Macaroni and cheese is a staple comfort food, but with so many ways to prepare it, there are a lot of mistakes one can make when cooking a classic version of the dish.
Whether you're making a simple stovetop mac or an upscale variant with pricier cheeses, chefs and culinary experts agree on many of the most common issues home cooks face when attempting the dish. Here are nine mistakes to avoid when making mac and how to avoid them.
1. The bechamel-making process was rushed
Bechamel sauce is a mixture of butter (or oil), flour and milk, and is the base for the sauce in many mac and cheese recipes. While the ingredients are simple, the process of making a roux, then adding milk, requires a lot of care and a lot can go wrong if the process is rushed. Adding milk to the sauce too quickly is one major mistake to avoid.
“Add it (milk) little by little and stir continuously to get a luxurious, smooth texture,” Molly Yeh, Food Network’s “Girl Meets Farm” star, told TODAY.
The same can be said for not allowing the butter and flour to cook together properly in the roux. "It’s easy to make the roux wrong and end up with a broken, grainy and lumpy one. Make sure to cook it properly by cooking it for a minute or two until it gets toasty and well blended together,” chef Damon Menapace, the culinary director at Primal Supply Meats, told TODAY.
2. The noodles were overcooked
Overcooking pasta can result in a mushy mess. When boiling the noodles, it's ideal to cook them just to al dente, or even going slightly undercooked if the dish is also being baked.
“They’ll continue to cook once you get the sauce on them and bake it,” said Yeh.
3. The cheese needed more variety
A great cheddar or Gouda will truly make a great dish shine, but using only one kind of cheese won't provide the optimal layers of flavor for a heavenly mac and cheese.
“Mac and cheese needs loads of flavor and depth,” Danyelle Hudgins, executive chef of The Listening Room Cafe in Nashville, told TODAY. “Using different cheeses allows you to taste layers of flavor combos."
Hudgins advised using a mix of cheddar, Gouda, Parmesan and smoked provolone.
4. Too many extras were added
Sometimes it's easier to rationalize making and eating hearty dishes like mac and cheese by adding some sort of healthy component to it. Whether it’s using a grain-free pasta, lower-fat cheeses, or adding in veggies, there are plenty of recipes that try to take the guilt out of this guilty pleasure. These are fine variations to try out, but if you want a classic mac, it's best not to deviate too far from the elements that make the dish so crave worthy in the first place.
“Sure, some veggies are super tasty in mac and cheese and you can definitely get away with using low-fat or nonfat milk, but don’t let it get too far away from its ooey, gooey, cheesy self!” said Yeh. In general, treat mac and cheese like the true indulgence that it is.
5. The right pasta wasn't used
A very important part of mac and cheese is, of course, the mac.
“Since this is the base of the dish, you want to make sure you find a good quality, dry pasta with a texture that will help the sauce cling to it,” chef Vincent Menager of The ONE Group and STK told TODAY. “At STK, we like to use De Cecco (elbow pasta) because it holds the sauce, but is easy to grab a bite of without needing to cut it.”
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6. There wasn’t enough cheese
If you're baking your mac and cheese, don't forget to top it off with a healthy amount of fresh cheese. “Too often, people skip this step thinking that their sauce is cheesy enough, when in fact this layer is meant to keep the moistness inside the dish,” said Menager.
But keep in mind that not just any cheese will work for the topping.
“If the topping is made of too many dry, hard cheeses it will easily burn, but if the cheese is too soft it will make a melty mess, be difficult to serve and will not develop the desired golden brown color," he said, adding that using the right balance of both will help ensure a picture perfect presentation and an excellent flavor.
7. You took yourself too seriously
When you do too much to elevate mac and cheese, it stops being about what you actually wanted in the first place. Don’t use the fanciest cheeses and truffle oil if that’s not where your cravings are taking you. And don’t be embarrassed to have it with ketchup — if that's how you like it!
Said Yeh, “(Ketchup) adds a bright hit of acidity and a cooling element that lowers the chances of burning your mouth on that fresh-out-of-the-oven bite.”
8. There wasn’t enough spice in the dish
Pasta and cheese are both totally delicious, but they do need a little help in achieving a truly flavorful, next-level recipe. That's where the seasoning comes in.
Depending on your taste buds, Yeh recommended playing around with "a tiny bit" of spices like nutmeg, paprika, garlic powder or mustard powder. Paprika, in particular, will add a nice smokiness, while ground mustard adds a delightful kick and truly complements salty dishes.
9. The dish didn’t have time to rest
Much like letting a great cut of meat rest after grilling, macaroni and cheese will taste its best if it's given a bit of time to rest before people start digging in.
“After your mac and cheese is done, it’s tempting to dig right into it,” said Menapace. However, the chef recommended at least 10 to 15 minutes of resting time after the dish is removed from the oven. “This will allow the sauce to set back up around the noodles. Otherwise, it’ll just be runny and ripping hot."