The search for the best baked macaroni and cheese recipe has been…difficult. How can one hate anything composed of pasta and cheese? But we persisted through 9 popular recipes to try to document the perfect choice for your Thanksgiving table!
It’s particularly hard to identify my ideal mac and cheese since I’ll pretty much never turn down any kind. But in general, I prefer a creamy, looser consistency (imagine stovetop but with a crunchy lid) and I love the bite of a sharp cheese and depth of flavor to cut through the single-note richness of some mac and cheeses. Let’s see how our 9 recipes fared!
- 26 total tasters
- All 9 recipes were baked the day of tasting
- All mac and cheeses were baked in a greased pan
- All tasters ranked each mac and cheese on a scale from 0-10 for overall flavor, texture, and as a whole
- All ingredients were measured by weight according to the King Arthur website
- HEB organics elbow macaroni
- Emmi Gruyere
- Murray’s white cheddar, fontina, extra-sharp white cheddar, Pecorino Romano, Parmesan, grana padano and Gouda
- Tillamook sharp yellow cheddar
- Gold Medal unbleached all-purpose flour
- Unsalted Land O Lakes butter
- Diamond kosher salt
Once again, I must reiterate that NONE of these mac and cheeses were bad. I would eat them all again (and I did, for days). The rankings below are just a snapshot of how my group of tasters felt about these recipes, but I think each recipe would be a happy addition to any table. I encourage you to at least skim each description to find your perfect mac!
- Dairy: The grand majority of these recipes used milk, but Tyler and Edna also use heavy cream while Poole’s uses exclusively heavy cream. The fact that Poole’s was voted the #1 mac here is likely due in part to the addicting richness of the cream, but also the mix of cheeses in the recipe. In the end, it’s rather obvious but milk is the better choice for a mac and cheese you want to eat a lot of because it will lighten the overall dish quite a bit. (But cream for a showstopping richness!) The addition of sour cream to Edna’s recipe is honestly what I think brought down its score so much–the tangy thickness from the sour cream was quite divisive among the tasters.
- Bake vs. broil: I appreciated that Tyler and Poole’s recipes both had a baked-style mac and cheese but only called for a brief broil at the end (these would be great make ahead dishes since they’re so fast to finish!). Obviously the broiled recipes were quite a bit creamier than the baked ones out of the oven, but eventually most solidified to the same texture at room temperature. If you’re looking for a very creamy mac with a crispy top, I’d recommend using buttered panko crumbs + a quick broil!
- Egg vs. no egg: Oof, a controversial subject. I tested 3 recipes with egg (Edna, Alton and Chrissy) and unfortunately none of them fared very well. Egg provides thickening and binding properties (same as a roux), but it also lends a kind of casserole-y texture that most didn’t seem to prefer.
- Breadcrumbs: Among the recipes we tried, there were multiple types of breadcrumbs used: panko, buttered panko, Italian breadcrumbs and torn, toasted bread tossed in butter. My strongest preference by far was for the buttered panko–plain panko falls a little flat in comparison. Italian breadcrumbs added amazing flavor, but I didn’t prefer the sawdust consistency of the brand I used. And the torn bread atop Martha didn’t get nearly as crispy crunchy as the panko crumbs (and was more work). This is just my hot take!
- Cheese: No surprise that cheddar is by far the most popular contributor in this group. Based on the top two rated mac and cheeses, it does appear that multiple cheeses provide a depth of flavor that most seemed to prefer. But then you have Julia Moskin’s mac and cheese, which rocked some people’s world with just cheddar. Obviously, use the type of cheese that you prefer–but do consider using a few types of cheese (I particularly liked the use of pecorino romano/Grana Padano for the sharper accent in combination with other cheeses.)
- Sodium citrate: I specifically chose the NYT Stouffer’s recipe for its use of Velveeta, which contains sodium citrate. More on how this turned out below, but ultimately while I think this resulted in an extremely creamy sauce while hot, I didn’t think it reheated particularly well. I’d be curious to try adding plain sodium citrate to another dish to see if it really creates a significantly creamier texture!
