Taste test: Packaged macaroni and cheese

Epicurious
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

    • The latest on ESPN layoffs: Ed Werder, Jayson Stark, Trent Dilfer among employees let go

      ESPN is set to lay off about 100 staffers, Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch reports, including recognizable reporters and analysts.

      Sports Illustrated
    • Researchers found the body of a 25-foot-long shark, and it's grim but strangely beautiful

      Last week, the Marine Strandings Network was called in to investigate a dead shark in Cornwall, England. What MSN found was not just any shark: it was the fully intact floating carcass of a 25-foot-long basking shark. SEE ALSO: If footage of this ethereal jellyfish doesn't calm you, nothing will Photographer Matthew Facey also visited the sight to photograph the shark. "My initial thought from a distance was it looked like a great white, but I've never heard of one washing up here," he said. "When we took a closer look he had no teeth, so it was clear he was a basking shark, quite common in Cornwall, and a gentle giant." Over the next few days, volunteers were assembled and the proper organizations

      Mashable q
    • Sheriff: 'Bachelor' star refused to answer door after crash

      IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Former "Bachelor" Chris Soules called 911 to report his crash that killed a fellow Iowa farmer, seeking medical help for the man before authorities say he left the scene and holed up in his home for hours until his arrest.

      Associated Press 27 min ago
    • Rabbit set to be world's biggest dies on United Airlines flight in fresh PR disaster

      United Airlines has confirmed they are investigating reports that a giant rabbit died while travelling to Chicago on one of its transatlantic flight. Simon, a three-foot continental rabbit, was reportedly travelling from Heathrow to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport after the 10-month old bunny was purchased by a celebrity owner. ‘The client who bought Simon is very famous.

      Yahoo News UK
    • How a Mom's Fitbit Led Police to Charge Her Husband with Her Murder

      How a Mom's Fitbit Led Police to Charge Her Husband with Her Murder

      People
    • Erin Moran's Husband Releases a Heartbreaking Statement About How She Died

      She passed away at home, holding her husband's hand.

      Country Living
    • White House briefs Senate amid scary moment with North Korea

      WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration hosted senators for an extraordinary White House briefing Wednesday at a perilous moment with North Korea, marked by the unpredictable nation's nuclear threats and stern talk of military action, if necessary, from the United States.

      Associated Press
    • Unicorn frappucinos are dead. Long live dragon frappuccinos.

      A couple days ago, we suggested other mythical creatures who are not unicorns that deserve to have their own frappuccinos.  Little did we know, one of those frappuccinos was indeed developing in the shadows of the unicorn frappuccino. And now, with the unicorn frappuccino run officially over at Starbucks, that new frappuccino has come into the spotlight. Introducing the dragon frappuccino. SEE ALSO: Starbucks baristas are now creating 'unicorn lemonade' and there's no end to this 109/365: I apologized profusely to my barista before ordering the basic AF #unicornfrappuccino - thankfully they were out of the ingredients and offered me something not only cooler and better tasting, but easier to make: the #dragonfrappuccino @starbucks #ionlyordereditbecauseitmatchesmyhair A post shared by Mercy Martin 濾 (@heyymercyy) on Apr 19, 2017 at 9:34pm PDT It appears that some Starbucks locations, such as the one in the Instagram picture above, had run out of ingredients to make the insanely popular Unicorn Frappuccino. So instead, baristas offered a new, unofficial concoction: the dragon frappuccino. In fact, at least one location tried to make the drink official with sign that proclaimed it as a store exclusive. However, since it's not a product made by Starbucks HQ, you probably won't be able to find it in the majority of stores and the recipes vary. A post shared by Varin Thorn (@varin_thorn) on Apr 21, 2017 at 9:05pm PDT Many Instagram posts have explained that it's a green tea frappuccino with vanilla bean powder and a berry swirl on the inside of the cup. One post saw the green tea being mixed with dried blueberries to create the purple color along with the green. A Starbucks created this to replace the unicorn frappuccino so we duplicated it and it's yummy!!! #dragonfrappuccino A post shared by Smith's Starbucks (@starbucks.smiths) on Apr 26, 2017 at 9:58am PDT We think the moral of the story is that people are starting to become more and more creative in either what they create at Starbucks or what they force their baristas to create. And then we just slap a catchy name to it. So long live creativity and frappuccinos. WATCH: Woman uses Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino to spread some magical news to her husband

      Mashable
    • Thunder’s offseason moves start here: Offer Russell Westbrook $220 million contract

      The contract would make him the highest paid player in the NBA. Think he's walking away from that?

      NBC Sports
    • Here are the biggest names that have been let go by ESPN in its latest round of layoffs

      ESPN announced its latest round of layoffs on Wednesday morning — 100 employees are expected to...

