Fried mac & Cheese

Crimes Against Mac & Cheese: 5 Common Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

Fried mac & Cheese

I’m not much of a musician, but I love mac and cheese so much that I’d write a song about it. Maybe that will be our next post, but today, we’re skipping the serenade and talking about something serious: Crimes Against Mac & Cheese, aka Mac & Cheese Mistakes + How to Fix Them.

Crime #1 – Dry Mac & Cheese

There is nothing, I repeat, nothing worse than a dried out mac. It doesn’t matter how delicious the sauce you started with was, how many awesome cheeses you used, or what unique ingredients you employed; if the sauce is dry and non-existent, your mac and cheese is going to stink.

Possible Motives:

  • Sauce too thick to start
  • Over-baking
  • Not enough sauce

How to Avoid the Crime:

  • Make a stovetop mac. Oven-baked ones are the most common offenders because the sauce starts out the perfect consistency, but dries out when baked.
  • Make extra sauce. Your mac should be slightly saucier than you’d like so that when it bakes, you compensate for the drying.
  • Make the sauce extra creamy like in my Extra-Creamy 4-Cheese Mac. Again, this will compensate for any drying while baking.
  • Add the pasta to the sauce a little at a time; don’t dump it all in at once. You can always add more pasta in if need be, but once it’s in there, it’s done.
DSC_9646

Ultra-creamy perfection

Crime #2 – Flavorless Mac & Cheese

Looks can be deceiving. What’s worse than shoving a forkful of what looks like perfectly creamy and saucy mac into your pie hole, only to find out it has no flavor? It’s like eating food when you’ve got a cold; it looks so good, but you can’t taste it. There’s no excuse for this. It’s an easy fix.

Possible Motives:

  • Wrong choice of cheeses (too mild)
  • Not enough cheese
  • Not enough herbs/garlic

How to Avoid the Crime:

  • Choose at least one sharp cheese for your cheese blend (see below).
  • Garlic, garlic, and more garlic. You can never have enough.
  • Onions or shallots – they don’t alter the flavor, they just amp it up.
  • Don’t forget salt & pepper.
  • Try fresh, fragrant herbs. Dried won’t give you what you need.
  • A few teaspoons of hot sauce add a unique kick that will amp things up without overwhelming the sauce. Seriously, try it!
  • Try browning your butter for a rich, nutty flavor: cook the butter over medium heat, stirring occasionally until it starts to foam and brown flecks form.
  • Don’t be afraid to try fun add-ins: caramelized onions, sun-dried tomatoes, breadcrumb topping, meat, etc.
This mac is loaded w/ flavor from caramelized onions & butternut squash.

This mac is loaded w/ flavor from caramelized onions & butternut squash.

Crime #3 – Not Cheesy Enough

This relates to the lack of flavor addressed in Crime #2. This is mac and CHEESE, so I better taste so much cheese, my brain explodes.

Possible Motives:

  • Cheese blend choice is too mild
  • Only one kind of cheese used
  • Not enough cheese used

How to Avoid the Crime:

  • I recommend at least 3 different kinds of cheese whenever you make mac. You should have at least one sharp, flavorful cheese and two good melting cheeses (see below).
  • Always taste test. If it’s not cheesy enough, put some more freakin’ cheese in there! You can always add more cream/milk if you find extra cheese thickens it too much.
  • When it seems like you’ve put in just enough cheese, you probably need another ½ cup more.
  • Use good-quality cheese. There’s a big difference flavorwise.
This mac couldn't be much cheesier.

This mac couldn’t be much cheesier.

Crime #4: Noodle Killer (aka soggy pasta)

Soggy noodles stink. You need a good, sturdy noodle to hold up to all that cheesy goodness, and nothing’s quite as texturally off-putting as pasta that turns to mush in your mouth.

Possible Motives:

  • You overcooked the pasta when boiling.
  • You perfectly cooked the pasta when boiling then baked the mac, thus overcooking the pasta.

