Although making macaroni and cheese from scratch isn’t hard, many busy parents (and hungry, budget-conscious college students) still opt for the convenience of box mixes and frozen dinners—and their numbers are growing. Sales have risen 25 percent over the past four years, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. New brands and varieties (Kraft alone offers more than 50 kinds) have exploded onto the market. Are they any good?
To narrow down our choices, we conducted two preliminary taste-offs of Kraft and Annie’s, companies that offer a dizzying array of product styles. We plucked the winners from among 19 of their best sellers and added other brands to round out our list, including two brands of frozen dinners; after all, what’s more convenient than heat and serve? We carefully followed package instructions, microwaving the frozen dinners (much quicker than baking), and asked 22 cooks and editors at America’s Test Kitchen to weigh in.
“Revolting.” That’s how they judged most of the brands in our blind tasting. We found just three brands we would even consider eating.
The so-called “cheese sauce” was one of several features that distinguished winners from losers. Our favorite reinforced its sauce with blue and cheddar cheeses, and all our top choices used liquid sauce, which was creamy and suitably clingy. Brands that relied on a cheese-powder packet (to which the cook adds milk and/or margarine) tasted “artificial” and were “chalky” and “thin.” Also, dry noodles triumphed; frozen dinners turned pasta into mush. Both elbows and shells were acceptable (confession: we skipped Kraft’s “SpongeBob SquarePants” shape).
Our winner requires the cook to make a milk-based cheese sauce, substituting a seasoning packet for flour and a cheese sauce for grated cheese. The effort is slightly less than from-scratch, and so is the flavor (though we did like the crumb topping). Only one other brand earned a recommended rating. We found a third acceptable, with reservations. The other five brands are not worth eating, even if the kids are screaming.
The best of the 11 Kraft varieties we tried and the best overall, this creamy, flavorful macaroni tasted the most like homemade. Tasters really liked the breadcrumb topping and praised the “thick” sauce for its “real” cheese flavor.
This cheese flavor was strong and rich, the sauce nice and thick. Many of our tasters instantly recognized the distinct taste of Velveeta. Some complained that the cheese became waxy if it sat around even briefly.
Despite the addition of milk and butter, tasters found this brand “pasty” and “powdery,” with cheese that was “chemical-y,” strangely “sweet,” and wan. As one taster put it, “It was as if the mac and cheese was depressed.”
“The Cheesiest” was plastered across the box, but this classic mac and cheese was everything but. Tasters jotted down “sweet,” “bitter,” “fake,” “fishy,” “sour,” and more—but nary a “cheesy.” Kraft may eat up 80 percent of the dry macaroni-and-cheese market, but this blue box we all know from childhood was just plain awful.
Easy-peasy to make: You bring water to a boil, add the pasta and seasoning packet, simmer, and let stand. No draining, no fuss, and . . . oops, no flavor! The cream-colored powder turned a disturbing neon yellow. Also disturbing—the flavorless, “rubbery, mushy mass” of “hideous orange elbows.”
This heat-and-eat frozen dinner was “bland” and “squishy” with a “weird plastic” aftertaste. Described as “flabby” and with zero cheese flavor, the closest it came to getting a compliment was “Tastes like a Cheez Doodle.”
6 minutes in the microwave, 28 minutes in a 350ºF oven