A Cheese Guru’s Guide to Mac and Cheese

Macaroni and cheese is a very important meal in my house. I’d like to tell you that’s because I regularly experiment with exotic combinations of cheeses, or because I’m constantly inventing new approaches to this crowd-pleaser. But the truth is that of the (perhaps hundreds of) pounds that get eaten each year at my place, the vast majority comes from a narrow little box and is handily taken down by my daughters.  I was mildly horrified when, several months ago, my youngest announced, “Macaroni and cheese is my favorite food in the world.” It’s the only meal I consistently make from a package. If I needed a sharp nudge to recalibrate my mac and cheese expectations, her pronouncement was it. 

Over sixteen years in the cheese biz I’ve done a fair amount of recipe development and tinkering with the traditional dishes in which cheese plays a starring role and rarely do I find that a crazy deviation in technique or ingredients yields a superior finished dish. The classics are classic for a reason. But mac and cheese is something of an exception. What I’ve learned is that the basic techniques for making a sublime dish of macaroni and cheese must be respected and followed. But the recommended ingredients often sell this gooey wonder short. Variations in cheese and add-ins can transform mac and cheese from a one-note calorie hit to a nuanced side dish (or main dish) with real character and personality. But first, you need to master the basics.

Mac Technique: Pasta is the foundation of macaroni and cheese. Don’t underestimate the importance of treating your pasta right.

  • Now is not the time to spend a lot of money on expensive, imported artisanal pastas. Save your dollars for better cheese instead
  • Generally speaking, stick with short shaped pasta rather than long, skinny strands. The focus of a great mac and cheese is the cheesiness; shorter, thicker shapes emphasize the gooey over the glutinous. Look for conchiglie (shell shaped), fusilli, penne, or oriechette (ear shaped)
  • Once you’ve chosen your pasta you need to be sure to cook it properly. Salt your water, not your pasta. Once the water boils, salt it heavily enough that it tastes like sea water. Wait for it to return to a boil before adding the pasta
  • Don’t overcook the pasta! Which is to say: undercook the pasta. Package directions will give you a recommended cooking time for “al dente.” Cook your pasta one minute less than the shortest recommended cooking time. If the box suggests 9-11 minutes, cook yours for 8 minutes
  • Once (under)cooked, drain the pasta and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking process
  • The pasta will continue cooking in the oven or one the stovetop. Undercooking ensures your finished mac will have toothsome bite instead of disintegrating into a gluey mess

Cheese (Sauce) Technique: I trust I am not alone in the assumption that the glory of great mac and cheese is a silken, gooey, mouthcoating sauce that binds everything together without being stiff or dry.

  • The key to velvety sauce is a proper roux. Roux forms the base for a béchamel sauce
  • Cook the fat (canola oil or butter) and flour together over low heat so the flour loses its raw flavor and the roux turns a deep nutty brown color
  • If you’re going gluten-free use corn starch in place of flour (and gluten-free pasta, obviously)
  • Slowly whisk in your milk and/or cream over medium heat to avoid lumps
  • Ideally, your milk and/or cream is warmed before it’s slowly added
  • Speaking of which, I find a combo of milk and cream is always better than just milk or just cream
  • Gently cook the sauce until it thickens, adding cheese one small handful at a time
  • The cheese must be grated. Slices, crumbles or chunks of cheese will lump up. Grates will melt evenly into the sauce
  • Ultimately, your béchamel should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Then it’s ready to meet its mac

About the Cheese: You will not find me recommending Velveeta as a primary cheese because, well, it’s not actually cheese. My mission is to enable more people to use real cheese more often in their daily lives. But I get the appeal of Velveeta because it’s so unbelievably creamy and smooth. You can get that with real cheese, if you know what’s what.

  • The best mac and cheeses use more than one kind of cheese. I think of it as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. You need the lead for meltability and the support for added flavor depth and complexity
  • The best leads are cheeses that will melt evenly and reliably go gooey
  • My preferred go-tos are what are called Alpine-style cheeses such as Comte, Challerhocker, Gruyere, or Pleasant Ridge Reserve. They can’t be beat for flavor intensity and meltability

What’s an Alpine Cheese?

Alpine (style) cheeses originated in the mountains of Switzerland and France. These cheeses are cooked and pressed during the cheesemaking process. The cooking of the curd imparts deep, toasty, nutty flavors. The pressing creates a smooth, firm, uniform texture. These cheeses are made with less salt than, say, Cheddar and as a result have a sweeter (less acidic) flavor and superior meltability. These cheeses are what’s traditionally used to make fondue or Croque Monsieur sandwiches. Don’t forget to remove the rind before eating or cooking.

