Rosie Mayes’ Top 4 Tips for Making the Perfect Baked Mac and Cheese

published Feb 24, 2023
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Top image: Rosie Mayes, smiling. Bottom: her baked mac and cheese in a casserole dish
Credit: Credit: Top: Michael Kartes, Bottom: Rosie Mayes

There are few dishes as iconic to the South as baked mac and cheese. It’s one of those dishes that just about everyone is familiar with, and that has many different methods and techniques for perfecting it.

Mac and cheese is also arguably one of the most emblematic dishes when it comes to traditional soul food. It is believed that many of the baked mac and cheese recipes we know today were derived from James Hemings, who was enslaved and the chef of Thomas Jefferson, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Today the dish may be synonymous with general American comfort food, but it is deeply rooted in the history of African American foodways.

If you ask many people today what makes an amazing baked mac and cheese, you’re sure to get a multitude of answers. A lot of traditionalists love sticking with the classic elbow macaroni and shredded cheddar or Velveeta cheeses, while others like switching things up and opting for shells and other cheeses like Gouda, mozzarella, or provolone. You’ll also likely come across people who love the crispy edges of a baked mac and cheese, while others like it nice and creamy straight from the center.

No matter how you prefer your mac and cheese, there are some dilemmas you’ll have to address in order to get the kind you love. If you find yourself at a crossroads when making mac and cheese often, though, you’re in luck!

Rosie Mayes, author of I Heart Soul Food and the recent Super Soul Food, has made her fair share of fantastic baked mac and cheese recipes. In fact, Mayes’ video for making Southern baked mac and cheese, which was published nearly eight years ago, has amassed over two million views. In other words, Mayes knows a thing or two about making a crowd-pleasing mac and cheese. Here are her four best tips.

1. Don’t overcook your pasta.

This might seem like an obvious tip, but you’d be surprised! Not only is it easy to forget about that pot you have boiling away on the back burner before it’s too late, but it’s also difficult to salvage a large pot of mushy pasta. The key here is to cook the pasta more on the al dente side, even if you prefer a softer pasta. “You never want to overcook your pasta; you wanna make sure it’s just al dente,” says Mayes. “Otherwise you’re gonna have a gross macaroni and cheese and people will laugh at you!” This is because you need to take into account that the pasta will also cook more while it is baked in the oven surrounded by a hot cheese sauce. If you overcook the pasta, or even just cook the pasta normally, you run the risk of a mushy elbow that falls apart as you scoop it out. 

2. Be mindful of your budget.

Mayes says that when making a good mac and cheese, it’s not just about the flavor of the ingredients you use, but also the price of them. Mac and cheese can sometimes be a bit expensive to make — especially if you’re making a large batch of it. Also, you might be tempted to stock up on a few blocks of some high-quality pricey cheeses, but you can stick with a couple of basics that are affordable. “I would stick with [cheddar and Colby Jack cheese] if you’re looking for something that’s budget-friendly,” says Mayes. “If you don’t care and you wanna go all the way and you wanna add like a different taste, you can play around with other cheeses.”

3. Use eggs in your mac and cheese carefully.

One of the main debates when it comes to making a great baked mac and cheese is whether or not eggs belong in the dish. Many people feel like eggs are not at all necessary, while others believe that it’s a customary ingredient to get the perfect mac and cheese. Mayes says that including eggs in mac and cheese doesn’t always have to be off the table, but you have to know what kind of mac and cheese you want, texture-wise. Mayes says that if you prefer a mac and cheese that has a bit more density and holds its shape well, then you should consider including eggs. If you like a creamier mac and cheese, it’s better to skip the eggs! 

4. Don’t skip the toppings!

You may think your mac and cheese is complete once everything is in the baking dish and ready to go in the oven, but there’s one step to never forget: the topping! A nice, crunchy topping can really set your mac and cheese apart from the rest, notes Mayes. “If I wanna feel fancy and bougie, I will add like a nice crispy topping,” says Mayes. “Sometimes I make a [topping with] bacon breadcrumbs.”