Welcome back to Cookbook Showdown, where one brave home cook tests recipes for the same dish from various popular cookbooks to find out which one comes out on top. They say eyes are the window to the soul, but I say macaroni and cheese recipes are the window to the cookbook. That’s why I tested five recipes for mac and cheese from chefs including Ree Drummond, Carla Hall, Eric Kim, Patti LaBelle, and Nicole A. Taylor. Which cheesy noodles melted my heart? Read on to find out!
The History of Macaroni and Cheese
How long has macaroni and cheese been around? Well, since about the time pasta and cheese were invented, people have been mixing them together to make a delicious casserole. The earliest known recipe for mac and cheese dates back to 13th century Italy. It instructed chefs to cut sheets of pasta into 2-inch squares, boil them, and then mix them with grated cheese, most likely parmesan. Its popularity in Europe spread quickly.
The U.S.’s obsession with mac and cheese has a different story. Although it’s been served here as long as the United States has existed, it reached a different level of notoriety during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, when macaroni and cheese was frequently served at official state dinners. But while some credit Jefferson with the rise of mac and cheese, it was really Black chef James Hemmings, who was enslaved by Jefferson, who brought the dish to fame. Hemmings was sent to France to study culinary techniques and used those skills to later develop his own macaroni and cheese recipe.
For a while, the dish was thought of as an elite, luxurious food. But as dried pasta and processed cheese became more available at a lower price, it morphed into the comfort food we know today. And once Kraft released their boxed mac and cheese at the end of the Great Depression in 1937, it was forever cemented as a cheap and easy American favorite.
The Basics of Macaroni and Cheese
Mac and cheese can be as simple or as complicated as you like. At its most basic, it can be cooked pasta layered with cheese and baked. At its most extravagant, it can include ingredients like lobster and truffles and cost hundreds of dollars.
Usually, macaroni and cheese consists of elbow macaroni, a sauce made of cream and/or butter, and various cheeses. But all of that is up for experimentation. Elbow macaroni is the most common pasta, but any short pasta can be used, with more pockets and edges on the shape preferred to catch the sauce. Cheddar is the most popular cheese choice, but it can be substituted or mixed with other cheeses like mozzarella for meltability, parmesan for saltiness, and gouda for flavor. Traditionally, mac and cheese is baked in a casserole dish, but plenty of recipes are made on the stove top without use of the oven. Really, when it comes to macaroni and cheese, the sky’s the limit.
Macaroni and Cheese Cookbook Showdown
Now that we’ve caught up on the background, let’s get to the showdown, shall we? I usually choose four recipes for a Cookbook Showdown like this, but I can never get enough mac and cheese, and I also wanted to give some more nontraditional recipes a try, so I tested five recipes total. Three are more traditional, focusing on the pasta and cheese, while two have interesting twists. Which one was the cheesiest delight? Read on to find out!
The Pioneer Woman Cooks—Super Easy!: 120 Shortcut Recipes for Dinners, Desserts, and More by Ree Drummond
Ree Drummond, aka the Pioneer Woman, has built a cooking empire around her approachable, tasty, family-friendly recipes. From her blog to her Food Network show to her many cookbooks, you can look to Drummond for delicious food that isn’t overly pretentious or complicated to make. This particular cookbook is focused on shortcuts and quick, easy recipes with ingredients and substitutions found in plenty of home pantries.
Drummond’s “Sheet Pan Mac and Cheese” promises a dish only slightly more complicated than the boxed stuff, but baked in a sheet pan for maximum crispy baked cheese topping. It involves making a cheese sauce from evaporated milk, Velveeta, and grated cheese on the stove, mixing it with cooked pasta, then putting it in the stove to bake with extra cheese on top. Let’s see if this recipe delivered on the baked cheese goodness.
How it Went
As promised, this was indeed a pretty easy recipe to follow. Drummond includes photos of each step, which is definitely helpful for visual learners. The evaporated milk was considerably faster and easier than making a roux or thickened cream sauce. Her method of preheating the baking sheet for a crispy, cheesy bottom was successful and helped the whole thing bake more quickly.
Ree Drummond’s Sheet Pan Mac and Cheese Scores
- Taste: 4/5 — The hot sauce and dry mustard were a nice touch, and the evaporated milk made for a quick sauce, but it ended up a little dry overall.
- Cheese factor: 4/5 — The Velveeta, cheddar, gruyère, and parmesan combination was really nice and balanced. It delivered on crispy cheese on the top and bottom, but it lost some of the creamy, saucy quality along the way.
- Difficulty: Easy — This was a perfect weeknight dinner because it came together really quickly, and the pictures make the recipe easy to follow.
- Overall: 4/5 — If you love the golden crispy topping on baked mac and cheese, this recipe is for you! But if you prefer a creamy, saucy mac and cheese, it might disappoint. The lack of sauce also meant this didn’t reheat very well.