      Business Insider
    • Colorado wild animal sanctuary euthanizes all its animals after relocation dispute

      A wild animal sanctuary in Colorado has euthanized all 11 of its animals. One of the sanctuary’s co-owners said they were forced to do so after county commissioners denied their request to relocate. Dr. Joan Laub told KMGH-Channel 7 the animals had to be euthanized because ongoing flooding on the property made conditions unsafe for the animals. KUSA-Channel 9 reports the sanctuary euthanized three lions, three tigers and five bears on April 20. The previous week, Elbert County commissioners had unanimously voted to deny the sanctuary’s request to move about 20 miles from its site southeast of Denver. Commissioner Grant Thayer said the vote to deny the sanctuary a special-use permit to move was

      MercuryNews.com q
    • Ancient people left a frightening message for us, and scientists just found it

      10,000 years from now (assuming humans haven't been wiped out by a plague, space rock, or our own destructive tendencies), it'll probably be fairly easy for the average person to research what life was like in 2017. For us here today, finding out what life was like in 11,000BC is much more challenging, but by studying ancient stone carvings and pairing the somewhat confusing messages with archeological data, researchers believe they've discovered concrete evidence of an apocalyptic event that may have altered the future of mankind: a comet strike. The study, performed by a team of researchers from the University of Edinburgh ( PDF ), suggests that a potentially cataclysmic comet strike rapidly and dramatically altered the Earth's climate for hundreds of years, sending humanity into a mini ice age with nearly glacial conditions. The time period when this occurred is known as the Younger Dryas, and has been well documented thanks to ample evidence of the cooling found in core samples, but its cause has been theorized and debated for a long while. Now, thanks to stone carvings left by ancient people in modern day Turkey, researchers believe that a comet was the culprit. The carvings are remarkably preserved and appear to have been created to document an apocalyptic event which devastated the land. Figures depicted in the carvings, including apparently deceased, headless human bodies and other wildlife, were made at around the time the Younger Dryas began, suggesting that the event archived in stone could have been the same one that caused the thousand-year cold snap. The carvings were found at what is considered to be one of the oldest and most important temple sites on the planet, and for the images to appear there suggests that they have enormous historical significance. The Younger Dryas is often credited with pushing ancient humans to band together out of pure necessity, forming the foundation of modern agriculture and other huge advancements in civilization. The idea that a comet may have been responsible for pushing humanity forward is an extremely interesting, and potentially frightening possibility. The findings are far from an iron clad confirmation, but the timing matches up shockingly well, and would have to be a fantastic coincidence if the two events are actually unrelated.

      BGR News
    • M. Night Shyamalan and Bruce Willis will complete the Unbreakable trilogy in January 2019

      M. Night Shyamalan has hopped on Twitter to unveil some new details about the third installment in his Unbreakable series — most importantly that it’s called Glass and it’s coming out on January 18th, 2019. Shyamalan also told his 106,000 Twitter followers that Split stars Ana Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy will both appear in Glass, as will Unbreakable stars Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis. The film will be produced by Blumhouse, the low-budget horror powerhouse that’s been on a crazy winning streak — putting out both of the only hits Shyamalan has made this decade (The Visit and Split), Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Purge: Election Year, and Netflix’s Hush, all in the last two years.

      The Verge q
    • Country Living
    • The Latest: Trump to sign executive order on education

      WASHINGTON (AP) — The Latest on President Donald Trump (all times EDT):

      Associated Press
    • 31 Marinated Chicken Recipes That Just Taste Better (32 photos)

      With chicken this tender, you won't have any leftovers. Start prepping your chicken early to give it time to soak up the bright flavors of these marinade ideas and you'll have tender, juicy chicken the whole family will love. Want more? Try our BBQ marinades and rubs and homemade condiments . From Delish

      Delish
    • Missing Man`s Body Found Encased in Concrete

      Police say the body of a Missouri man who had reportedly walked away from an assisted living center was found in a shipping container filled with cement.

      Tribune
    • Did Russell Westbrook really block a teammates shot to get ball back during Game 5?

      I would argue that this was just Westbrook being uber aggressive — the only way he ever plays.

      NBC Sports
    • Commander says U.S. may need stronger defense against North Korea missiles

      By Phil Stewart and David Brunnstrom WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. commander in the Pacific told Congress on Wednesday the United States may need to strengthen its missile defenses, particularly in Hawaii, given the advancing threat from North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons programs. Just before the entire U.S. Senate was due to receive a top-level briefing on North Korea at the White House, Admiral Harry Harris said he believed Pyongyang's threats against the United States needed to be taken seriously.

      Reuters