Taste test: Packaged macaroni and cheese

The Corrections : Jonathan Franzen (2001)

Who makes the best mac 'n' cheese? (Photo: iStockphoto)

To find the best mac 'n' cheese, our judges tasted 16 varieties—and found three that won Epicurious over.

The saying "Cheddar makes everything better!" is indeed correct. Adding it as a garnish to a veggie or a hot bowl of chili can be dish-changing; adding it to pasta makes the perfect meal: macaroni and cheese. While it's hard to beat homemade macaroni and cheese, on a hard day's night, a box of store-bought mac 'n' cheese can be a real time-saver and family-pleaser.

(See more: Taste test: All-beef hot dogs)

These days, packaged mac 'n' cheeses vary in many ways: They can be made on the stovetop, baked in an oven, or cooked in the microwave. Some are made with three or more cheeses, others even use soy. But we felt that this dish is loved by many because of its simplicity. For that reason, we narrowed our taste test selections into three categories: traditional, whole wheat, and white Cheddar, all packaged in boxed macaroni form and prepared on the stovetop. (We did not test any single-serving, frozen, or microwave-only options.)

The ultimate stovetop mac 'n' cheese should have pasta that is not mushy and does not swim in a pool of watery sauce, but is instead generously coated with Cheddar-cheesy, buttery goodness. The cheese should taste like cheese and shouldn't have overly sharp, sweet, or artificial flavors.

The 16 varieties of mac 'n' cheese we tasted are available nationwide and included the following, listed from highest to lowest score in our taste test: 365 Organic Shells & White Cheddar Cheese, Kraft Whole Grain Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, Kraft Premium White Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese, Annie's Creamy Deluxe Whole Wheat Shells & Extra Cheesy Cheddar Sauce, Velveeta Rotini and Cheese Whole Grain, 365 Organic Macaroni & Cheese, Annie's Homegrown Shells & White Cheddar,* Hodgson Mills Whole Wheat Macaroni & Cheese Dinner,* Simply Organic Macaroni & Cheese Dinner,* Annie's Homegrown Macaroni & Cheese,* Velveeta Original Shells and Cheese, Back to Nature Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, Pasta Roni Cheddar Macaroni,* Harvest Wheat Macaroni & Cheese Dinner,* Pasta Roni Shells & White Cheddar. (The brands marked with * received the same score.)

Methodology: In a blind taste test, five judges compared the flavor, consistency, and appearance of 16 boxes of packaged mac 'n' cheese (tubes, shells, or rotini). All options were prepared according to the stovetop directions on the packaging, using 1% milk and unsalted butter. (In several cases butter was not required and therefore not added.) We ranked them according to the Epicurious four-fork rating system (four being best). One winner within each category had us wishing every night was mac 'n' cheese night.

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365 Organic Shells and White Cheddar Cheese
Best Overall and Best White Cheddar

Winner: 365 Organic Shells and White Cheddar Cheese ($1.29 for 6 oz. box)

Pros: The editors noted how nicely the creamy, cheesy sauce clings to the shells. "It smells like buttery melted cheese, and the flavor is that of authentic Cheddar too!" stated one surprised judge. "Even though I was stuffed, I served myself twice!" admitted another.

Cons: Not ideal for those who prefer macaroni pasta rather than shells.

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Kraft Macaroni and Cheese
Best Traditional

Winner: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (1.39 for 6 oz. box)

Pros: Many chose this as their favorite because it was not overly salty. "It was pleasantly buttery, without being too wet and soggy," noted one judge. "Creamy, comforting, and innocuous—exactly what one expects from a boxed mac 'n' cheese," declared another taster.

Cons: A virulent shade of yellow.

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Kraft Whole Grain Macaroni and Cheese
Best Whole Wheat

Winner: Kraft Whole Grain Macaroni and Cheese ($ 1.49 for 6 oz. box)

Pros: In addition to having an unexpectedly natural flavor (like homemade), the cheese sauce has a balanced, mild, and yet tangy taste. "Not too mushy, and the little pasta logs cling together, creating the perfect bite," noticed one judge.

Cons: Strangely sweet finish.

The Other Contenders: The Bottom Three

Pasta Roni Cheddar Macaroni was one of the least favored due to its un-cheesiness. One editor said it best: "There's no cheese taste at all! But if you like buttery milk, then this might be your choice."

Judges were surprised to find out that Harvest Wheat Macaroni & Cheese is marketed as being artificial flavor- and preservative-free. "Not only does the cheese taste fake and sweet, but the sauce does not coat the pasta like it should," said one tester.

Pasta Roni Shells & White Cheddar received zero forks from four out of the five judges. "Sauce looks like glue!" stated one judge. "A little pasty, and it tastes like chicken," declared another.

Prices and availability subject to change.

More from Epicurious:

Easy Family Dinners

25 Sandwich Makeovers

How to Eat Your Spring Veggies

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