The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen by Nicole A. Taylor
Nicole A. Taylor is a home cook, food writer, and podcast host. She spent much of her youth trying to distance herself from her Georgia upbringing, until she landed in Brooklyn and realized the power of her Southern food roots. In this cookbook, Taylor blends Southern classics with international and modern ingredients.
Taylor’s “Baked Macaroni and Cheese” recipe, though, is all about classic flavors and nailing the cheese blend. Again, this recipe starts with making a sauce (including butter, heavy cream, half-and-half, grated cheese, and various seasonings) on the stove, mixing it with cooked pasta, and baking it. Let’s find out what happened when I tried it at home.
How it Went
Making the cheese sauce went according to plan. The creamy sauce looked and tasted great, especially with the addition of red pepper flakes, nutmeg, and mustard powder. But here’s where the trouble came in: Taylor instructs readers to mix two beaten eggs into the hot, drained pasta in the casserole pan before pouring over the hot cheese sauce. Do you know what happens when you add hot ingredients to uncooked eggs? I sure do. They cook into eggy clumps! The flavor of this mac and cheese was great, but the texture was all wrong. There’s a reason cooks are usually instructed to temper eggs in a sauce or casserole like this by slowly integrating a warm ingredient with the eggs before whisking it all together, and trust me, it’s worth the extra step.
Nicole A. Taylor’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese Scores
- Taste: 3/5 — The seasoning combination in this recipe really sets off the cheeses nicely. But the clumpy eggs really ruined the texture, which detracted from the overall experience.
- Cheese factor: 4/5 — The blend of sharp cheddar, manchego, and gruyère cheeses was delicious and well balanced, but a smoother cheesy texture would have put it over the top.
- Difficulty: Moderate — There’s a bit of a roux shortcut here of mixing flour in after you’ve already mixed together the butter and creams, making it a little more approachable. But I’d rather take the extra step of tempering the eggs to create a better texture in the end.
- Overall: 3/5 — Great flavor, bad texture. Always temper your eggs!
LaBelle Cuisine: Recipes to Sing About by Patti LaBelle
Patti LaBelle is known as the Godmother of Soul, and that applies to both her Grammy-winning music career and her delicious food. This cookbook was first released in 1999, and this 20th anniversary edition has even more to love with new stories and recipes. LaBelle’s recipes for classic soul food are interspersed with delightful (and sometimes completely wild) stories from her family and friendships with other celebrities.
That’s what first caught my eye in LaBelle’s “Over-the-Rainbow Macaroni and Cheese” recipe: a two-page story about her friendship with Elton John, introducing him to her home cooking, and how he never returns her Tupperware. The recipe includes five different kinds of cheese, and LaBelle says that’s how many times Elton John went back for more. But did the dish send my tastebuds over the rainbow?
How it Went
This recipe skips the step of making a creamy sauce, instead mixing the cooked pasta with melted butter, half-and-half, grated cheese, and chunks of Velveeta. While the highly processed cheese product Velveeta can be a controversial ingredient, LaBelle insists, “Ask anyone who makes incredible macaroni and cheese for their recipe, and I bet you that Velveeta will be in there.” (Of the recipes I tried, Ree Drummond is the only other dish that included Velveeta.) It did give the mac and cheese creamy pockets of melted Velveeta, which also helped it reheat really well.
Patti LaBelle’s Over-the-Rainbow Macaroni and Cheese Scores
- Taste: 4/5 — This recipe relies on seasoned salt and the variety of cheeses for flavor, and it does deliver. If anything, it’s a little dry once the pasta soaks up all the butter and half-and-half, but the Velveeta pockets helped.
- Cheese factor: 5/5 — The blend of mild and sharp cheddars, muenster, and monterey jack cheeses plus the Velveeta created a great, balanced flavor.
- Difficulty: Easy — Skipping the cream sauce stage entirely made it a little drier in the end, but the process was very approachable.
- Overall: 4.5/5 — It could have used a bit more of a creamy saucy texture, but this mac and cheese would have been a hit at any Southern potluck I’ve ever been to.
Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration by Carla Hall with Genevieve Ko
TV chef Carla Hall is beloved from her stint on Bravo’s Top Chef to hosting ABC’s The Chew and beyond. In this cookbook, Hall blends her soul food roots from growing up in Nashville with her veggie-forward, fresh ingredient style. It’s an impressive collection of main dishes, sides, desserts, and sauces that can easily transition from everyday meals to all kinds of festivities.
Hall transforms classic macaroni and cheese into a filling one-pot meal with her “Meaty Tomato Mac and Cheese” recipe. It’s made entirely on the stove top in a large Dutch oven, from browning ground beef to cooking onions, garlic, and tomato paste to making a roux and finally mixing it all together. Did this one-pot wonder deliver on flavor?
