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.

View gallery

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.

View gallery

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.

View gallery

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

Sorry you didn't like this comment. Please provide a reason below.

Are you sure?
Rating failed. Try again.
Request failed. Try again.
We will promote constructive and witty comments to the top, so everyone sees them!
Sorry, we can’t load comments right now. Try again.

    Recommended for You

    • Cosmopolitan
    • Trump’s campaign manager got called out at the final debate and it was probably the best part

      As if this election season wasn’t already ~messy~ enough, there’s even more messiness to behold. By now, you probably know that Trump’s campaign manager,…

      Hello Giggles
    • Girl Reportedly Died Taking an"Extreme Selfie"

      She allegedly sent the selfie to a friend right before falling.

    • Woman Carrying Skull on Stick Leads Police to Human Remains

      Police in Sacramento say human remains were discovered after officers confronted a transient woman seen carrying a skull on a stick Wednesday.

    • Whoa: Has the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle just been solved?

      Stop and take a seat because the gravity of this news will probably pull you down anyway. According to The Science Channel,…

      Hello Giggles
    • Kate Gosselin Accuses Ex-Husband Jon of Having an “Inappropriate Relationship” With Daughter Hannah, 12 (EXCLUSIVE)

      Kate Gosselin has gone to the police with some serious accusations against her ex-husband, Jon Gosselin. In addition to allegations that he’s a drug dealer, the mom-of-eight, 41, is claiming that the 39-year-old has an “inappropriate relationship” with their 12-year-old daughter Hannah, In Touch has exclusively learned. Hannah (Photo Credit: Getty Images) In the police report obtained exclusively by In Touch, Kate claimed Jon once “kidnapped” Hannah by taking her from school; Kate told police “that she detects suspicious behavior between Jonathan and their [then] 10-year-old daughter.” An insider tells In Touch the allegations upset Jon. “Jon had no idea at the time that she accused him of having

      In Touch Weekly q
    • Man died 'horror-movie' death from flesh-eating bacteria

      OCEAN CITY, Md. — On Sept. 11, Michael Funk was cleaning crab pots at his bayside condominium; four days later he was dead, the victim of flesh-eating bacteria. For Marcia Funk, his wife of 46 years, his death is compounded by what she called a lack of information here about the bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus. "I really feel they kept it quiet because it's a tourist resort," Marcia Funk said. "It's like something out of a horror movie." The bacteria, along with about a dozen others that are related, occurs naturally in areas of warm, brackish waters with low salinity. Most of the 80,000 people who become ill across the USA each year consume raw or under-cooked seafood, according to the Centers for

      USA Today q
    • Amy Schumer’s Instagram post about the debate is the most accurate thing we’ve ever seen

      If it’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that Amy Schumer is a comedic angel sent from the heavens above. Girlfriend…

      Hello Giggles
    • There's a chance Eric Trump hasn't paid for a cup of lemonade for years

      Eric Trump appears to have committed one of the cardinal sins of fast food: Putting a soft drink in a free water cup. The noted map enthusiast was caught with a clear cup of lemonade in his hand at an In-N-Out restaurant after Wednesday's presidential debate.  Although Trump's stolen beverage was conveniently absent from his own Instagram photo, the truth emerged when he took a a pic with another customer...who is now an inadvertent whistleblower. SEE ALSO: The Trumpkin is back to make Halloween terrifying again this is a photo of my homey grant with trumps kid at in-n-out & trumps kid is drinking lemonade outta the free water cup... pic.twitter.com/Npuqte5e2b — Kush Vonnegut (@xwnklmnx) October 20, 2016 For the record, In-N-Out confirmed to BuzzFeed that clear plastic cups are indeed for water only, so Trump was clearly on the wrong side of the law here. But after seeing something as viscerally disturbing as this theft, it's natural to still have a few questions. For instance:  Why did Eric Trump elect not to buy a cup of lemonade? Has Eric Trump ever paid for a cup of lemonade? Has his wife's purchase of a drink created a loophole that allows Eric Trump to take some of her drink and put it in his cup? Can a nice cup of lemonade, one of our society's best achievements, ever truly be owned? How do you celebrate after a big @realdonaldtrump win?! #InNOut #teamtrump #MAGA  A photo posted by Lara Trump (@laraleatrump) on Oct 19, 2016 at 9:53pm PDT Anyway, stealing a fountain beverage is an unforgivable offense and we cannot imagine ever doing it. Ever.  Nope, we have never done this.

