We Tested 4 Famous Stovetop Mac & Cheese Recipes and Found a Clear Winner
Stovetop mac and cheese is probably every kid’s first brush with real cooking. For me, it came in the form of a box of Kraft. Boil and drain the pasta; mix in butter, the cheesy powder, and some milk; and enjoy your lunch! So easy a 9-year-old can do it.
Even though I do sometimes miss those little clumpy bites of cheese powder, I’ve grown up since my boxed mac and cheese days, and so have my taste buds. Stovetop mac and cheese from scratch is so much better — nothing beats a creamy cheese sauce on real macaroni. Plus, it’s often just as easy and cost-efficient as the boxed kind, and any extra effort is always worth it.
To me, the best homemade mac and cheese is the one with the silkiest, cheesiest sauce — and it has to be well-balanced in flavor, too. To find it, I battled off four recipes that all relied on different techniques, ranging from a classic roux to a pasta water emulsifier to one that’s made with eggs. Some called for whole milk, while others were made with heavy cream or evaporated milk. All had a cheddar cheese base, but some offered extras like pepper Jack, cream cheese, and even smoked cheddar! After tasting them all side by side, I found one that checks every box. My search for the perfect recipe is finally over.
Meet Our 4 Contenders
Because most mac and cheese recipes begin with a roux, I chose two of the most dynamic roux-based recipes the internet had to offer. Carla Hall’s version does not hold back — she uses cheddar cheese, pepper Jack, and cream cheese! She also incorporates caramelized onions and crispy bacon to really make this version next-level. Chef G. Garvin also uses a roux-based cheese sauce, but he takes it up a notch by incorporating over two pounds of cheese (!), making it the cheesiest of all the methods. He uses four types: mild cheddar, sharp cheddar, smoked cheddar, and Brie (those last two really sold me). The cheese-lover inside me could not resist.
Todd Porter and Diane Cu, of the White on Rice blog, use a slightly simpler technique. Rather than start their recipe with a roux, they rely on whisked eggs to create a creamy cheese sauce. Todd and Diane also add some spices that no other recipe called for: mustard powder and smoked paprika. But the simplest of all the recipes comes from Serious Eats. Their method felt the closest to making mac and cheese from the box — but better, because it all comes together in one pot and you don’t even need a colander to drain the pasta.
How I Tested the Recipes
To keep a level playing field, I used the same brands of cheese across the recipes. For sharp cheddar, I used Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar. I also used the Cabot brand for the mild cheddar and the pepper Jack. Across all recipes I used the same brand of pasta: Barilla macaroni. If any recipe required a short bake to melt cheese at the end, I omitted that step to keep it a stovetop-only showdown. I also cooked all the recipes on the same day and tasted them with my very opinionated 9-year-old.
1. The Best Flavor Profile That Had One Fatal Flaw: Chef. G Garvin’s No-Bake Mac and Cheese
- Overall rating: 5/10
- Get the recipe: Chef G. Garvin’s No-Bake Macaroni and Cheese
- Read more: This Recipe Revealed the Mac and Cheese Mistake We’re All Making (Here’s How to Fix It)
I simply couldn’t resist the amount and types of cheese that Chef G. Garvin offered. The glutton inside me (and every single one of my tastebuds) said, “You have to try it!” But in the end, this recipe had one fatal flaw: The cheese sauce was grainy and practically inedible. It was a major disappointment, considering how much delicious cheese went into it. If I were to make it again, I’d add the cheese in much more slowly, and do it off the heat.
2. The Easiest Technique (Perfect for Weekday Lunches): Serious Eats’ 3-Ingredient Stovetop Mac and Cheese
- Overall rating: 6/10
- Get the recipe: Serious Eats’ 3-Ingredient Stovetop Mac & Cheese
- Read more: I Tried the Internet-Famous 3-Ingredient Mac and Cheese (and I Get Why It’s So Popular)
Wow, this Serious Eats technique is seriously smart. It requires just one pot and you don’t even need a colander. With that said, it also has no flavor. I’d recommending stealing this technique but switching up the cheese game for the easiest from-scratch mac and cheese.
3. The Best Technique: Todd and Diane’s Easy Stovetop Mac and Cheese
- Overall rating: 8/10
- Get the recipe: Todd and Diane’s Easy Stovetop Mac and Cheese
- Read more: This Stovetop Mac and Cheese Is Extra Smooth and Silky, Thanks to One Surprising Ingredient
Todd Porter and Diane Cu showed up with my new favorite cheese sauce technique. Their recipe calls for a surprise ingredient — eggs! — which I’d never seen used in cheese sauce before. But while the addition of mustard powder and smoked paprika were nice, I wanted more in the flavor department. Next time, I’ll add a pinch of cayenne to bring in some heat.
4. All the Bells and Whistles (and the Clear Winner): Carla Hall’s Mac and Cheese
- Overall rating: 9.5/10
- Get the recipe: Carla Hall and Sam Champion’s Mac and Cheese
- Read more: This Loaded Stovetop Mac & Cheese Is So Good, I Can’t Stop Going Back for Seconds (and Thirds)
Do you have a favorite stovetop mac and cheese recipe? Let us know in the comments!