Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Which Baked Mac and Cheese Recipe Provides Pure Comfort?

Lille Allen/Eater

We tested four of the internet’s most popular baked mac and cheese recipes to find out

Controversial opinion: I tend to prefer stovetop mac and cheese over the seemingly more popular baked variation (it has something to do with Boston Market being a formative childhood experience). But for the purposes of this challenge — finding the best internet-famous baked mac and cheese recipe — that was a boon. I had no allegiance to any particular technique for baked mac and cheese, and I was ready to be swayed by its merits.

There are many, many recipes for baked mac and cheese on the internet, so I decided to narrow down my options by focusing on four distinct techniques: a roux-based recipe, a Southern-style recipe using eggs, a no-boil recipe, and a no-roux recipe that featured toasted breadcrumbs. After grating a lot of cheese and eating a lot of mac, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the results.

Creamy Macaroni and Cheese

Julia Moskin, NYT Cooking

The New York Times’s Julia Moskin asks you to trust the process: Her mac and cheese is a no-boil, one-bowl recipe. While Moskin cuts the effort of both boiling pasta and making a cheese sauce, she does require you to pull out a blender to make a mixture of cottage cheese and milk. You throw the mixture into a baking dish with the uncooked noodles and grated cheddar cheese and cover it with foil. Then, the oven does the rest of the work. After 30 minutes of covered baking, during which the noodles soften up, you stir the dish, add cheese and butter, and bake it again until it’s cooked through and browned on top.

Although this recipe’s ease was immediately appealing, no-boil pasta recipes have disappointed me in the past — I’ve wound up with still-crunchy noodles or sauces that never turned as thick and glossy as promised. Despite my initial skepticism, I figured there was something in the wisdom of the crowd — Moskin’s recipe has five stars, based on 15,000 reviews. It’s worth noting that it’s on the smaller side, using ½ pound of cheese and 9-inch round or square baking dish.

Verdict: My fears weren’t assuaged after the initial bake: The mac and cheese looked unfixably dry in some places, woefully wet in others. But when I took it out after the second bake, I found that I’d judged too soon. It looked and tasted just right: There was a toasty quality where the cheese had browned, and the mustard brought out the sharpness of the cheese, keeping the flavor from being one-note.

The texture, too, was better than I’d expected. The noodles were soft enough to warrant no complaints but firm enough to stand up to the cheese. While the liquid didn’t emulsify with the cheese into a totally smooth sauce — there was some graininess and separation — the sauce still felt creamy overall. (Some commenters cite better results using white cheddar, a mix of cheddar and Monterey Jack, or cheese that they’ve grated themselves instead of bought grated.)

In flavor, texture, and effort, I was impressed. My dining partner called it a mac and cheese he’d be happy to eat as the main dish, not just as a side. I’d make it again, especially when I can’t spare another burner or don’t want to stand around at the stove. Either way, it’s a good recipe for multitasking.

Tineke Younger’s Mac and Cheese

Reprinted by Bailey Fink, Allrecipes

People have gotten too generous with the term “viral recipe,” but this mac and cheese recipe is undeniably deserving of it. With over 94 million views on TikTok, it swept the 2023 holiday season after creator Tineke Younger, more commonly known as Tini, posted it on the platform in November. Obviously, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

Younger’s recipe stands out for a few reasons. For one thing, it relies on a thick, roux-based cheese sauce, which is how I’m used to making mac and cheese. Second, it uses a full 2 ½ pounds of cheese — a combination of cheddar, mozzarella, and Colby Jack — which is distributed between the cheese sauce and a separate layer of grated cheese. Third, the recipe rejects classic elbow pasta for cavatappi, which has a larger, curlier shape. It also relies on garlic powder, smoked paprika, and Dijon for flavor.

Verdict: I understood the hype around this mac and cheese as soon as my serving spoon hit the top, which cracked like a creme brulee. I lifted the spoon and found a Shelob’s Lair-level of cheese pulls. As if that wasn’t enough, the dish was delicious, slightly smoky and deeply savory like a Cheez-It. Each bite offered the sensations of creamy, chewy, and crunchy, and my dining partner found the cheesy edges in particular “absolutely fantastic.”

Frankly, I’d be more surprised if a recipe with this much cheese turned out bad. But Younger’s recipe is smart beyond its sheer excess. The mix of cheeses is helpful: Cheddar is flavorful, while mozzarella and Colby jack are stellar melters. There’s no need for a grated-cheese topping when the sauce itself broils into an even coating of crispy golden brown. Assembling it in layers, with grated cheese between the two, ensures those ropes of gooey cheese. And where elbows would likely be overwhelmed, cavatappi ensures a balanced ratio of cheese and noodle in every bite.

Overall, it’s a showstopper mac and cheese and a great recipe, if a bit rich to eat all the time. As far as effort goes, I had no complaints; the hardest part is grating the cheese, which is to say, it’s pretty easy. One thing I’d keep in mind is that although Allrecipes’s write-up calls for making the cheese sauce in a skillet, I’d opt for a Dutch oven or large pot since there’s quite a lot of liquid before even before you add the cooked pasta.

Easy Southern Style Baked Mac and Cheese

Tieghan Gerard, Half Baked Harvest

Tieghan Gerard of Half Baked Harvest is one of the internet’s biggest food bloggers, and having never made one of her recipes — at least, to my knowledge — I figured it would be worth giving her mac and cheese recipe a shot. Since it’s a Southern mac and cheese, it uses a milk-and-egg base instead of a roux, which helps bind the noodles together and results in a slightly firmer texture than recipes without eggs.

