Macaroni & cheese — who doesn’t like it?? It’s a go to recipe for comfort food, and there are as many recipes out there for this dish as there are cooks! But, I am not a fan of this great American dream when it turns out gloppy, curdled, or dry. Ahh, how does this happen? There are a few simple secrets to making mouth-watering, cheesy macaroni.
Say CHEESE! What kind of cheese is best? When my cheese drawer has a bunch of bits and small chunks of cheese, I know it’s time to get cooking! The recipes call for cheddar, Gruyere or Swiss, Romano, but I think any blend of very sharp cheese and creamy cheese is a good match. Think gorgonzola, Parmesan, Romano, extra-sharp cheddar, aged gouda, paired with Swiss, fontina, gruyere, cream cheese, mozzarella. Yes, clean out the cheese drawer!
I have two favorite methods of making macaroni & cheese, one is cream-based, the other roux-based.
What? The cream-based recipe begins with butter and heavy cream, no extra starch, is a bit richer finished product. The roux-based sauce begins with cooking flour in butter, adding milk, bringing the mixture to a boil (an important step), then adding the cheese. Both are simple to make, and will become your favorites as well, if you know the secrets to being successful.
Let’s begin with the roux-based dish. Be sure to use the same volume of butter as flour. You need enough butter to coat each of the flour granules, so that later, they can soak up the liquid and thicken your sauce. I highly recommend Wondra, a special flour made by the Gold Medal Company, for this. Wondra is a very high-starch, low protein flour, which results in silky smooth, luscious sauces. You will find it in any supermarket, near the flours. After melting the butter, stir in the flour, and cook over LOW heat for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Then add the milk, raise the heat, and stir like a crazy person! I heat the milk before adding it. A couple of minutes in the microwave is just the thing. Your sauce will thicken instantly! Bring the whole thing to a boil, stirring, to prevent scorching the bottom of the pan. Turn the heat down to low, or even off. Add the grated cheese and stir. The secret here: DO NOT OVERHEAT the mixture. You have a lot of protein in this sauce, and if it gets too hot, the cheese will clump together.
The cream-based sauce starts with butter and cream. Melt the butter, add the cream, and heat this mixture until you see a few bubbles. Again, just like the roux-based sauce, low the heat or turn it off before adding the cheese. You have more fat here, less protein than in the roux-based sauce, but the protein can still clump together and make one HUGE curd — not conducive to great mac n cheese.
Season the sauce well at this point. It should be a bit ‘over-seasoned,’ because the macaroni will soak up a lot of the flavor later.
On to the macaroni! Pasta choice does not have to be limited to elbow macaroni! Think about other kinds of pasta that will fork up easily — penne, pennette (small penne) will be more visually pleasing and make your macaroni & cheese more ‘grown up’! When cooking the pasta, follow the directions on the package, but begin checking the pasta for doneness about 2 to 3 minutes before the package says it should be done. You want to slightly undercook the macaroni, because it will continue to cook in the sauce after you assemble the dish, especially if you finish it in the oven. And, when you drain your pasta, DO NOT RINSE THE PASTA. Add it right into the sauce mixture. Be sure to set aside a cup or two of the pasta water. It has a bit of starch in it that will help to thicken the sauce, and help to prevent clumping of the cheese.
Add your hot pasta to the sauce and fold the mixture together. The macaroni will begin to soak up the sauce. As this happens, stir in a spoonful or two of the reserved pasta water. I usually take about 3 to 4 minutes for this process to happen, adding water as necessary to get the sauce just a bit more liquid than I want my finished dish, especially if I’m going to finish it in the oven. THIS is the secret to moist, not dry macaroni & cheese!
If you choose to finish your recipe in the oven, be sure to put your dish or dishes on a parchment lined baking sheet. If the mixture bubbles over, clean-up will be a breeze! Just as when making the sauce, take care not to overheat your macaroni & cheese in the baking process. Add a little extra water — this spreads out the protein molecules and helps to keep them from clumping together, also keeps it moist. A nice topping of seasoned bread crumbs is a bonus, and they keep the macaroni from becoming dry and brittle on the top. Keep the oven temperature at around 300°F, and check the internal temperature so that you don’t overheat the mixture. You are looking for 160° internal temperature for your finished product.
What about add ins? Classic macaroni & cheese is fabulous on its own, but you can step it up by adding a selection of yummy things. Choices and quantities are up to you, depending upon what you like. Stir your selection in with the macaroni.
- Diced cooked ham
- Chopped crisp bacon
- Sautéed or roasted red bell pepper, diced
- Diced green chilies (the canned variety)
- Chopped fresh or bottled jalapenos
- Mama Lil’s chilies
- Peas, fresh or just defrosted, they’ll cook in the sauce
- Broccoli florets, precooked 1 minute on high in the microwave
- Cauliflower florets, tossed into the pasta water with the pasta during the last 5 minutes of cooking, then drain with the pasta, or precooked 1 minute on high in the microwave
- Caramelized onions
- Leftover lobster (does anyone really have this!)
- Crab meat
- Diced cooked chicken
WOW! This is a family favorite. I frequently double the recipe, wrap and freeze it in individual portions. It’s best to defrost before baking. Top it with bread crumbs just prior to baking. My individual ramekins take about 30 to 35 minutes in the oven if defrosted and cold when going into the oven.