I order macaroni and cheese every time I see it on a restaurant menu. I'd love to make it as rich and creamy at home, but mine always seems to end up too dry, or the cheese is lumpy, not smooth. Tips?
— Theresa B., Medford
Macaroni and cheese at its simplest is boiled noodles combined with milk and cheese. Superior versions have an equal ratio of cheese to pasta. That requires a lot of cheese, which can be a substantial investment for high-quality types.
So make sure to buy cheese made for melting into a smooth, shiny puddle (cheddar, Monterey Jack, Gruyere and Gouda). Avoid cheese that becomes stringy when melted (mozzarella) or that resists melting (feta).
Choose macaroni carefully. Small elbows are traditional, but larger, tubular shapes, such as penne and rigatoni, draw in cheese and trap sauce on their rough surfaces.
But even cheeses predisposed to melting can become grainy and greasy if heated too quickly or for too long. Let cheese sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking; cold cheese requires more heat to melt. Shredding cheese (rather than cubing) facilitates melting. After adding it to the pot, cook over low heat until liquefied and piping-hot.
There is some debate about how long to boil pasta before stirring it into the cheese. Many cooks call for undercooking, so pasta won't get mushy as it continues to cook in the sauce, which makes sense if you plan to bake the dish for 20 minutes or more. But stovetop mac and cheese requires just a few minutes of extra cooking, so al dente is the way to go.
If you prefer the creaminess of stovetop macaroni with the crunchy topping that baking imparts, try this: Pour stovetop mac and cheese into a baking dish, sprinkle with a combination of Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs, then broil for a minute or two until the surface is golden-brown.
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