This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.
Boxed macaroni and cheese holds a special place in my heart -- even as a culinary school grad, cheese educator and former fine dining employee. Whether it's in a box or a cup, these hacks are sure to take your mac and cheese experience to the next level.
There's something oddly appetizing about the squidgy blend of noodles, milk, butter and the secret "sauce packet" once it all comes together to work its bizarre magic. It's comfort food for the soul.
It may taste more of salt than of actual cheese, and I'm a little suspicious about powdered dairy in general, but the buttery, salty porridge feel of boxed macaroni and cheese can be best summarized by a native Italian I made it for once: "Why is it so terrible, but so good?"
Despite having any degree of culinary credibility, I support both the economics and ambition of using boxed (and/or cupped) mac and cheese and elevating it for a satisfying and aesthetically-pleasing meal. Try any or a combination of the following nine hacks for taking your macaroni and cheese kit from boxed to almost restaurant quality (or at least far better).
Speaking of cheese, be sure to check out these guides on how to store it so it lasts longer and how to find great cheese for the best price.
Add more cheese
Perhaps this goes without saying, but one need only look to pizza to understand how something that's already made with cheese can benefit from even more cheese.
Improve both the taste and texture of boxed mac and cheese by adding some actual cheese to the mix: mozzarella for stretch, an aged Alpine cheese like gruyere for sweet and savory notes or a hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano or pecorino for depth and additional saltiness. Or frankly -- even though it's categorized as a "cheese product" rather than actual cheese -- a couple of slices of American cheese does wonders for instant ramen noodles, so why not for mac and cheese?
Do you take your mac and cheese with a side of vegetables or salad in order to achieve some sense of "balance" in the meal, or are you normal? Maybe it's just me, but macaroni and cheese with broccoli is almost as ubiquitous a matchup as peas and carrots. Veggies not only add vitamins, but flavor, texture and contrast to mac and cheese. A low-maintenance way to add veggies to your mac and cheese is to toss in a handful of sturdy veggies such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, or chopped asparagus with the boiling water for the last minute or so before draining.
You can also add frozen options such as peas or soft greens like spinach to the colander. Thye'll heat and wilt sufficiently during the straining process. Sauteed or roasted vegetables will add even more flavor if you have the wherewithal for an extra pot or pan. Green vegetables aren't the only potential candidates here either; cauliflower, roasted peppers, or even butternut squash are also equal to the task or even add a little bit of canned pumpkin. (Pumpkin spice optional.)
Opt for a noodle upgrade
Most mac and cheese kits rely on tiny elbow macaroni noodles or shells for a shorter cooking time, therefore decreasing the time between when the mac and cheese craving hits and when the craving is satisfied. Smaller noodles are easier to overcook, however, and they tend to have a less toothsome quality than other, short-cut pasta options. Aim for an actual al dente mac and cheese with a larger noodle and save the elbow macaroni for some killer art project instead. You can upgrade the texture of boxed mac and cheese with any sturdier, short-cut noodle including penne, fusilli and cavatelli.
Herbs add massive flavor and color to any dish without adding much in the way of additional volume (or caloric impact if that matters to you,) and macaroni and cheese is no exception. Fresh herbs such as basil, parsley, cilantro or tarragon can simply be added as a garnish for added flavor, as well as elegance. (Nobody needs to know you started with a box.) A spoonful of pesto adds herbaceousness, as well as a garlic boost.
You need not even have fresh herbs on hand to add additional intrigue to your mac and cheese game with this approach; any pantry staples like dried Italian herbs, chives, or even spice blends like Everything-But-The-Bagel seasoning can be added during the mixing process for an immediate upgrade.
Bring on the bacon (or other proteins)
Where there's smoke, there's fire, and the smokiness of bacon definitely turns boxed mac and cheese into something one might classify as fire. Other convenient proteins like deli ham, sausage, or rotisserie chicken, or even vegetarian options such as black beans also bring their own savory personalities to the mac and cheese party.
Combine the protein or proteins of your choice with some of the other hacks on this list for creations that start to resemble fully realized meals that begin with a humble box of mac: pizza mac with sausage, basil, sun-dried tomatoes and mozzarella; chili mac with kidney beans, cilantro, corn and pepper Jack; or buffalo chicken mac with rotisserie chicken, blue cheese, scallions and hot sauce.
Top it with breadcrumbs
The quickest way to tease homemade mac and cheese vibes out of a boxed mac and cheese process is with a texture glow-up, and a smattering of bread crumbs delivers exactly this with minimal fuss. You can add extra cheese and breadcrumbs and finish the thing in the oven for something you might actually bring to a potluck, but even a quick saute or spin in the toaster oven, of panko bread crumbs and olive oil tips boxed mac and cheese into a meal worth actually setting the table for.
Breadcrumbs aren't the only candidate for an improvement in texture, either. Frizzled onions, sesame or pumpkin seeds and even chopped nuts are worthy companions for adding texture to mac and cheese.
Substitute the milk
The milk called for by macaroni and cheese kits is merely acting as a conduit to help the butter and sauce mixture emulsify. While low-fat milk does help keep it on the safer side nutritionally, mac and cheese isn't generally defined by its nutritional value anyway. Fat is a megaphone for flavor, so richer dairy options result in a mac and cheese where you might actually taste cheese rather than merely salt, even in those with a boxed pedigree. Swap out your skim or 2% milk with fuller-fat dairy options like whole milk, half and half, or, if you really mean it, heavy cream. You can even add a little tang to the proceedings, as well as richness, with a dose of sour cream or my personal favorite, cream cheese.
Saute an onion or some shallots while you're waiting for your pasta water to boil and now your kitchen smells like you're up to something a great deal more sophisticated than boxed macaroni and cheese. (While you're eating, pause to congratulate yourself.)
Garlic doesn't even require an additional pan to perform its aromatic magic. Add a clove of pressed or minced garlic along with the milk and butter to a white cheddar mac and cheese for a cheap and cheerful alfredo. Or if you've been regenerating scallions in your kitchen window, macaroni and cheese will benefit from its cheese-friendly piquancy.
Finish with hot sauce
If you have any sense about you, you're probably topping your mac and cheese with hot sauce anyway, but it's probably worth pointing out that not every hot sauce is created equally. In light of the recent sriracha shortage, or if you've been otherwise dallying only with Tabasco or Frank's your whole life, consider the transformative qualities of gochujang, chili crisp or Valentina. Or look to your local community for worthy hot sauce makers. You'll feel good from the heat rush and also for keeping your dollars closer to home.
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