Analysis of the Best Baked Macaroni and Cheeses
Edna Lewis: a tangy, onion-infused, rich and thick mac and cheese
Although the list of ingredients for Edna’s southern-style mac and cheese looks forbiddingly long, this was actually a relatively easy recipe! Cubes of cheddar cheese get mixed in with the cooked pasta which eventually gets doused in a mixture of spices, sour cream, eggs and cream (no cooking required)–plus the unusual addition of grated onion and Worcestershire. Ultimately, everything gets topped with a shower of grated cheese before going into the oven.
This dish is certainly bursting with flavor–in comparison with other recipes, this recipe was TANGY thanks to the sour cream. The onion, dry mustard and Worcestershire contributes to the extreme savoriness and the texture was almost like a souffle in places, with the cream and eggs combining to create a very rich casserole effect. While I enjoyed this recipe, I preferred recipes that were slightly creamier (less eggy) and with less tang, which I felt detracted from the cheesiness. Tasters generally seemed to be deterred by the amount of onion in this, but if you like a lot of flavor (and onion), this is a great option!
- This complex flavor is fire. Strong au gratin vibes with nutmeg? Onion? Whatever it is, I really like it! Another contender for my family’s Thanksgiving table!
- Not traditional but very good. Creamy.
- Doesn’t really taste like Mac and cheese. More like macaroni salad and something I would eat cold. Strong mustard taste? Almost a little too sharp in terms of cheese.
- Too oniony for my liking which overpowers the cheese flavor. Also for some reason it kinda tasted like mayo or chive cream cheese? Not the biggest fan
- I appreciate its uniqueness but they are not flavors I would seek out above other Mac and cheese.
- Way too oniony and clumpy, uneven cheese with some funky flavors.
- The first taste is onion. The aftertaste is onion. Not looking for this in a mac. Very sad that I hated the onion because the crust was a great texture.
Alton Brown: a crusty-topped mac and cheese enhanced with onion, mustard powder, and bay leaf
I had to give Alton’s recipe a try after it won The Kitchn’s bake off (dubbed “creamy and flavorful and bubbly and cheesy”). It starts with a bechamel base infused with onion, bay leaf and paprika to which you add egg and sharp cheddar. Lastly, you top everything off with buttery panko crumbs before baking.
Although Edna and Alton both use egg as a binder, I found Alton’s mac and cheese to be far less thick and casserole-like (probably due to the lack of sour cream, less egg, and milk rather than cream + half and half). However, Alton’s recipe calls for diced onion rather than Edna’s grated onion, and we found the onion flavor quite overpowering–rather than enhancing the cheese flavor, it took front and center. I did love the crunchy, buttery panko top on this, but found it a little one-note with prominent onion flavor.
- Loved the breadcrumbs and onions. Very casserole-y vibes and I like it.
- A little tangy and love the crunchy top. Wish it was creamier and cheesier though
- Flavor isn’t as strong as the previous ones. But still delicious. I feel like this would pair well with a sharper dish as a nice side
- Cheesy but not creamy enough. Still enjoyed it though!
- A bit bland, could be saltier, a little too much onion
- Holy moly the onion smacked me in the face. Love the twist on Mac and cheese. Not enough cheese
- The bland breadcrumbs were utterly superfluous. Meh
NYT Stouffer’s: a Velveeta-powered, ultra-creamy mac and cheese that happily outshines its namesake
This new release from the NYT is designed to call back to the iconic Velveeta shells. It starts with a simple bechamel base enhanced with a generous amount of butter, onion and mustard powder and finishes with three types of cheese: sharp or extra-sharp yellow cheddar, Pecorino Romano and a little Velveeta for the sodium citrate that helps provide creaminess.
Although I admittedly avoid Velveeta like the plague, I actually loved the flavor of this mac and cheese–the Pecorino adds a salty bite that punches up an already rich and luxurious sauce. More than one person commented that the picture from the website “looks like soup” and mine looked equally soupy when I pulled it from the oven–but it firmed up quite a bit after cooling to room temperature. I don’t know that the sodium citrate quite lived up to its name (when reheating this mac and cheese, it was actually grainier than some of the others). Overall, while I loved the flavor of this, I think I would probably opt to make others in the future simply because I probably wouldn’t buy Velveeta again. It also seems like a tricky dish to serve because it was VERY runny while hot out of the oven, but a little congealed when cool–but if you like very loose mac and cheese, definitely give this a try! (Note: many purchase pure sodium citrate and add it to mac and cheese to get the same creamy effect without having to use Velveeta or American cheese. Note #2: this recipe calls for cooking the pasta just past al dente (all other recipes called for al dente) and I found these noodles to be slightly soggier. Would cook to al dente next time.)
