We Tried 6 Ways of Cooking Mac & Cheese, and the Winner Swept Them All
For many of us, mac and cheese is a go-to staple that’s guaranteed to please everyone in the family. There’s nothing wrong with boxed stuff at all, but when you cook up homemade mac and cheese, that’s something special. Many holiday feasts are simply incomplete unless there’s homemade mac and cheese on the table. Never mind the turkey or ham — bring on the creamy, cheesy carbs.
We know that there are tons of mac and cheese recipes out there, so we wanted to pit some of the most popular ones against each other to determine the best. Which recipe will win the title of best mac and cheese, and deliver the creamiest, cheesiest, richest, most delightful rendition? There’s only one way to find out.
So, What’s the Best Mac and Cheese Recipe?
Carla Hall’s mac and cheese is the very best recipe we tested. The four cheese was extra creamy, the noodles were perfectly cooked, and the cheese cracker topping was next-level.
Meet Our 6 Mac and Cheese Contenders
In this update of our previous mac and cheese showdown, we expanded the test to include six contenders instead of four, stuck with celebrity recipes, and brought in mostly new recipes and just one repeat (from Ina Garten).
All of the recipes are baked; we did not include stovetop mac and cheeses, although you could check out our thoughts on those here. All of the recipes call for elbow macaroni, with one specifying ridged pasta — but that’s where the similarities end.
Some recipes use a cheese sauce that starts with a classic bechamel (white sauce made with a roux and milk), while others skip that in favor of eggs for binding and thickening. About half of the versions use a combination of cheeses and the others stick to one kind. Some include a breadcrumb or cracker topping for crunch, while yet others sprinkle on more cheese as the topping. All in all, each recipe yielded distinctly different results.
- Patti LaBelle: This recipe includes an indulgent amount of butter, modest amounts of four cheeses (Muenster, mild and sharp cheddar, and Monterey Jack), and a good bit of Velveeta. Rather than make a cheese sauce, the cooked pasta, cheeses, and butter get stirred together with eggs and half-and-half. A sprinkling of cheese tops the mac before it bakes.
- Trisha Yearwood: The most straightforward of the bunch, this recipe uses macaroni mixed with a simple roux-based sharp cheddar cheese sauce, then tops it with buttered breadcrumbs and bakes for a short time.
- Nigella Lawson: The unique method for this mac and cheese has you blend together mature cheddar, evaporated milk, eggs, and seasonings in a food processor, then combine that mixture with cooked macaroni and bake for a short time at a high temperature.
- Ina Garten: The only repeat contender from our previous mac and cheese showdown, this version of the comfort food classic features lots of Gruyère alongside sharp cheddar in a roux-based cheese sauce. The mac is topped with sliced tomatoes and buttered fresh breadcrumbs before baking.
- Carla Hall: This recipe uses a combination of four cheeses — two kinds of sharp cheddar and two kinds of smoked cheeses — in its roux-based sauce. And instead of breadcrumbs, the casserole is topped with crushed cheese crackers.
- Deb Perelman: This one promised to be the easiest of the bunch. You whisk together sour cream, milk, and seasonings, then stir in uncooked pasta and a mountain of shredded extra-sharp cheddar. You pour the mixture into a baking dish, cover, and bake.
How I Tested the Mac and Cheese Recipes
- I made the recipes over a span of two days. I couldn’t manage preparing all six recipes at once, but did time each batch of three recipes so that I could taste them side-by-side, at the same time. I made the second batch of three recipes the day after the first batch so that my memories of the first batch would be fresh.
- I used glass and ceramic casserole dishes. While I did consider using disposable foil pans for easy cleanup, I figured that’s not what most cooks would use in their homes when cooking for their families.
- I used the same brand of common ingredients when possible. I used Mueller’s elbow macaroni for five of the recipes but had to use a different brand for the recipe that called for ridged elbows (I could only find that product from Barilla). The cheeses ran the gamut, though, from standard cheddar to more artisanal varieties; for any “basic” cheeses, I used Kraft.
Why You Should Trust Me as a Tester
In my 25 years in food media (20 as a magazine editor, five as a freelance recipe developer and food writer), I have written, tested, and developed literally thousands of recipes. I know how to evaluate a recipe for flavor, texture, and clarity of the process.
