I Tried Alton Brown’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese Recipe (& Here’s What I Thought)
I’m the first to endorse a no-frills, five-ingredient recipe — but I’m also a firm believer that baked mac and cheese shouldn’t be one of them. Sure, it’s doable — tossing noodles in a cheesy béchamel sauce (butter, flour, milk, cheese) will result in a creamy pasta dish — it just won’t have any flavor.
Much to my delight, Alton Brown’s baked mac and cheese is designed with flavor in mind. As he explains in the recipe’s popular Good Eats episode, he adds a number of bold seasonings to keep his roux (a mixture of butter and flour) from tasting like “library paste,” including a full tablespoon of dried mustard powder, a dash of paprika, some chopped onions, and a bay leaf. That said, as I found out, Alton’s actual recipe instructions left a lot to be desired.
How to Make Alton Brown’s Mac and Cheese
Alton Brown’s recipe looks easier than it really is, and that’s because the way it’s written lacks a lot of necessary detail. If you’re a mac and cheese pro, you’ll likely be fine. But if this is your first go-around with the homemade variety, the recipe as written is sort of setting you up for failure. The accompanying Good Eats clip does a much better job of explaining the steps, so you’ll want to watch that first or follow my tips below.
As the pasta cooks, you’ll make a roux: a mix of butter and flour that forms the base of the cheese sauce. Alton asks you to whisk the flour and mustard powder into the melted butter for five minutes. But instead of looking at your timer, watch your roux: it just needs to thicken into a paste and darken slightly in color, which will likely happen before the five minutes are up. If you overcook it, it won’t do as good of a job of thickening the sauce, not to mention your mac and cheese might taste like burnt butter.
You’ll then stir in the milk, onion, bay leaf, and paprika. The cold milk will cause the roux to sputter a bit, so stream it in very slowly. Again, Alton says simmer for 10 minutes, but what you’re really looking for is a thick and creamy sauce, whether that takes exactly 10 minutes or not. Stir it occasionally as it simmers to prevent a film from forming over the top of the milk.
Next up is Alton’s secret ingredient: an egg. In his video, he explains that it adds richness and creaminess, but it must be tempered before you just crack it in. Although the step “temper in the egg” might throw you off, it really just means you need to whisk some of the béchamel into the beaten egg before returning the egg mixture back to the pot, which will prevent it from scrambling when it hits the heat. Finally, you’ll stir in the pasta, top with buttered breadcrumbs, and bake until golden.
What I Thought of the Results
What Alton’s recipe lacked in detail it made up for in flavor. All the seasonings complemented each other for a well-balanced dish, and it totally delivered in the cozy comfort-food department (as any good baked mac and cheese should). Each bite was filled with al dente elbow noodles smothered in a perfectly creamy and cheesy sauce — not too thin, not too thick. The crunchy Panko breadcrumb topping sealed the deal for me. Overall, this was a fantastic mac.
My only other small issue with Alton’s mac and cheese is the addition of onion. I’m not against adding onion to mac and cheese (although I’d never done it before), but he calls for 1/2 cup of chopped onion, which is only about 1/4 of a yellow onion. I hate using that small of an amount of a vegetable — but he’s right that any more would make the dish too onion-y. Next time, I’ll omit it altogether, or opt for a small shallot instead so I can add the whole thing.
If You Make Alton Brown’s Mac and Cheese …
1. Don’t rely on his time estimates alone. Like I mentioned above, you’ll want to pay close attention to your roux and béchamel sauce and watch for indicators (a thickened roux, a creamy, bubbling sauce) rather than rely on the cook times provided. If you’re in a hurry, you can warm the milk in a separate pot before adding it to the roux, which will thicken the sauce more quickly.
2. Melt the butter for the breadcrumbs in the microwave. Instead of dirtying another dish (Alton’s recipe calls for a sauté pan), simply melt the butter in the microwave in a large liquid measuring cup or microwave-safe bowl, then add the breadcrumbs and toss to coat.
3. Broil the mac and cheese for a minute or two before serving. When I pulled this mac and cheese out of the oven, I was underwhelmed by the presentation. The breadcrumbs were only the slightest bit brown, and I was hoping for a super-crispy, golden topping. If you, too, want to serve a more impressive-looking dish, stick the whole thing under the broiler for a minute before serving.
Overall Rating: 8/10
If I was judging on taste alone, I would give Alton a 10/10. But a few frustrations during the prep put this mac at a solid 8.