- This was VERY good. Almost like a gourmet sub for Velveeta mac and cheese
- Golden color. I loved the texture on this one–soo creamy and gooey. Smooth cheddar texture, a little sharp for my preference but overall good.
- I think the main flavor of this one was fake cheese but if it was mixed with more real cheese then maybe it would be better
- Really good, creamy, but still feels like it’s missing some flavor. Orange color is reminiscent of boxed Mac and cheese. Good but in a different category than the others. Like less fancy.
- Not a fan. Kind of like grainy and not too much flavor. Makes me think of Velveeta. Reminds me of what they’d serve at a BBQ joint
- Am I tasting Velveeta? I normally like a Velveeta mac, but now that I’ve tried the others, this lacks pizzazz.
- A little bland and starchy with a mushy texture. Reminds me of cafeteria food but would still prob eat again.
Martha Stewart: this towering, breadcrumb-topped mac and cheese is a slightly bland classic
This highly-requested recipe by Martha uses a fairly simple bechamel (just seasoned with salt/pepper/nutmeg), but calls for an extra step that most others don’t: fresh bread torn into pieces and toasted in butter before topping the final casserole. Cheese-wise, Martha calls for a mix of sharp white cheddar and either Gruyere or pecorino romano (I used Gruyere).
I was excited to see if the torn bread would add some omph that breadcrumbs couldn’t achieve, but ultimately the homemade “breadcrumbs” kind of toasted in the oven but didn’t provide nearly as much crunch as panko crumbs. The flavor of toasty buttered bread was nice, but a little monotonous next to the rich, cheesy pasta. Texturally, this one was quite thick and casserole-esque (it makes an absolutely enormous batch) and while I loved the luxurious texture of this pasta, I would have preferred it just a tad looser and creamier. I also wanted a little more bite from the cheese–next time, I might go the pecorino route or do half Gruyere, half pecorino. I can see why people are a big fan of this recipe, but in my opinion, there are other options that can offer more for less work!
- Here the breadcrumbs work quite well. They give a bit of crunch & compliment the soft pasta with a well balanced cheesines (gooey factor) & discernible cheese flavor.
- So dense and rich, almost casserole-ish. Love the crisp top and great spice level on top but could use a tiny more in the sauce
- This was hella cheesy, but I think it leaned a little bit too much on richness than anything else–not very flavorful and don’t think the crouton on top added much
- The topping and the pepper work really well with this mac. Crunchy top was the best part, the part below the top was a bit bland though
- The breading on the top of this mac and cheese was everything! Without it, maybe not so memorable. But the crispy texture was a very tasty complement.
- Tastes like…noodles with breadcrumbs. Not my jam.
- Not my fav. Cheese on top was kinda off. And the texture is just clumpy.
Chrissy Teigen: a cheesy-topped, cheddar-forward mac and cheese that lacked in sauciness
Like Edna and Alton, Chrissy’s rendition (really John Legend’s) was another egg-based mac and cheese. Interestingly, this recipe calls for both evaporated and whole milk, but no flour to make a roux. Flavor comes from a generous amount of butter, seasoning salt, garlic powder and a lot of extra sharp cheddar.
First, I’ll note baker’s error here–I halved the recipe but baked it for the full amount of time (I should have checked it earlier) which I think is why the top is more bronzed than others. To be honest, I think the longer bake time actually did this recipe a favor as the caramelized, savory flavor really came through with the toasty cheese lid. The garlic powder comes through very prominently here, but unfortunately it felt like any sauce had all but evaporated–the noodles underneath the cheese lid felt more like loose buttery, vaguely cheesy noodles rather than a cohesive casserole (unsure if this was due to the baker’s error or it’s simply the recipe). I also couldn’t tell if the evaporated milk was really doing anything here; I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to buy evaporated milk again just to make this.
- This one is SO GOOD. Mildish cheddar flavor, but the CRUSTTT YO crust is so good. We need more chz crust. Chz crust 4 world peace
- HELLO! Give me more! Got a corner piece and savored every bite. It had a really lovely salty, cheesy flavor. This is a contender for my family’s Thanksgiving table.