Gerard bills this recipe as easy, and indeed it is. You boil the noodles, then throw all the ingredients into one bowl. (Gerard also calls for sour cream or Greek yogurt in addition to milk.) Considering that you don’t need a blender, the recipe balances out to about as much work (and dishes) as Moskin’s. Two things about it stood out to me. For one, the seasonings are slim — just a few teaspoons of Cajun seasoning, which Gerard lists as optional. I was also surprised that the recipe didn’t specify how to add the butter to the base, when similar recipes make this explicit. All that aside, I still appreciated the recipe’s simplicity.

Verdict: As I expected, this mac and cheese had a more set texture than the others. It also felt the lightest and least cheesy, despite calling for more cheese than Moskin’s version. The cheese inside didn’t read as creamy — it hung off the noodles in strings, rather than coating them — and there were grainy white clumps, which I assume were due to both the addition of the egg and a lack of emulsification between the cheese and liquid dairy.

The herb garnish and crispy broiled cheese bits on the top were a nice highlight, and I appreciated that the dish didn’t feel as heavy as mac and cheese sometimes can, but neither my dining partner nor I were happy with its overall texture or flavor. Even after adding Cajun seasoning on the high end of Gerard’s recommendation, it read a little boring. Even a pinch of smoked paprika would have gone a long way in building out the flavor. I’ve eaten and loved plenty of Southern-style mac and cheese; next time I’ll use a different recipe.

Baked Mac and Cheese

Beth Moncel, Budget Bytes

Cheese can be expensive — especially in the quantities needed for mac and cheese, and especially now — so I was happy to see this recipe from Budget Bytes. Their recipe has the least cheese of the ones I tried, calling for just 2 ¼ cups. (It’s also the smallest, using ½ pound of pasta baked in an 8-by-8-inch dish.) But could it be as satisfying?

The technique behind this mac and cheese recalls a simplified version of Tineke Younger’s recipe. You first make a cheese sauce, though Budget Bytes calls for a combination of chicken broth and heavy cream instead of a roux. The sauce thickens slightly after you add the cheese and simmer it, but remains on the runnier side. You then toast breadcrumbs, which you mix with a little bit of shredded cheese to use as a topping. As in Younger’s recipe, you assemble the mac and cheese in layers, with a layer of shredded cheese in the middle.

The recipe also calls for a generous amount of seasoning: It relies on garlic powder, smoked paprika, Italian seasoning, and cayenne in addition to the salt, pepper, and chicken broth. These spices are used both in the sauce and in the breadcrumbs.

Verdict: This recipe might be budget-conscious, but the finished product doesn’t taste like any concessions were made. It had a cohesively creamy, smooth texture. That, combined with the cheese layer in the middle, resulted in more of a cheese pull than I expected. The sauce, which was runny on the stove, thickened up nicely in the oven, and, along with the seasoned breadcrumbs, gave the finished dish a nice depth of flavor. Although I was skeptical that the chicken stock would add enough flavor to really be necessary, it came through perceptibly. I imagine vegetable stock would work fine too.

Breadcrumbs seem to be hit-or-miss in mac and cheese — they’re notably absent from the other recipes I tested — but here, they add a sense of heft and satisfaction that offsets the relative lack of cheese. The breadcrumbs coated each bite, adding that textural variation that in other recipes came from broiled, crispy cheese. My dining partner described this mac and cheese as “a little milder but very satisfying,” adding that it “would be a great side, like at a barbecue.” It was a solid recipe that I would definitely make again, especially if I’m trying to cut back on butter or use less cheese.

Winner: NYT Cooking’s Creamy Mac and Cheese for everyday meals — and Tineke Younger’s mac and cheese for a special occasion

My taste-test partner and I kept going back and forth on this one, agreeing that it was undeniably down to Younger’s mac and cheese or Moskin’s. When I want mac and cheese from scratch — compared to the boxed stuff — it’s usually for reasons that extend beyond hunger alone. I want soul-nourishing comfort food that makes me feel like I’m being swaddled and held, and both of these recipes delivered that sense of indulgence and care via cheese.

Younger’s recipe does that to the nth degree; I’m not sure you can make a richer mac and cheese. But do I want to commit to that all the time? Probably not — I don’t love grating that much cheese, and I think I’d tire of this mac and cheese if I ate it too often. I appreciate how effortlessly Moskin’s recipe gets to a similarly satisfying, albeit slightly lighter, conclusion. It’s a recipe I could see myself making on random weeknights, especially when I’m pressed for time or energy, whereas I’ll likely reserve Younger’s recipe for special occasions. And you know what? It’s so easy and good that I might even make it instead of stovetop mac sometimes.

My main takeaway from this experiment is that while a roux isn’t necessary for a creamy finished product, I prefer the texture of a mac and cheese that begins with a cheese sauce base, as opposed to one that relies on liquid dairy and cheese to combine in the oven. The former seemed to result in a better coating around each noodle and avoided the risk of curdling or graininess. Although the milk and cheese in Moskin’s recipe didn’t 100 percent emulsify for me, I still found the end result satisfying and creamy enough, especially considering the low amount of work that went into it and the possibility that the result might differ with different cheeses.

With both Younger’s and Moskin’s recipes, my dining partner — who hadn’t seen any of the cooking process or ingredients — remarked on an extra bit of flavor. The takeaway: A little mustard makes mac and cheese better, whether it’s ground or Dijon. It doesn’t make the dish taste like mustard so much as it rounds out and amps up the flavor of the cheese. It’s subtle but worth it.

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