How to Avoid the Crime:

  • People think boiling pasta is easy in that you can get it rolling and walk away, but that’s false. If you want perfectly cooked pasta, you’ve got to keep an eye on it. When it starts floating and expanding in size, you should be taste-testing every 2 minutes. If making a stovetop mac, drain the pasta as soon as you’ve tried a noodle with the right texture.
  • If making a baked mac, drain the pasta while it still has a bit of bite. It will continue to cook in the oven.
  • Use whole wheat/whole grain pasta. It has a naturally more al dente texture.
  • Be patient with the thickening process. Some days, it just takes longer than others. But if you followed the recipe, it WILL thicken.
This mac's al dente even after being fried!

This mac’s al dente even after being fried!

Crime #5 – Soupy Sauce

If I wanted soup, I would’ve gotten soup. But I didn’t; I ordered mac and cheese, not this bowl of lies.

Possible Motives:

  • Added too much liquid
  • Not enough cheese
  • Underbaked (if it’s a baked mac)

How to Avoid the Crime

  • Generally, mac & cheese sauces start with a roux, which is a fancy word for equal parts butter & flour. I never recommend adding more than two extra cup’s worth of liquid in comparison the number of tablespoons of butter/flour you used. So, if you used 3 tbsp. of butter and flour, start with 4 cups liquid and don’t use more than 5 cups.
  • When in doubt, add more cheese.
  • If you intended on it being stovetop, go ahead and bake it for 20 minutes.
  • If it’s fresh from the oven, let it sit 5 minutes. You’ll be surprised how the texture changes.
Perfectly gooey, not too runny.

Perfectly gooey, not too runny.

Hang out with the Right Crowd: Quick Guide to Choosing Cheeses

Pick at least one Flavor cheese and two Melting cheeses, or up to two Flavor Cheeses and three Melting Cheeses. This will give you the perfect blend of flavor and creaminess.

Flavor Cheeses Melting Cheeses
Sharp Cheddar Fontina
Parmesan Gruyere
Asiago Mascarpone
Pepper Jack Mozzarella
Provolone Muenster
Anything “smoked” Gouda
Bleu Cheese Monterey Jack
Gorgonzola Velveeta
Romano Swiss
Colby Jack
American

 

Finally, here are my best mac & cheese recipes on the site:

Roasted Veggie Mac & Cheese

Roasted Garlic & Basil 3-Cheese Shells

Butternut Squash & Caramelized Onion Mac & Cheese

Four-Cheese Sun-Dried Tomato Mac & Cheese

Fried Mac & Cheese

Extra Creamy 4-Cheese Mac & Cheese

David’s Ultimate 3-Cheese Mac & Cheese

3-Cheese Wagon Wheels w/ Spinach

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Colleen Bierstine

12 Comments

  1. we love mac ‘n cheese in our house and make it often. My daughter got home from College last night and guess what she wanted? You got it – mac ‘n cheese. your post is right on and funny. I hope many people read it so they can benefit from your insights.

  2. Girl, I can vouch for your love against grilled cheese (and your talent for making even the boxed stuff taste fabulous.)

  3. LOVE this article! I agree there are different crimes one can commit if the perfect mac and cheese is not made. Mac and cheese must be flavorful, super cheesy, and never dry. Thanks for sharing your tips on fixing these “crimes”! :)

  4. Help! What about under-cooked noodles?! I just made regular stove top mac and cheese, did the suggested time of 7.5 min of boiling, mixed all the goodies in, and now the noodles aren’t soft enough! :(

    • You shouldn’t worry so much about what the box says because cooking times will vary from stove to stove. Before draining the noodles, test one or two. Use a slotted spoon to scoop a noodle out and run it under cold water to quickly cool it off. If it’s cooked to your liking, go ahead and drain the rest. If not, let them cook a bit longer. Well-done noodles will have increased in size, and should be bubbling up at the top of the water. They should be soft with just a little chew to the bite.