- Golden color. Top thin toasted crunch layer that I like. Cheese sadly didn’t melt well and very clumpy. Good flavor profile. I liked the baked cheese on top. A little dry and not much flavor
- Also tasty, it was less creamy than the others I’ve tried so far and therefore not my fav but still really good
- I liked the crispier darker cheese. Reminiscent of lasagna though. I tend to want my Mac and cheese creamier than this.
- The crispiness of this one!! SO delicious. Really enjoyed the texture in this one! Like crispy parmesan chicken
- This was a very good looking mac, but I was disappointed that it also lacked a strong cheese flavor. It really seemed more like butter noodles with a cheese top baked on, and I wanted more cheese throughout.
- It was good but I felt there were too many noodles and wasn’t proportionate with the amount of cheese
Tyler Florence: a simple and rich, crunchy mac and cheese
I was extremely intrigued by this recipe nomination–this specific version of Tyler’s recipe uses an herb-infused bechamel, but the unique part of this recipe is that he doesn’t shred the cheese–it’s all incorporated into the pasta via 1/2-inch chunks. The whole casserole is topped with plain panko crumbs.
Tyler notes that you can use Muenster, Gouda or Monterey Jack. Perhaps it was the brand of Gouda I used, but when I added the cheese chunks into the hot sauced pasta, the heat and motion didn’t seem to melt and stretch the cheese at all per the instructions. It did get very melty in the oven, of course, but it wasn’t notably stretchier than any other mac and cheeses. I did like the flavor of this one (the garlic, herb and bay leaf add a nice herby undertone), but it really hinges on the type of cheese you use. My takeaway: maybe we don’t need to shred our cheese?? Should we all just use cheese cubes from now on?! Also a note that the panko was delightfully crunchy but a bit bland–I would borrow the technique from Alton of tossing the panko in melted butter before adding them to the mac and cheese next time.
- The Platonic ideal for Mac & Cheese. Good texture. Flavor was well defined without being overwrought. The tensil pull on the pasta was perfect! Probably my favorite
- My first thought was, “This is unique – what am I tasting?” On second pass, I could really taste the garlic (??) and I was 100% in. Would love it as a side, but not as my full meal.
- I might eat this again? I like the garlic(?) I like the sauce but give me more pepper
- The garlic and Panko added good flavor and texture. Just a little too creamy for me
- Herby flavor gives it an elevated mac/cheese vibe (not bad just not what i think of when i think of this dish). Cheese didn’t coat noodles well (i prefer a creamy texture)
- Very garlic forward! Awesome flavor but wish it was creamier, a tad dry
- The cheese flavor is quite mild and I wish it was stronger. It gets overpowered by the garlicky top and ends up just resonating butter flavor in aftertaste.
NYT (Julia Moskin): a perfectly salty and cheesy mac and cheese that uses a brilliant technique with uncooked pasta
This recipe saved my life while laboring through 9 different mac and cheeses in one day: no stovetop bechamel, no infusing of herbs into milk. You literally dump milk, cottage cheese and a few spices into a blender, and mix that puree with shredded cheese and uncooked pasta. Everything goes into a foil-covered pan and is baked for 30 minutes covered, 30 minutes uncovered.
I didn’t completely trust that the pasta would be fully cooked, but happily, it emerged perfectly cooked! Thanks to a dotting of butter at the end, this mac and cheese had a richness to it, but wasn’t overly rich thanks to the milk and cottage cheese. The texture is thick and kind of hearty without being overly heavy and to me is just a pretty cheesy, perfectly salty ideal mac and cheese that would be a crowd-pleaser at any party. Critics noted it wasn’t as creamy as others, but that’s just the style of this mac.
- CHEESY FLAVOR. SO GOOD. This one is rich as hell.
- This was my favorite mac and cheese; pasta was cooked perfectly, cheese was there but not overwhelming. Would eat this every day happily.
- This is good! Nice and thick!! Kinda casserole like. I’m about it
- Oh yeah. Great flavor! Thought I’d want more cheese, but I loved it as is, tastes like classic Midwest Mac and cheese.
