8 Tips for Taking Mac and Cheese to the Next Level

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Mac and cheese is one of those nostalgic meals, right up there with Rice Krispies treats, that I ate all the time and in many different iterations when I was growing up. I most often ate the boxed variety, and my brother and I almost always opted for the Spongebob-shaped version (something about the shape made it taste better — I can’t explain it!).

It wasn’t until adulthood that I learned how easy it is to make delicious homemade mac and cheese from scratch. While boxed mac and cheese will forever be a staple for me, I’ve learned that with the right tools, creativity, and patience, tasty from-scratch mac and cheese is just around the corner. Of course, everyone has their own special way of preparing mac and cheese, so, admittedly, the idea of making “better” mac and cheese is pretty subjective. With that said, here are just a few fun ways I like to spruce up my mac and cheese.

8 Ways to Make Mac and Cheese Even Better

1. Freshly grate your cheese.

Trust me — it is so worth it to get a big block of cheddar cheese and freshly grate it by hand. Freshly grated cheese has much more moisture in it than pre-shredded cheese, which typically has ingredients added to keep it from clumping while it sits. These anti-clumping agents mean that pre-shredded cheese typically doesn’t melt as well as freshly shredded, so for the smoothest, creamiest mac and cheese, it’s worth grating by hand.

2. Use a variety of cheeses. 

In addition to freshly grating cheese, consider using a combination of different kinds of cheese for an even better flavor and texture. If you’re looking to go the extra mile, use a range of cheeses like mozzarella, provolone, sharp cheddar, Gouda, Monterey Jack, or havarti. These cheeses not only melt nicely, but they’ll also add some nice depth to your mac and cheese.

3. Mix up the spices and seasonings.

Sure, salt and pepper are part of the “cooking anything starter pack,” but you should definitely amp up your mac and cheese with a wide range of spices. Use this quick guide to different spices to help you get started. Garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, paprika, and white pepper are just a few spices that can add a new dimension to your mac and cheese.

4. Cook the pasta al dente. 

Al dente simply translates to “to the tooth,” and refers to the technique of cooking the pasta until it’s just softened but still has a bit of bite and firmness. In the case of mac and cheese, cooking the macaroni to al dente is a good idea — especially if you plan to bake the mac and cheese (which you totally should), as the pasta will continue to cook both in the oven and when you take it out, due to residual heat. If you overcook the pasta before it goes in the oven, you risk ending up with macaroni that’s mushy.

I repeat: Bake your mac and cheese! While mac and cheese is totally delicious straight off the stovetop, if you’re not regularly baking your mac and cheese, you’re missing out on an even better experience. Plus, the absolute best part about making a baked mac and cheese is the crispy bits that bubble up on top — especially the corner pieces! If you’re looking for a mac and cheese with a little bit more depth, especially when it comes to texture, then you definitely won’t regret letting your oven work its magic.

6. Top it with something crunchy.

Ingredients like breadcrumbs are so often used in pasta dishes like mac and cheese (or this super-easy farfalle with cauliflower) because, like with baking, it adds another dimension of both flavor and texture. While breadcrumbs, crushed crackers, or even potato chips are fantastic on their own, if you’re going to use them as a topping for mac and cheese, it helps to toss the ingredients with a bit of melted butter and/or olive oil. The addition of fat helps the topping crisp up nicely in the oven.

7. Add bacon, pancetta, or diced ham.

There’s a reason dishes like spaghetti carbonara are so popular — the addition of some sort of cured meat, such as cooked bacon or pancetta, adds a lovely smoky and meaty flavor. Plus, a little bit of cured meat goes a long way without bulking up your dish. Something like ground beef might make the dish a bit heavier. Chop cooked bacon and either mix it into the mac and cheese before baking, or sprinkle it on top before serving.

8. Serve it in individual baking dishes.

This idea came to me from Ina Garten, who’s very much a fan of serving pasta dishes and desserts in special vessels. In fact, serving meals in creative vessels is one of the many tips and tricks we’ve learned from Ina through the years. If you plan on serving mac and cheese to a group and want to switch up your presentation techniques, serve mac and cheese in individual ramekins. I personally love this idea for two reasons: It’s a simple way to make any dinner look a bit more fancy, and it makes sure everyone gets an even portion of crispy, bubbly bits on the tops and sides, thanks to the edges of the baking dish.

Cory Fernandez

Associate Food Editor

Cory is the Associate Food Editor at Kitchn. Previously an editor at Food Network Magazine, Cory loves making cold brew at home, trying out new soup recipes, zhuzhing up Trader Joe’s finds, and putting everything seasoning on something. When he’s not in the kitchen, you can find him looking for a new crime doc to watch with a glass of Invivo X, SJP’s sauvignon blanc nearby.

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