    • Investigator Claims 'Ufo Wreckage' Is Evidence Aliens Visited The Earth 250,000 Years Ago

      The discovery of an ancient piece of aluminium is being hailed as evidence that aliens visited Earth 250,000 years ago. The mysterious hunk of metal was found in Romania during the 1970s, when the country was under communist rule. Now tests at a lab in Lausanne, Switzerland, have revealed that the strange fragment of metal is made up of 90 percent aluminium and is 250,000 years old. Aluminium was not produced by mankind until about 200 years ago, so the discovery of the large chunk that could be up to 250,000 years old is being held up as a sensational find. Gheorghe Cohal, the Deputy Director of the Romanian Ufologists Association, told local media: "Lab tests concluded it is an old UFO fragment

      Fox News q
    • Donald Trump has a small lead in 3 national polls

      Donald Trump found himself ahead in three national polls Friday morning. The Republican...

      Business Insider
    • U.S. warship challenges China's claims in South China Sea

      By Idrees Ali and Matt Spetalnick WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. navy destroyer sailed near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea on Friday, drawing a warning from Chinese warships to leave the area. The U.S. action was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing's efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, U.S. officials said. The Chinese Defense Ministry called the move "illegal" and "provocative," saying that two Chinese warships had warned the U.S. destroyer to leave.

    • Dallas Cowboys Rookies Spend Nearly $55,000 On Dinner At Nick & Sam’s

      At some point in the season, the Dallas Cowboys’ newest players are hazed in a particularly expensive way — buying dinner for their undoubtedly hungry teammates. At this year’s “rookie dinner,” newcomers like quarterback Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott racked up a beyond massive bill at a Dallas steakhouse. A photo of a receipt detailing $50,341.65 in pricey steaks, shrimp cocktail, and caviar from Nick & Sam’s was reportedly posted to defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford’s Snapchat account on October 19, and was later posted to Twitter by a Cowboys fan site.

      Eater Dallas q
    • EXCLUSIVE: Shania Twain Stuns at CMT Artists of the Year Event, Reveals How She Stays in Incredible Shape

      Shania Twain SLAYS in Nashville, and gets real with ET about her diet.

      Entertainment Tonight
    • 10 of Your Favorite HGTV Stars Reveal How They Were Discovered (11 photos)

      Ever wonder how all those now-famous realtors, designers, and renovators found themselves on TV? We asked some of HGTV's biggest stars how they got their start. From Country Living

      Country Living
    • Chrissy Teigen makes her Twitter account private after being accused of holding baby Luna wrong

      Chrissy Teigen is seemingly annoyed with "mummy shamers". Grammy winner John Legend's wife made her Twitter account private after she was accused of holding her baby girl, Luna, incorrectly.

      International Business Times UK q
    • Minnesota firefighter discovers teen son killed in car crash

      ADA, Minn. (AP) — A volunteer firefighter from northwestern Minnesota made a grim discovery at a car crash — his teenage son was the victim.

      Associated Press
    • Report: Cavaliers in advanced discussions on trade for point guard

      The Cavaliers should be fine at point guard in games that matter. Kyrie Irving is an excellent starter. When Irving rests, LeBron James – in addition to his minutes at forward – can serve as primary ball-handler with an extra wing on the floor. But Cleveland wants to limit LeBron’s and Irving’s playing time to […]

      ProBasketballTalk q