I’ve spent considerable time trying all the versions of macaroni and cheese: baked, stove top, gourmet, truffled, lobstered and hot-dogged. And through them all, I’ve come up with my secrets to making a seriously great Mac and Cheese. Like most things in life, these tips are simple and straight forward, but it’s all about the details.
Legends abound on the origins of everyone’s favorite comfort food, macaroni and cheese. Did Thomas Jefferson invent it and serve it in the White House after a visit to France? Or did the Italians first come up with the idea of adding cheese to noodles? Or, as some accounts tell it, was it the Chinese? This simple and delicious dish is highly documented in the 1800’s with tons of variations,, but it wasn’t until the 1930’s when the Kraft Company came out with the blue box version that Macaroni and Cheese reached icon level. But for me, life’s to short to eat Mac and Cheese from a box (sorry, Kraft!).
My Secrets to Great Macaroni and Cheese
Use good-quality macaroni.
Great Mac and Cheese has to start with great Mac. Don’t go low-end here. Find the brand that you like best and keep searching for better ones. Never settle!
Choose a shape that will hold as much cheese as possible.
I like to use orecchiette, the little ears or cups that look like small hats. Their shape allows them to capture a ton of cheese. Need I say more? Shells are great, and I understand that many people are nostalgic about elbows. I like them, too, but for me, more cheese with each bite is key, and elbows aren’t the best pick.
Season your macaroni when cooking it.
The biggest mistake home cooks make is under seasoning. When cooking macaroni, the water should taste as salty as the sea. I use kosher salt because I don’t like the metallic tinge that iodized salt gives off. I throw a large handful of salt into the pot when the water comes to a boil, just before I toss in the macaroni.
Cook it right.
Slightly undercooking the pasta when you are boiling it is key as it will be hydrated and engorged in cheese sauce in the final steps. It should be cooked enough to bite into but still stick slightly to your teeth. Don’t worry, they’ll be perfect when the dish is done: still with a resistant bit and loaded with cheese. A good rule is to start with heavily boiling water I use enough water to cover the pasta by about 6 or 7 inches once in the pot.
Use great cheese.
If you take away nothing else from this post, take away this: Great cheese is crucial to amazing macaroni and cheese. Use great cheese, and also grate it. I love to combine different cheeses that have varying attributes; not all cheese is built the same. Provolone has great stretch and melt, with a subtle sharpness, while Raclette is creamy and very high on the meltablilty scale. Cheddar is sharp, nicely meltable and classic in flavor. Adding in Gouda for nuttiness and color or a bit of Gruyere for an oniony sweetness elevates the dish nicely as well. But all of this is experimental. It’s on you to come up with your perfect mix. Use great cheese, grate it evenly and mix it up. Then it’s on to the sauce.
Make a sauce.
Great Mac and Cheese is as much about flavor as it is texture. You’ve taste-tested to find the best macaroni, cooked it to the right level of al dente, grated your blend of cheeses to come up with the perfect flavor and melt. Now how do you marry the two? Mac, meet Cheese. Cheese, this is Mac. I think you two are going to be awesome together! The matchmaker for a great macaroni and cheese is the sauce.
Mac and cheese must be eaten with a great beer.
My favorite is Houblon Chouffe, a triple hopped Belgian IPA. The creaminess of the beer works with the cheese but it also has some great hoppiness that cuts through its richness.
My recipe for macaroni and cheese is loose: You can make it with about 1-2 lbs or more orecchiette pasta depending on how cheesy you like it, or just make the full cheese sauce recipe and as much pasta as you can handle and save the extra sauce. The sauce can hold in your fridge for about 5 days if kept covered and can be used in about 1000 ways.
But that is for another post.
Catch the premiere of The Big Cheese on Cooking Channel tonight at 9:30 p.m. ET.