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For so many American kids, boxed macaroni and cheese is one of those bedrock foods, as foundational to their identity as hamburgers and pizza. As a result, it has shaped their expectations about what mac and cheese is supposed to be—namely, gooey and silky smooth above all else.
I was not one of those kids. When I was growing up, my sister and I were latch-key kids, which meant that we often had to fend for ourselves when we got home from school, fixing up snacks before our parents arrived later. My mom, not one to stock the pantry with processed foods, insisted that if we were going to eat stuff like mac and cheese, we had to at least make it from scratch. She taught us how to make a roux with butter and flour, then whisk in milk to form béchamel sauce. After that, we'd stir in cheese, making what the French would call Mornay, except we used cheddar instead of a Mornay's more typical Gruyère.
My whole conception of good mac and cheese, therefore, is somewhat at odds with many of my peers. Even though the béchamel-based sauce yields a less-perfectly slick texture, and a starchier, slightly diluted cheese flavor, I still tend to prefer it over the processed kind, because at least it tastes more like the types of cheese I like: sharp and funky, not mild.
On top of that, I've never been fully sold on the idea that a perfectly emulsified goo of cheese is the be-all and end-all of mac and cheese. Don't get me wrong, a totally broken and greasy mac and cheese is an unmitigated disaster. There's nothing good about frizzled beads of milk protein suspended in a pool of oil. And yet, a little bit of grease isn't always so terrible, especially when it's accompanied by the greatest of all melted cheese qualities: stretchiness, something a gooey cheese sauce never delivers to my satisfaction. If a small amount of oil is the consequence of some awesome cheese stretch, I'm more than okay with that.
What I've settled on is that my ultimate version combines the best of both worlds. I want a perfectly emulsified cheese goo that can coat the pasta in a creamy glaze. But I also want some unadulterated cheese mixed in that delivers concentrated flavor and, when melted, a little bit of that trademark stretch.
First, though, we have to answer a question.
Why Bake Mac and Cheese at All?
If you've ever opened a box of the instant stuff or made stove-top mac and cheese from scratch, you know there's no real requirement to put it in the oven. You save time and get more or less the same thing without that extra step.
In my opinion, there are two arguments for baking it. First is the crispy topping. In some recipes, you put the mac and cheese in a baking dish and toss it in the oven until the top is bubbling and browned. In others, you take it a step further and add a crunchy topping of some sort. I prefer the latter approach: As long as we're going for some crunch, we might as well go for maximum crunch. In my recipes, that means a buttery panko breadcrumb topping, baked until golden brown.
The second reason for baking mac and cheese is that it transforms it into a make-ahead dish. You can assemble it in advance, refrigerate it, and then finish it in the oven when you're ready to serve. Of course, the longer you try to hold it, the more moisture the pasta will gradually absorb from the sauce, which makes for a softer texture. But I don't really mind that. In many ways, overcooked pasta is actually preferable to al dente in a cheesy baked dish like this—it'll make for more of a cohesive, scoop-able mass, not unlike a savory, Americanized kugel.
The question, then, is how to do it. After several weeks, and an ungodly amount of mac and cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I've settled on two methods: a classic béchamel-based version that's extra cheesy; and a modern (and equally extra cheesy) recipe that uses the emulsifying powers of sodium citrate, a type of salt.*
*I tested, but didn't end up using, the really clever cheese-sauce method that Kenji developed for his stovetop mac and cheese recipe. I found that it didn't translate as well to the baked version of the dish; it tends to break when subsequently baked, diminishing its gooey texture and cheesy flavor.
The Classic: Béchamel-Based Mac and Cheese
This classic béchamel-based version is loaded to the hilt with cheese. Not only do I pack as much cheese as I can into the sauce itself, but I then mix the cooked pasta and cheese sauce with additional grated cheese, for tiny pockets of stretchy, melty cheese throughout. One of the side benefits of this method is that you get enhanced browning in the oven, especially on the bottom and sides of the baking dish, thanks to the flour and butter in the sauce.
The first step is to make a roux by melting butter and then whisking flour into it, cooking them together until the flour has lost its raw smell (but not so much that it browns!). Then, slowly whisk in milk to form a smooth and creamy béchamel, and finally stir in grated cheese. This ordering is important: If you add the cheese too early, it has a tendency to break, turning clumpy or oily. Adding it to the thickened milk helps keep it smooth and emulsified.
I used sharp cheddar in this recipe, but you can pick your own favorite, as long as it's a similar type of semi-dry cheese, like Swiss, Gruyère, or Jack. I worked a full pound and a half of cheese into a mere two cups of béchamel, so this is a very cheesy sauce.
Next, I toss it with the pasta, which I undercook just slightly to account for it softening further later. When it's cooled just a little, I fold in an additional half pound of grated cheese—this is going to provide those pockets of stretch and full-on cheesiness. I like to use Gruyère here for a little extra funk, but again, you can use whatever you want.
In the finished dish, you can see some of that extra browning, courtesy of the flour and butter in the cheese sauce. And if you look closely, you can see how the sauce has plenty of goo, but also little blobs of cheese that will stretch when pulled. That ever-so-slight sheen of oil? C'mon, admit it, it's sexy.
The Modern: Sodium-Citrate Mac and Cheese
This version calls for sodium citrate, an ingredient that's been in the modernist pantry for many years now, but has yet to break into the mainstream home cook's arsenal. There's nothing new about this particular salt—you can find it in many foods and drinks you already eat. Not only is it a common ingredient in club soda, but more importantly for us, it's how processed American cheese, with its superior melting abilities, is made.
We've long avoided using sodium citrate in our recipes here at Serious Eats because it's not readily available at most food stores. But now, thanks to the ease of ordering online, a supply of food-grade sodium citrate is only a mouse click away. I really don't see any reason not to recommend it now.
The great thing about sodium citrate is that you can turn any cheese into a gooey, Velveeta-like melter. Gouda, Gruyère, Fontina, extra-sharp cheddar, you name it: grate those cheeses and whisk them into a solution of sodium citrate and water (you could also use milk, but I used water because it's always available the sauce comes out just fine), and they transform into a perfectly pourable, totally smooth cheese sauce. It couldn't be easier.
Start by heating water in a saucepan, and then whisk in sodium citrate until it's fully dissolved.
Next, blend in the grated cheese—I used sharp cheddar again here—with a whisk or immersion blender, allowing it to melt into the solution as you go. If you have any trouble with it breaking, an immersion blender is your best bet for pulling it back together.
The result is a totally smooth, totally pourable cheese sauce made from your cheese of choice. I season the sauce with classic baked mac and cheese flavorings like hot sauce and mustard powder, but I also add some powdered garlic, which gives it more depth and, dare I say, sophistication. (I add these flavorings to my béchamel version above, as well.)
Once again, after folding this sauce with the pasta, I fold in an additional half-pound of grated Gruyere cheese for those tiny bits of stretchy melted cheese.
The result is an even gooier, creamier sauce that's more in-line with the texture of the boxed stuff, but it still has those elastic strands that pull and stretch when you lift a scoop. If I had to pick a favorite, it might still be the béchamel version, because that's the one that speaks to my childhood memories the most. If you're unsure which one is right for you...well, then I guess you'll just have to make the tremendous sacrifice of trying both.