1. The Most Disappointing Mac and Cheese: Trisha Yearwood’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese
2. The Closest to Boxed Mac and Cheese: Patti LaBelle’s Over-the-Rainbow Macaroni and Cheese
Overall rating: 6.5/10
Get the recipe: Patti LaBelle’s Over-the-Rainbow Macaroni and Cheese
Reportedly, this recipe from the Godmother of Soul once pleased the likes of Elton John. It forgoes a roux-based cheese sauce and instead mixes a stick of melted butter, a pint of half-and-half, a couple of beaten eggs, and five types of cheeses into the cooked pasta. The cheese blend includes 2 ounces each of Muenster, mild cheddar, sharp cheddar, and Monterey Jack, plus 8 ounces of Velveeta.
Once baked, the mac and cheese had that sort of curdled look that eggy mac and cheeses get; it’s definitely a style that many people love, but I wanted more creaminess. All of those mild cheeses add up to a subdued flavor that’s most reminiscent of boxed mac and cheese. So even though this mac and cheese wasn’t the creamiest or most flavorful, it did hit some familiar comfort notes.
3. The Simplest Mac and Cheese: Deb Perelman’s Easiest Baked Macaroni and Cheese
Overall rating: 7/10
Get the recipe: Deb Perelman’s Easiest Baked Macaroni and Cheese
The recipe title does not lie: This recipe, Deb Perelman’s (aka Smitten Kitchen) adaptation of a New York Times recipe, is indeed very easy to make. You simply whisk together some sour cream, milk, and seasonings, then stir in uncooked pasta and an enormous amount of shredded sharp cheddar (a 2:1 ratio of cheese to pasta!). You pour the mixture into a dish (I used a deep-dish pie plate), cover, and bake, giving the mixture a stir halfway through. That’s it.
The finished dish is impossibly cheesy, all tangy sharp cheddar flavor. But what you gain in ease you lose in creaminess. The finished mac and cheese took on a curdled look from all of that cheese melting without exactly binding with or incorporating into a sauce. The flavor is great, and it’s a much easier way to get homemade mac and cheese on the table, but it’s not particularly creamy.
4. The Most Interesting Mac and Cheese: Nigella Lawson’s Macaroni Cheese
Overall rating: 8/10
Get the recipe: Nigella Lawson’s Macaroni Cheese
The process for this recipe intrigued me: While the pasta boils, you combine cheese, evaporated milk, eggs, and seasonings in a food processor (a blender would also work) and purée it. You’re not making a béchamel, but you are breaking the cheese down into tiny bits and incorporating it thoroughly with the wet ingredients. You then mix the pasta with the cheese sauce, pour the mixture into a casserole dish, and bake at 425°F for just 10 to 15 minutes.
I’ll admit that I was skeptical as it went into the oven; it was quite soupy, and I was unsure of the short cook time at such a relatively high temperature. But I was pleasantly surprised at the results. The sauce, bound with egg, does get that curdled-custard look, but the mac and cheese still came across as somewhat creamy.
The recipe calls for mature cheddar, red Leicester, or a mix of the two. I used half and half (and the red Leicester was much easier to find than I thought it would be). The flavor was outstanding, complex with aged cheese. For a quick, easy riff, this one was tasty and one I will likely make again.
5. The Elegant Mac & Cheese: Ina Garten’s Mac and Cheese
6. The Cheesiest, Best-Overall Mac and Cheese: Carla Hall’s Four-Cheese Creamy Mac and Cheese
Overall rating: 10/10
Get the recipe: Carla Hall’s Four-Cheese Creamy Mac and Cheese
For me and my additional tasters (my husband, kids, and some friends), this mac and cheese simply crushed the competition. It’s not one of the easier ones to make, but it’s also not especially difficult.
You whisk up a white sauce, starting with an onion-enhanced roux and then adding milk, and once it’s thickened, you stir in your four cheeses: yellow and white sharp cheddar, smoked cheddar, and smoked provolone. You’ll also boil the pasta, but only until it’s barely al dente, a mere 2 to 3 minutes. When everything is combined, it might seem soupy (it did to me), but don’t worry — it’s more than fine in the finished dish.
The topping here is cheddar-Parmesan cheese crackers that are crumbled in a food processor and mixed with melted butter. The overall effect of this mac and cheese was “Wow!” The cheeses came together beautifully, giving tangy and sharp cheddar notes that are complemented by the complexity of the smoked cheeses. Whereas sometimes smoked cheese can overwhelm a dish, here it all came together in perfect balance. The pasta had a great texture, holding its own and nowhere near mushy, yet also plenty tender. The crunchy cheese cracker topping took it all over the top. This mac and cheese is phenomenally good.