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Taste Test: The Best Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese
- Traditional: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese
- Low-Fat: Whole Foods 365 Brand Macaroni and Cheese
It's not an easy job cajoling, bribing, physically forcing, or otherwise coercing an officeful of folks who eat too much as is into coming to an eight-product tasting; but some taste tests are more difficult than others. On the tough end of the spectrum are things like bottled teriyaki sauce and instant mashed potatoes. On the opposite end are the ones I like. The ones where everyone volunteers readily. Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese was one of the good kind.
I recently made a shocking discovery: The familiar blue-boxed, stovetop macaroni and cheese of my youth is not the macaroni and cheese I know at all. I'd always wondered how that extra-cheesy, extra-goopy, extra-creamy texture could come out of something made by adding orange powder to some butter and milk, and it turns out the answer is that it doesn't. That familiar texture I grew up with? The gooey pockets of cheese that squirt out of each elbow as I thread it onto the tines of a fork? 100% due to the two extra slices of American cheese and half-stick of butter my mom threw into every potful of stovetop mac and cheese. I'm sure many of you are in the same boat here.
So I was a little disappointed when I tasted my way through eight samples and found that none of them lived quite up to my childhood standards, but the manufacturers must know that extra cheese and butter are de rigeur, right?
The question still remains: Which boxed stovetop macaroni and cheese delivers the cheeziest, creamiest, tangiest, comforting-est bowl?
Pretty much all stovetop macaroni and cheese follows the same basic procedure: Cook pasta. Drain pasta. Add butter and milk. Add a packet of powdered cheese sauce. Stir and consume before it congeals into a rubbery mass.
We picked eight nationally available brands for our taste test, divided into two separate categories. In the traditional category, we included all brands that required the addition of four tablespoons of butter along with milk. We also included Velveeta, the only one that came with a liquid cheese packet (no additional ingredients necessary).
In the lower-fat category, all boxes called for 2 tablespoons of butter or less, with little to no milk added.
We excluded any of the ready-to-eat, single-serving, microwaveable products, such as Stouffer's and Chef Boyardee.
- Kraft Macaroni & Cheese
- Kraft Velveeta Shells & Cheese
- America's Choice Macaroni & Cheese
- Fould's Elbo Macaroni & Cheese
Low Fat Contenders
- Back to Nature Macaroni & Cheese
- Annie's Homegrown Macaroni & Cheese
- Trader Joe's Macaroni & Cheese
- Whole Foods 365 Brand Macaroni & Cheese
We judged based on a few parameters. First off, we wanted pasta that tasted like real grown-up pasta. That means decently textured with a firm but not chewy or tough bite. Mushy pasta was downgraded.
Cheese sauce should taste like real cheese and butter—fake movie-theater-style butter flavor was not appreciated. While we don't expect any real funk to the cheese in these bowls (it is, after all, American-style cheese), we wanted a good balance of tanginess and salt. Too much or too little of either is not a good thing.
Finally, despite the fact that almost all the cheese sauces came from a packet, we were looking for some semblance of sauciness, some vague reminiscence of real, from-scratch cheesiness.
Not surprisingly, our favorite was the brand that most of us were already familiar with. While some of us have gradually shifted over to the more adult-looking Annie's brand, Kraft is still the cheesiest, tastiest, and butteriest.
Interestingly enough, the brands that had more fat and milk added to them did not necessarily score better than those with less butter and milk added. While the high fat versions had an average rating of 4.6, the low-fat version came in at a respectable 4.3. True, our absolute favorite was high fat and our least favorite was low fat, but second and third place both went to low-fat versions.
Here's the detailed breakdown.
#1: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese (6.7/10)
The clear winner, it has "a nice thin layer of cheese" that still manages to pack "sharp cheddar-y taste." The noodles themselves were tender and more like good pasta than others. "This must be Kraft because it rocks!"
#2: Whole Foods 365 Brand Macaroni & Cheese (5.6/10)
Judging by their track record, Whole Foods' 365 Brand products don't stand much of a chance in our taste tests—they consistently score close to the bottom of the pack—but when it comes to mac & cheese, the organic folk know what they're doing. While the sauce was not particularly flavorful ("I want more cheese!"), the elbows were "cute" and had the best texture of any pasta we tried. "This tastes normal to me. What I remember it tasting like growing up."
#3: Annie's Homegrown Macaroni & Cheese (5.2/10)
"This is what I think of when I think of boxed stovetop," said one taster. "Similar to the Kraft I knew and love, but not enough salt!" Annie's has grown to become one of the most popular brands around, and with good reason. It had some really good pasta, though a lack of cheese flavor is what kept it from taking the #1 spot. "I prefer the consistency to the thick and gummy sauce [with the others but] not cheesy enough."
Good In A Pinch
#4: America's Choice Macaroni & Cheese (4.7/10)
"Pretty flavorless" with "mushy noodles," but at least it was "inoffensive." Most tasters found it to be pretty similar to the Kraft, but not quite as flavorful, and a little less creamy. Some complained of a slightly grainy texture. It lost most of its points for a mushier pasta than the Kraft it's trying to clone.
#5: Back to Nature Macaroni & Cheese (4.6/10)
"Thickest and creamiest. Actually, sauce is too heavy. Maybe." While some thought that it tasted more cheesy, others weren't sure whether it was the actual flavor they were responding to, or the white cheese in lieu of the traditional yellow. Max, for instance, claimed to have preferred it. When given a blind taste test, however, the results were not as cut and dry.
Graininess and mushy pasta were common complaints.
#6: Kraft Velveeta Shells & Cheese(4.0/10)
The most expensive of the bunch, and a divisive one, this is the only brand that comes with a ready-made cheese sauce that you simply squeeze out of a packet. It's also the only one to feature shell-shaped pasta in lieu of elbows. Unfortunately, the pasta cooks up chewy and dense, slowly turning mushy as it cooks, rather than softening while simultaneously maintaining a slight bite as a good pasta should. Some liked the thicker, gooier texture of the cheese sauce, while others found it to be too plastic-y and gummy.
"This tastes weird, like other people's houses," said one taster, while another exclaimed, "I can't help it. I'm ashamed, but... LIKE."
#7: Fould's Elbo Macaroni & Cheese (3.2/10)
"The texture is like mochi, [it] makes me feel the way my dog looks when he's eating peanut butter," said one taster of this, the pastiest, gluiest brand. It doesn't taste like the stuff you get at home, but more like the stuff you "get at day camp. The texture is too thick." Tacky sauce. Bland flavor. Not much redeeming to be said here.
#8: Trader Joe's Macaroni & Cheese (1.9/10)
Universally panned for its grainy texture and "super fake" "cheez-y" flavor. "Yuck! Weird aftertaste and very thick & sticky." There was not much redeeming about this brand. One taster likened it to "very bad American cheese," while another simply said "No."
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.