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April​/May 2011

Macaroni and Cheese

We tasted 25 boxed and frozen versions of mostly clumpy, gloppy, wimpy mac and cheese. Were there any we’d actually eat?

Update, March 2019
We recently learned our winner, Kraft Homestyle Macaroni & Cheese Dinner Classic Cheddar Cheese Sauce, was discontinued. Kraft Velveeta Original Shells & Cheese is our new winner.

How We Tested

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.