- My favorite! I loved the traditional sharp cheddar flavor, really tasted like cheese throughout and had a nice toasty color on top and gooey texture inside
- Flavor seems one-dimensional and mild, a little too salty, wish there was more cheese flavor
- I enjoyed the creamy texture but I would have appreciated more pepper/spice.
- Dislike the consistency of the cheese; a little clumpy. If it was saucier, I’d consume more
Carnal Dish: a fully-flavored, creamy, cheesy mac and cheese
When I put up a poll on Instagram trying to decide whether to test this recipe or The Kitchenista’s mac and cheese, a number of responses came in along the lines of “5 cheeses is excessive!!” Which, fair. This recipe calls for parmesan, Gruyere, cheddar, fontina and optional pecorino (which I chose to use). It’s also a bechamel-based mac with plenty of seasonings and a topping of Italian breadcrumbs.
I hate to make anyone buy 5 cheeses to make one dish, but I think this mac and cheese was by far one of the most flavorful–thanks in part to the cheese and in part to the Italian breadcrumbs. I absolutely loved the salt level, the herbiness of the breadcrumbs and the overall cheesy flavor. Texturally, it had a nice golden lid (Chef Resha notes that the breadcrumbs are optionally but helps lock in moisture during the baking) with a lush layer of pasta underneath. The only thing I would change: I used a 9×13 pan and found the pasta layer to be pretty thin; next time I’d use her suggestion to use an 8×11 pan for more of the creamy pasta layer. But this is a fantastic recipe!
- Very good! Very cheesy flavor with a nice bread crumb crunch.
- I loved the bread crumb topping on this, it had great flavor and texture
- I loved ending on this one! It tasted like a classic baked mac – no surprises. Would order a bowl!
- This one feels a little too salty. The toasted breadcrumbs on top are delicious. Great texture. Because of its saltiness, would want to eat this with a salad
- Love the crispness, has a great chew and texture. Could be a bit cheesier tho
- The seasoning on this was strong but actually balanced in comparison with others which tried to do something similar. The italian seasoning was a nice addition to the top, but the cheese flavor was still able to dominate the dish in the way you want it to.
- One of the best imo. It was a little different than what I would normally consider mac and cheese but the italian herbs on it were great. Would definitely eat this again.
- Parmesan crispy topping, creamy texture and good flavor profile
Poole’s Diner: a simple and extremely luxurious mac and cheese for a luxe palate
This recipe hails from a popular restaurant in North Carolina and it caught my eye as it’s literally a 5-ingredient dish! Heavy cream is reduced slightly, then mixed with white cheddar, Jarlsberg and Grana Padano and pasta before being baked.
I would say buying the exact cheeses is the fussiest part of this recipe (aside from reducing the cream as I did boil cream over twice doing this). But the final dish emerges, naked of any crunchy toppings, and I still thought it was very close to perfect. The blend of cheeses provides the perfect salty punch and the heavy cream provides SO much richness. I couldn’t eat a lot of this, but it’s a showstopper!
- Wow wow wow wow so creamy is that gouda? This is a good side of Mac n cheese though I couldn’t eat a huge bowl.
- Love how cheesy and creamy it was and the multiple cheeses
- Mmmmmmmmm! That was my first thought. I love the sharp cheese. Cheese was well featured. It didn’t have bread crumbs which I usually love, but I didn’t miss them at all in this. Delicious!
- Really good, tastes like a white sharp cheddar. light pepper dusting over the top that reminds me of a cacio pepe. Cheese inside is very thick and goey- a little oily with re-heating.
- Really loved this one. Tastes like expensive, aged cheese. Some swiss? Asiago? Great noodle texture, super rich and creamy, love the cheese pulls and black pepper
- Great flavor and extra cheesy! It was the greasiest when reheated and I’d probably pick a different one before circling back here.
- Sharp cheese flavor and loved how runny it was but flavors weren’t hit for me
Erika’s favorites: Poole’s Diner, Carnal Dish, Julia Moskin
Easiest mac and cheese: Julia Moskin, Poole’s Diner
Best classic mac and cheese: Julia Moskin, Martha Stewart
Creamiest mac and cheese: NYT (Stouffer’s)
Most flavorful mac and cheese: Carnal Dish, Edna Lewis
A more sophisticated mac and cheese: Tyler Florence, Alton Brown