentic cheese taste.
- Limit Your Cheeses to 2 – 4 Kinds – Adding more types of cheeses than this can overload your taste buds. My current recommendation is to use coarsely shredded aged white cheddar and gruyère along with finely grated parmesan.
- If Baking in an Oven, Pre-Soak Macaroni and Add More Sauce – The macaroni will cook in the oven, so you don’t need to boil it in water on the stove, it only needs to be softened. You can pre-soak the noodles in almost any type of liquid; of course water works, but you can also use beer or milk if you want the macaroni to absorb the flavors to add a little extra twist to your dish. The macaroni will absorb some of the liquid sauce, so you need to add more than you think is necessary because the oven will reduce the sauce considerably.
- Secret Ingredients – Try adding a bit of dijon mustard or mustard powder to your sauce recipe. Trust me! Other great spices to consider adding are Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, nutmeg, garlic, Frank’s Red Hot Buffalo Sauce, and Sriracha sauce. The best herbs to use will depend on your main course or preferred toppings. I like to use thyme and bay leaf with fancier main courses but use bacon and bread crumbles if I’m aiming for a comfort food atmosphere.
- Cover however much pasta you’re making with cold water and bring to a boil and fully cook the past.
- Turn off heat, add 1/4 cup evaporated milk and bring to a simmer.
- Add 1 1/2 cups of freshly shredded cheddar cheese. Cook over low heat until the cheese has melted and the sauce is thick.
- Add any spices you like. I use salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and dijon mustard for this easy version.
Mac and cheese is one of those dishes that’s even better the next day. The flavors have had a chance to meld together and the pasta is nice and soft. However, reheating mac and cheese can be tricky because you don’t want it to be dry or rubbery.
I’ve found the old standby methods, like reheating mac and cheese in the microwave work, but they aren’t the best. Here’s how I reheat macaroni and cheese step by step. You can freeze mac and cheese and both of these should work after defrosting or refrigerating macaroni.
- Pre-heat oven or toaster oven to 250 degrees F
- Place mac and cheese in an oven-safe dish
- Add a splash of milk, water, or cream to the macaroni and cheese
- Cover with foil or lid
- Bake for 15-20 minutes, stirring once or twice during reheating process
- Remove from oven when heated through and enjoy!
- Heat an empty pan up over your burner on the medium-high heat setting.
- Add a splash of milk, water, or cream to the pan and let it warm.
- Add mac and cheese to the pan, stirring constantly just as the liquid starts to steam.
- Continue stirring until mac and cheese is heated through, usually about 6-8 minutes.
I hope you enjoyed my mac and cheese manifesto! These tips and tricks are sure to help you make the best macaroni and cheese you’ve ever had. Be sure to experiment with different cheeses, spices, and toppings to find your perfect mac & cheese combination. And don’t forget, leftovers are always better the next day.