  5. Hi Colleen, I am always having trouble with the sauce having a grainy, floury taste/texture. I am not sure how to avoid that? I am not sure if it the choice of cheddar or the flour…but I would love to have a good recipe to make homemade Mac&Cheese.

    • This one’s my go-to, works every time: http://www.thesmartcookiecook.com/2013/01/21/extra-creamy-4-cheese-stovetop-mac-cheese/
      If you’ve got a grainy texture, it’s likely because the flour got overcooked. To avoid this, make sure you have equal parts flour and butter. So if you’re using 3 tbsp butter, you need 3 tbsp flour. Then, when you add the flour, make sure you’re whisking while your pour it in. Whisk just until completely smooth then immediately whisk in your cream. The key here is working quickly and not letting the flour cook too long. Also be sure your sauce stays at a simmer, no hotter, while cooking, and stir it occasionally.

  6. Help! Making mac and cheese for a large crowd (30 people)… chose a recipe with 3/4 cup flour/ 1/2 cup butter and 9 cups milk. The sauce was thin before I added the cheese. Then I added a small block of velvetta, which won’t seem to melt on any level of heat and added 800 grams of shredded cheddar. This sauce is very runny. Is there any way to fix this mess?

    • Part of the issue was in the unequal proportions in your base (thickening agent vs. fat). Generally, we want equal parts butter and flour. Plus it sounds like way too much milk compared to the rest. How long did you let the sauce base thicken before adding the cheese? For such a large recipe, it may take over 20 minutes for the thickening to fully occur. I try to steer clear of Velveeta because it’s a strange “cheese.” What you could do after the fact is build a second roux of 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup butter in a separate pot on medium-low heat. Whisk together then immediately whisk into your existing sauce. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes and let it thicken up.

  7. Honestly, the single most common mistake I see with macaroni and cheese is that people want to over complicate it. It’s fine to make a dish for a more refined pallette every once in a while, but most of the time when someone wants macaroni, they are after the simple, easy to appreciate flavor that they had as a kid.

    I actually prefer my noodles a little on the squishy side. Pasta should be able to hold its shape on your fork, but what most people call al dente, I find almost crunchy, it feels undercooked.

    Good macaroni does not need to have anything to “jazz it up”. I’m talking about adding tomato chunks, feeling a need to bake it to make it somehow fancier, or adding anything spicy. Nine times out of ten, you’re going to get more compliments for adding shredded cheese on top of plain macaroni with cheese sauce than you would get if you worked really hard to make some “sophisticated” recipe. Restaurants in particular seem unable to leave macaroni alone. I’ve learned in the past few years that cavatappi noodles are a red flag that the dish will have something strange in it: anything from green peppers or lobster to jalapeños. (The lobster is understandable at a seafood restaurant.) I’m kind of picky about food, but there are a lot of people who don’t like hot spicy anything, and most of the time it isn’t even mentioned in the menus. Make sure the people you’ll be feeding like spicy foods beforehand if you want to try those recipes; even green peppers are spicy enough to bother delicate pallettes. Smoky flavored cheeses can also be a turnoff for some people.

    I’ve never tried to make my own cheese sauce, (if the noodles didn’t come with pre-made sauce, I just sprinkle shredded cheese on it) but if making the boxed kind that comes with pre-made or powdered cheese sauce I have a few tips:

    If you want to add a little kick to your mac and cheese, I suggest making your favorite boxed macaroni (the kind with the creamy cheese, the powdered stuff doesn’t work as well), and stir in a small amount (maybe 5% of the total sauce or less) of ketchup after adding the cheese. It adds to the flavor, but as long as you don’t add too much, it complements the cheese without overpowering it.

    If you do use powdered cheese, try using a tiny bit of butter or milk to dissolve the powder in addition to the normal water. Milk helps if you don’t have enough water to fully mix the cheese, while butter can thicken the sauce when there was too much water. Both make for a wonderful flavor addition.

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