Austin definitely has its fair share of really delicious macaroni and cheese (Galaxy Cafe’s comes to mind…), but there are few comfort classics as easy and affordable to make at home. While bloggers and food writers everywhere have strident opinions about what makes the ultimate mac and cheese recipe, there are some universal things to keep in mind no matter the recipe you choose.
The Cardinal Rules of Macaroni and Cheese
1. DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT use pre-shredded cheese.
This stuff has cornstarch added to it to prevent it from sticking together in the bag. That added cornstarch will make your cheese sauce grainy and far from the rich, smooth texture you’re aiming for.
2. Consider different cheeses.
Cheddar is the default ‘mac and cheese’ cheese, but there is something about the yellow stuff that makes it grainier than most cheeses when melted. The consensus seems to be that white cheddar is the best choice if you really want that that cheddar taste and a smooth texture.
3. Add a little annato powder if you go with a white cheese and want that classic ‘mac and cheese yellow’ color.
Annato is a totally natural and common addition to recipes to give them a more vibrant yellow color. Watch out that you don’t put too much or your mac and cheese will be bright orange! (Although, that might be a fun variation.) You can find annato powder at most Mexican groceries.
4. If your recipe uses a bechamel sauce as the base for the cheese sauce, take caution to cook it long enough!
Bechamel sauce begins with cooking flour in butter or oil, so if that’s what your recipe has you do, listen up: You want to cook that flour until is has really browned. If you under-cook it, your sauce can be floury and grainy.
5. Be cautious of recipes containing eggs.
Not that egg in mac and cheese is a bad thing, but the egg will give your dish a thicker, more custard-like, and less creamy texture. If your ideal mac and cheese is a little on the more solid side, then by all means go for the egg! But just be cautioned that if you are aiming for a more creamy version, avoid any recipes with egg.
6. Don’t use cheap pasta.
Take the dive for the extra $0.50 or so and get a good Italian brand of pasta. The texture will be much nicer!
7. Reserve a little pasta cooking water.
For truly rich and creamy mac and cheese, add a little (say, 1/4 cup or so) pasta water to your cheese sauce. This will keep the dish from drying out and give you a much nicer overall texture.
8. Breadcrumbs are not necessary!
Most ‘gourmet’ mac and cheese recipes call for them, but its really a matter of personal taste. Another option is just to top the whole thing off with more cheese! This added layer will brown just like the breadcrumbs, but won’t create such a crunchy texture if that’s not what you’re looking for.
Now go forth and make some soul-comforting mac and cheese!