Secret #1: Classic Cheddar is Better
Many recipes call for cheesy additions of gruyère, fontina, brie, gouda, and even blue cheese. But we wanted our ultimate recipe to deliver classic mac and cheese flavor—meaning we wanted it to taste like cheddar. We tried a few of these other cheeses in a blend with cheddar but the only one that still tasted iconic was this Macaroni and Cheese, which called for a combination of cheddar and parmesan. The parm brought an nuttiness that rounded the cheddar flavor rather than distracting from it. We chose extra-sharp cheddar to stand out in our béchamel sauce (more on that below). Add we recommend you shred your own cheese. That bagged stuff at the grocery store usually has stabilizers, a drier texture, and less flavor than a hunk of cheddar does.
Secret #2: Add Cream to Make a Super-Rich Sauce
The most crucial element of this casserole is the basic white sauce (aka béchamel), which serves as a creamy vehicle for all that cheese.
We tried making béchamel with milk, which was delicious but didn't have the luscious creaminess that we were looking for in our mac and cheese. So we took inspiration from Macaroni and Cheese with Garlic Bread Crumbs and tried a combination of milk and cream, which added the indulgent texture we were looking for. Another key for success we discovered: Be sure to whisk in the cheese in three stages, making sure it melts completely at each stage before adding more. You'll have the creamiest, cheesiest sauce possible in no time.
Secret #3: Add a Dash of Mustard Powder for a Kick
In many recipes, there's a special ingredient that might not be immediately detectable but boosts the other flavors in a dish. We tried a few spices like cayenne pepper and nutmeg, but were blown away by the addition of mustard powder used in this Macaroni and Cheese recipe. The mustard powder brings a subtle, horseradish-like heat that highlights the flavor of the cheddar in the best way possible.
Secret #4: Upgrade Your Breadcrumb Topping with Garlic and Parm
Next, we tackled the great debate over traditional breadcrumbs vs. panko (Japanese breadcrumbs). With its light and airy texture and supreme crunch, panko won over our hearts. But we didn't stop there. We were inspired by Macaroni and Cheese with Garlic Bread Crumbs to cook the panko in butter with garlic until lightly toasted. This recipe for Macaroni and Cheese taught us to fold some Parmesan cheese into the breadcrumbs, which adds another layer of flavor to the crunchy topping.
Don't Forget to Season!
Like so many other foods, forgetting to season your mac and cheese can make it fall flat. But don't worry, we've got you covered. We season in 3 steps in our recipe: the topping, the sauce, and while cooking the macaroni. Plus, parmesan brings a natural saltiness to both the topping and the cheese sauce.