Perfect Stove-Top Macaroni & Cheese

(can easily be made gluten free, too!) The day is finally here! Most of you who follow me on Instagram have probably been concerned at the rate at which macaroni has appeared in my feed, on my stories, and
(of course) in my meal plans. I needed to determine the best course of macaroni-making and once I started I found I couldn't - or wasn't inclined to - take it at a glacial pace. Thankfully house-hunting has gone slowly and I'm still in possession of a large family who will gladly help me polish off the batch. Otherwise I don't think my waist would be in as good of shape as it currently is.

Okay, let's dive into our criteria and the science behind this most beloved of comfort foods. In the discussion following last post the criteria for a wonderful macaroni and cheese basically came down to three or four things:

- shell pasta, or some other concave shape
- saucy, very saucy
- cheese in spades
- creamy, not grainy or stretchy

We had a few sideline votes for baking the macaroni, or adding crumbs for a crunchy topping, but the votes for the essence of iconic macaroni and cheese were almost unanimous. Maybe the best part about this journey is discovering how strongly people felt about the subject. I got into conversations with strangers about macaroni. My coworker divulged a Portlandian restaurant secret which involved (among other things) fresh mozzerella. My friends across the Atlantic cautioned against adding hot sauce. Everyone had a favorite cheese. Everyone had a favorite pasta. Everyone, it seemed, was as invested in this as I am. If food were sports, this was the World Cup and the eyes of most of us were tuned in. But the road was occasionally pock-marked with difficulty and a few gritty (pun very much intended) problems that needed solving. We'll go criteria by criteria so I can explain my decisions for the final recipe and the problems that were overcome in getting to said decision. Ready?

- shell pasta -
This is one of those subjects that is obvious - the more concave the shell, the bigger the space for holding cheese sauce. I'm not the hugest fan of actual macaroni noodles, I found. What they have in structural integrity they lose in their ability to hold sauce. My pasta of choice are medium-sized or small shells, or something similar to orichiette.

- saucy, very saucy - 
The sauce to noodle ratio is something that baffled me at first. In some cases it seemed that the recipes I was playing with didn't call for noodles enough, but I also wanted and needed the sauce to still "sauce" when the macaroni had sat for a little while on the stove-top. Just in case you don't go directly from turning off the burner to dishing out in bowls. I wanted to give us some (literal) wiggle-room. What I found is that you definitely want to trust the "8 ounces of pasta" in this recipe. It IS enough. Trust me. Also, make life easy on yourself and follow my advice of letting the pasta come to boil with the salted water. No dumping in and splattering boiling water all over your forearms. I know it feels counter-intuitive, but your pasta will not take as long to cook, as it par-boils during the heating. 

- cheese in spades - 
If I upped one thing in my macaroni game throughout this journey, it is my understanding of the makeup of a sauce. Previously (budget cuts) I had gone for more of a bechamel sauce flavored with cheese. As in, get to quantity with bechamel, then add in cheese. My final recipe is more than fifty-percent melted cheese and happy that way. Testing this recipe definitely got pricey because when you've got to make multiple batches of something that calls for a pound total of three varieties of cheese, your budget suffers. But happily, I worked it out so that your other ingredients are at a minimum, an economical cheese does all the heavy lifting (mild cheddar) and the more expensive cheeses (havarti and fontina) take the more complex, but gentler, harmony parts. As I stated before, making macaroni and cheese affordable was also one of my goals - it'll always be pricier than the fabled blue box, but this version doesn't break your bank and delivers the maximum in flavor. I've called for mild cheddar here because after using extra sharp cheddar I realized two things: A) its pugnacious flavor pummels the fontina and havarti to bits and B) the acidity tends to break a sauce very quickly - something we don't want in our quest for a creamy texture!

 - creamy, not grainy or starchy - 
Okay, ladies and gents. Lean in here because this last point on the criteria list and one where the science (and cheese sauce) got thickest. You can't imagine how many different opinions there are on getting that classic "gooey" feeling to a mac & cheese sauce. Chefs and food scientists alike have weighed in. Some recipes call for sodium citrate, which is (apparently) the very reason the processed cheese in the box version melts the way it does. I loved the concept behind this - that by dissolving sodium citrate (available online) with water and whisking your cheese into that, you end up with an amazingly gooey cheese sauce. But I didn't want to order sodium citrate strictly for macaroni purposes, and besides, it sort of offends my sense of simplicity. No, I'd forgo the magical powers of sodium citrate in favor of a more traditional sauce. But when I started testing my usual bechamel-based macaroni recipe, I found that I wasn't sold on the roux.
First of all, it lacked the je ne sais quoi of that bourgeoisie Kraft macaroni which (though admittedly fake) certainly knows a thing or two about creaminess. And anyway, though a classic white, bechamel is not terribly hard to make, if you skip a step or don't cook it for the exact length of time, or forget to bow three times and exit the kitchen without ever turning your back to the stove, it becomes a gritty pile of slop. Some things need very specific instructions and cooking times and I understand those cases. But in my opinion, macaroni is not one of those things. So it was clear that bechamel was out. Sodium citrate was out. Was there really (barring boxed macaroni) a real way to approach my ideal? Right when I began to think I'd hit the final wall, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt saved my life with this recipe from his cookbook, The Food Lab. In the chapter on Tomato Sauce, Macaroni, and the Science of Pasta he touches on a brilliant method he has devised for meeting our exact criteria. It involves no touchy roux-making, no specialty ingredients. The method is devilishly simple: a little butter, an egg, some evaporated milk, your pasta, your cheese. After tweaking his recipe to better fit my tastes (I halved the quantities, changed the cheese varieties called for, and omitted the mustard and hot sauce), I served up steaming bowls of cheesy iconography: creamy, gooey, made-in-ten-minutes macaroni. This is the stuff dreams are made of. Our macaroni, science hero (who I'll take the liberty of calling Kenji) doesn't recommend baking the macaroni after taking it off the stove and I agree - unless you're a fan of crusty edges and broken sauce (in which case bake away) you'll be happier this way. His original writing on the subject is fascinating and I recommend you pay homage to the genius behind this recipe by reading the science of why this works and what was wrong with the way we'd done it before. You'll be so entertained, I promise. To the rest of you, HAPPY MAC'ING.

Perfect Stove-Top Macaroni and Cheese:
serves 4
8 ounces shell pasta
kosher salt
6 ounces evaporated milk
1 egg
8 ounces grated mild cheddar
4 ounces Havarti, grated
4 ounces Fontina, grated
1/2 Tablespoon cornstarch
4 Tablespoons butter cut into chunks

  1. In a large pot boil the pasta with salted water until barely al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain.
  2. Toss grated cheeses with the cornstarch in a medium sized bowl.
  3. In a small bowl mix the egg with the evaporated milk.
  4. Melt the butter with the drained pasta, then toss in the milk/egg mixture and the cheeses. Stir until creamy and glossy. Serve immediately.


  1. This sounds just about perfect. All the homemade recipes I've had "congealed" very quickly, so it sounds like your creaminess hits the spot. That was one box-to-homemade dislike, the other was the over-richness of homemade, how does yours stack up on that?

    I think I'll save this for after Christmas richness/expensiveness for a comfort food in the dreary new year. We'll see.

    1. It is rich but not so rich as a bechamel base, I felt. It had about the richness of a bowl of alfredo, I would say.

  2. This looks like the most scrumptious thing!

  3. OMG GIMME! I am having work people over and this sounds AMAZING to make! Plus some toasted breadcrumbs on top? MARRY ME!

    The Adored Life