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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell; Design: The Kitchn
Recipe Review

We Tested 4 Famous Stovetop Mac & Cheese Recipes and Found a Clear Winner

updated Jun 30, 2021
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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.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

Meet Our 4 Contenders

To crown a clear winner, I knew I had to battle off four recipes that each took a distinct approach. This led me to recipes from Carla Hall, Chef G. Garvin, Todd Porter and Diane Cu, and Serious Eats.

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.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

1. The Best Flavor Profile That Had One Fatal Flaw: Chef. G Garvin’s No-Bake Mac and Cheese

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.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

2. The Easiest Technique (Perfect for Weekday Lunches): Serious Eats’ 3-Ingredient Stovetop Mac and Cheese

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

3. The Best Technique: Todd and Diane’s Easy Stovetop Mac and Cheese

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.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

4. All the Bells and Whistles (and the Clear Winner): Carla Hall’s Mac and Cheese

I love Carla because she has a larger-than-life personality. She is vibrant and bold and does not hold back — just like this delicious mac and cheese. This was my overall winner because it was the one I simply could not stop eating. Even the leftovers were delicious!

Do you have a favorite stovetop mac and cheese recipe? Let us know in the comments!