  • Other lead cheeses to consider are Havarti-types. These are semisoft cheeses with milder, milkier flavors than the Alpine-styles. Look for Asiago Fresco, Fontina, Gouda, Havarti, or Parrano
  • Mozzarella or Burrata introduce lovely ropey stretch to the mix
  • Supporting cheeses for flavor punch include blues such as Cambozola, Fourme d’Ambert, Gorgonzola, Point Reyes Blue or St. Agur
  • Additional creaminess (if not gooey-ness) will come from soft, fresh cheeses like Brie, Camembert, fresh goat cheese or ricotta. I find these also “lighten up” the flavor and I use more of them in warm weather mac and cheeses
  • What’s missing? You’ll notice I haven’t made a plug for Cheddar and here’s why: although it’s one of the most commonly recommended recipe cheeses Cheddar is a pretty bad melting cheese. It goes greasy rather than gooey. Only young Cheddar has the moisture and lower acidity to melt evenly, and then they don’t have much flavor. I’d strongly encourage an Alpine/Havarti-style combo rather than a young or mild cheddar
  • What about all those amazing hard cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Piave, Reypenaer aged Gouda or Sartori SarVecchio Parmesan? They won’t melt worth a lick but you can finely grate them and combine with toasted bread crumbs for the crunchy, cheesy topping of your dreams 
  • And finally: do the work of grating your cheese yourself. Pre-grated and bagged cheeses use the youngest, mildest (ie least flavorful) cheeses possible. Also, cheese loses its flavor once it’s cut and grated. I guarantee you’ll have a much tastier mac and cheese if you do the labor yourself. Think of it as the exercise to offset the meal that will follow.

Mac and Cheese Inspiration: Now that you’ve got the technique and ingredients down, here are my parting words on making something memorable.

For most of my life macaroni and cheese was a single thing, most akin to what my kids eat from the box. In fact, mac and cheese is more of a blank slate for flavor combinations. I think of it as a casserole to which seasonings and other ingredients can be added. At Thanksgiving, a butternut squash, brown butter sage mac and cheese made with Gruyere manages to capture the root vegetable/toasted nut flavors that are influencing all of my cooking, but it does so in one perfect bite. Saints Sundays are best fed with a southwestern mac and cheese using pepper jack, crushed tortilla chip topping and a scoop of salsa to top it off. It’s like nachos, but much, much better.  Even in the heat of late summer you can make your mac and cheese more like a classic caprese salad, using mozzarella, goat cheese and ricotta along with shredded basil and the last of the season’s tomatoes. I know it’s not light, but somehow it tastes that way. The introduction of even a single add-in can change the whole tenor of a mac and cheese, whether it’s oven roasted tomatoes, roasted red peppers, bacon or a few liberal glugs of Crystal.

Instead of making one communal tray of mac and cheese, consider individual eight-ounce ramekins for a dinner party, and fancy the whole thing up with a smooth, silken cheese laced with black truffle, such as Sottocenere.

And, finally, for every parent out there who, like me, has made boxed mac and cheese the unofficial sixth food group, here’s my new weeknight workaround. The best mac and cheeses are made in the oven but they take a considerable amount of time to bake and then cool before you can eat them. Stove-top recipes are faster and tend to be much creamier. So my kids are getting this new quickie version:

I mix two-thirds whole milk to one-third plain yogurt (or if I have mascarpone on hand even better) over medium low heat. I lob a fat chunk of butter in for good measure. While that’s warming/melting, I dig through the drawer in my fridge where cheese bits go to die. I cut off the rinds on the hard cheeses and shred them up on a box grater.  Softer cheeses get cut into small chunks. I run the precooked pasta I always have on hand (I cook a pound or two at a time) under warm water to take the chill off. By this time I’ve got milky soup bubbling on the stove. I sprinkle in some corn starch and start feeding the cheese grates in by the handful. My kids like to help with this part so everyone stays occupied. We stir and thicken for a few minutes and then the pasta goes in. Another minute and everything is evenly coated and well-enough combined. That’s dinner along with cucumber and sweet pepper slices. 

Does this violate many of the best practices recommended above? Absolutely. Does the cheese sauce freeze up and congeal after 10 minutes in the pot? Yes it does. Do my kids eat it before that can happen? They do indeed. It takes the same amount of time as the box and I pick the cheese crust off the bottom of the pan and eat it with a glass of wine. Everyone wins.