The Food Lab: 3-Ingredient, 10-Minute Macaroni and Cheese

[Photographs and video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

This macaroni and cheese—this pot of creamy, gooey, cheesy, glorious macaroni and cheese—was made with three ingredients in about 10 minutes. Seriously. That's one fewer ingredient than you need to add to the pot to make a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese.

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Not only that, but all three ingredients are staples, with shelf lives of weeks or months, which means that a simple lunch is always on hand.

Ready to see it?

The idea for this came from working on my recipe for cacio e pepe, the Roman pasta and cheese dish. In that recipe, I cook spaghetti in a small volume of water, using the starchy pasta water to emulsify the cheese into a creamy sauce. I wondered if the same thing would work for an American-style macaroni and cheese, using a much higher ratio of cheese to pasta and using cheddar in place of pecorino.

It didn't quite work the first time—the high proportion of cheese caused the sauce to break and turn greasy—but with a few tweaks, I nailed it.

The first key was to reduce the amount of water I was using to the bare minimum: I place the macaroni in a pot and add just enough cold water to cover it, then throw in a little pinch of salt and bring it all to a boil. So long as you stir while it cooks, the pasta cooks up perfectly al dente.

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Why less water? Easy: more concentrated starch. As the pasta cooks, it sheds starch. You want that starch to stay in the pot, as it plays a crucial role in helping the sauce stay creamy and emulsified. Without it, the cheese turns tough and greasy.

The second big key was to use evaporated milk as the base liquid. Evaporated milk is a highly concentrated source of milk protein micelles—bundles of proteins that can act as powerful emulsifying agents—which help to keep the sauce creamy and smooth.

To make two servings, just think in sixes. All you've got to do is cook six ounces of dry pasta until the water is almost absorbed and the pasta is just shy of al dente (this takes about six minutes), then add six ounces of evaporated milk and six ounces of grated cheddar cheese (it also works fine with any good melting cheese, like Fontina, Gruyère, or Jack). Stir it all together until it's creamy and emulsified, and you're ready to eat. (If dinner gets slightly delayed for some reason, the sauce will thicken up, but you can thin it out again with a splash of water and some good stirring.)

Wasn't that easy?

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Now, normally I do all my research on existing recipes before I start working on my own version. This time, I was so excited to get into the kitchen that I completely neglected to do so until afterward. Good thing I eventually did, too, because it turns out that there are quite a few similar recipes out there. Many call for cooking pasta directly in milk, a technique that works okay, but it can lead to scorching if you're not super careful with stirring. I prefer the evaporated-milk route because it ensures a clean pan with no burnt bits on the bottom.

Of course, it also turns out that Pillsbury has a recipe that's almost completely identical, save for a few differences (less cheese, more pasta, longer cook time). Looks like I've got more in common with the Doughboy than just an overly poke-able belly.

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Anyway, just because Pillsbury did it first doesn't make the recipe any less delicious (and I happen to like my extra-cheesy version better).

So tell me. Would you rather eat what comes out of that blue box, or this?

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Yeah, I thought so.*

Luckily, six minutes is all you need for a complete ab workout, so give yourself a quarter of an hour and you can make dinner and then immediately work it off, with some time left over to drop your dishes in the dishwasher. Is this going to replace my Ultra-Gooey Stovetop Mac and Cheese as my favorite stovetop mac and cheese recipe? I don't think so, but as far as work-to-results ratios go, this new one is one of the best recipes around.**

* Okay, even I admit that sometimes Kraft mac and cheese is exactly what I want, especially if I make it the way my mom did, with an extra slice of American cheese melted into it.

** If you are willing to kick it up by a couple ingredients, try a good dash of hot sauce, some mustard powder, or a little knob of butter stirred in there as well. I won't consider it cheating.