How it Went
I loved the one-pot nature of this dish, and it worked really well despite all the different techniques and ingredients involved. In addition to the classic pasta, cheese, milk, and butter, it included mustard powder, paprika, and cayenne pepper for seasoning, as well as ground beef, onion, garlic, and tomato paste to make it a full meal. My taste tester/wife described the result as “a really delicious fancy version of Hamburger Helper,” and I don’t disagree.
Carla Hall’s Meaty Tomato Mac and Cheese Scores
- Taste: 5/5 — Great flavor, very satisfying as a meal, and the leftovers even reheated really well.
- Cheese factor: 3/5 — The creaminess of the sauce was great, but with sharp cheddar as the only cheese included, the cheesy flavor was a little one-note. Luckily, it was well balanced by the other seasonings and ingredients.
- Difficulty: Easy — The one-pot aspect made the whole thing a breeze, especially clean up. And I’ve never seen such an easy way to make a roux!
- Overall: 4/5 — I love the simplicity of this recipe and that it’s got added ingredients to make it a whole meal. I could have used another cheese or two to create a more complex flavor, but I thoroughly enjoyed it as is.
Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home by Eric Kim
New York Times food writer Eric Kim has spent years writing recipes that marry Korean and American flavors. For this beautifully photographed cookbook, Kim spent a year in Atlanta with his mother developing dishes that perfectly blend his family’s traditional Korean recipes with the American comfort foods he loves. It’s a deeply personal cookbook, full of original dishes and touching stories.
Kim’s recipe is perhaps the most unique in this challenge — “Mac and Corn Cheese with Jalapeño Bread Crumbs.” It’s a mashup of the Stouffer’s mac and cheese his family ate growing up and corn cheese, a side dish popular at Korean restaurants. It’s the only recipe I tried that called for a pasta other than elbow macaroni, instead using rigatoni. The creamy sauce also gets mixed with red onion, jalapeños, corn, and crunchy bread crumbs. Let’s see how this cheesy dish turned out.
How it Went
Cooking this dish on the stove went perfectly according to plan. It also included a separate process to make a blend of bread crumbs, cheese, red onion, and jalapeño which Kim describes as “savory, granola-like cheese clusters.” It was a bit messy, but turned out completely delicious, and it was great to have a crisp topping on a mac and cheese that wasn’t baked.
Eric Kim’s Mac and Corn Cheese with Jalapeño Bread Crumbs
- Taste: 5/5 — The heat of the jalapeños, bite of the onion, sweetness of the corn, and creaminess of the sauce were fantastic. I appreciate the use of rigatoni with more ridges to cling to the sauce. And the bread crumb clusters were a revelation.
- Cheese factor: 4/5 — The only cheese in this dish is mozzarella, but it worked well with the other flavors at play. It had a great melty texture, too.
- Difficulty: Moderate — Creating the bread crumb clusters was a little unusual, but Kim does a great job of describing the process in the instructions.
- Overall: 5/5 — I loved the complexity of flavors and textures in this dish. It doesn’t feel like a traditional mac and cheese, but if it’s cheese and pasta, who’s to say it’s not?
Before we move on to announcing a winner, I wanted to share a few tips I learned along the journey of this Cookbook Showdown:
- Avoid pre-grated cheese — Although it saves time, pre-grated cheese has a coating added to keep it from sticking together and molding too quickly, which can affect the way it melts into a sauce.
- Get creative with your cheeses — The more cheesy flavors, the better! I found that recipes with multiple kinds of cheese led to a more complex and balanced flavor.
- Cook pasta to al dente or just under — Your macaroni will absorb some of the sauce if you’re baking it, so cook it to al dente or even a minute less so it doesn’t get too soggy in the end.
- The sky is the limit — I totally adored the recipes that got creative with add-ins. Anything can go in mac and cheese if you dare to dream!
Without further ado, let’s get to…
Alright, let’s be real here. I made five mac and cheese dishes, and I enjoyed eating every one of them. I think there are two recipes here deserving of a crown. To that end, I’ve chosen one traditional mac and cheese winner and one more adventurous mac and cheese winner.
Best Traditional Mac and Cheese Recipe: Patti LaBelle’s Over-the-Rainbow Macaroni and Cheese from LaBelle Cuisine
How can I not pick Elton John’s favorite macaroni and cheese as the winner? The four kinds of cheese plus Velveeta gave this dish a great flavor, and the chunks of Velveeta helped it reheat beautifully too.
Best Adventurous Mac and Cheese Recipe: Eric Kim’s Mac and Corn Cheese from Korean American
This was a beautiful dish, with well balanced flavors and a very satisfying texture thanks to the panko crumbles. It may not be what you expect when you hear the words “mac and cheese,” but don’t sleep on this recipe!
We hope you enjoyed this installment of Cookbook Showdown! Check out some of our other culinary experiments: