I love to make rich, gooey mac and cheese from scratch with a creamy béchamel, heaping handfuls of sharp cheddar, and some Parmesan tossed in for good measure. Or if I'm keeping it simple, I'll make a quick sauce of heavy cream reduced until thick, with some herbs and cheese whisked in.
I also have a special love for the cheap, buck-a-box stuff, too, mainly because my kids can whip it up themselves whenever they need an after-school snack. With two double-digit-aged kids in my house, it's safe to say my pantry always has a box at the ready.
Unsurprisingly I'm not alone. According to the New York Times, about 2 million boxes of mac and cheese are sold in the United States each day. Clearly, we love the stuff, which is why there seems to be an ever-growing number of variations, from spicy Buffalo cheddar to dairy-free.
And even among basic cheddar versions there's a wide range of brands to choose from. Which one is the best? And what about those "deluxe" versions that use a thick cheese sauce rather than a packet of powder that cost three times the price — are they worth it?
To answer these burning questions, I grabbed all of the basic mac and cheese boxes I could find, then enlisted my mac and cheese-loving kids to help me set up a blind tasting.
How the Mac and Cheese Was Picked and Tested
I opted strictly for regular cheddar (none of that white cheddar stuff that some brands have). We bought the boxes that come with powder packets and the stuff with the already-gooey envelopes of cheese sauce. Then we put every pot we own into action, using every burner we have and then some (thank goodness for portable induction burners).
My tween helped me cook and set up a blind tasting for my teen and me. I worried that after cooking them I'd be able to visually tell them apart during the tasting. But I was giving my memory far too much credit. Those bowls of orange elbow noodles all looked the same.
The Boxed Mac and Cheese Taste Test Results
Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, $1.59 for 7.25 ounces
"Classic" was the first word that came to mind, and after the unveiling we weren't all that surprised. Kraft is the OG boxed mac. So what do we like about it? The sauce is creamy and plentiful, and has a decent amount of well-rounded cheese flavor — more so than the others.
Annie's Organic Mac and Cheese, $6.12 for four, 6-ounce boxes
This is the one I usually buy, so we were collectively surprised we didn't give it our top pick. The difference is this sauce tasted a bit more buttery than cheesy, which is odd considering it uses half the butter of Kraft. My youngest daughter (a mac and cheese aficionado) said Annie's white cheddar version has a lot more cheese flavor and would have won. We'll have to see about that.
Annie's Organic Creamy Deluxe Aged Cheddar, $22 for six 9.5-ounce boxes
This box comes with a ready-made rich, cheesy sauce — and lots of it. Plus the toothsome little shells offer a welcome textural counterpoint.
Whole Foods 365 Macaroni & Cheese, $1.69 for 6 ounces
Just a good basic version, with a slight toasty flavor that's not unwelcome. It's even less cheesy than Annie's, though.
Velveeta Shells and Cheese Original, $6.98 for three, 12-ounce boxes
Cracker Barrel Mac and Cheese Dinner Sharp Cheddar, $3.50 for 14 ounces at Target
This one is similar to the Velveeta in its butteriness, with a similarly silky and creamy sauce. The only real difference is this one has elbow macaroni and there's a slight chemically off-flavor on the finish.
While some sauces were more buttery than others, this one is downright milky. There's barely any cheese flavor to speak of. It's like when my kids were toddlers and they'd accidentally spill their milk into their bowl of mac. After the unveiling I remembered that this box calls for more milk than most (1/4 cup) and seems to have less cheese powder than the rest. No wonder!
It also goes overboard on the annatto, as this mac is deeply orange, even though it had less powder. It also is the only one that has sugar in the ingredients list.
Kraft Deluxe Original Cheddar, $3.50 for 14 ounces
At first bite, this one wowed us with a distinct tang and over-the-top cheesy flavor. It's indeed the most flavorful of the bunch. However, as those flavors unfolded in our mouths, they weirded us out. It's almost too intense, with an odd bitter and almost smoky note that's off-putting. I almost expected to see the words "flavor blasted" when I looked at the box later. There aren't any artificial colors or flavors, but something about this one is just a little too "extra," as my teen said.
Trader Joe's Macaroni & Cheese Wisconsin Cheddar, $16 for three 7-ounce boxes
Not only is the cheese sauce lacking in any flavor, but the one flavor we could distinctly detect was cardboard. Truly this tastes like someone blended up wet cardboard into the sauce. It's terrible. And, yes, we even added the optional 2 tablespoons of butter for "richer flavor."
Bonus Pick: We also tried Pamela's Gluten Free Mac and Cheese and would definitely have awarded it our number-one spot. But since it's gluten-free, it's kind of an outlier that should be compared to similar options. Still, keep this box in mind even if (like us) you're not eating gluten-free.
The elbow macaroni is made with rice flour and pea protein, so each serving has 14 grams of protein. And the cheese sauce was the most overtly cheesy we have tasted. Rich, creamy, and tangy, it has a touch of blue cheese that gives it an umami edge. Plus it comes in a spicy version.
What's your go-to box of mac and cheese?