Baked Mac and Cheese Comparison

The winner of my comparison, Pioneer Womans mac and cheese.

The winner of my comparison, Pioneer Woman's mac and cheese.


I’ve always been a fan of macaroni and cheese – who isn’t?  Of course, most of my life that referred to the kind from a blue box.  Because that was always my standard for mac and cheese, I never quite understood why people liked baked mac and cheese.  In my experience, it was almost always an dried out, flavorless dish at potlucks – that is NOT mac and cheese!  Eventually I learned my favorite way to make mac and cheese was the way my nanny always made it while I was growing up.  She would just cook the noodles, throw in some butter, milk and American cheese slices, season with salt and pepper and voila!  It was and is to this day, fabulous!  But in the cooking world I have noticed that most people really love baked mac and cheese, so I decided to try five different recipes from trusted sources and see if I could find one that even I would enjoy.

I diligently baked through all five recipes, and while all were good and some were definitely better than others, there was no clear stand-out winner.  None of them were that perfect mac and cheese I was hoping for.  I decided that maybe I just did not like baked mac and cheese, period.  I was pondering whether to even post my results or just scrap the whole idea when one more mac and cheese recipe popped up in my Google Reader – from Pioneer Woman.  Of course I knew I had to try it since none of her other recipes have failed me yet, but I was particularly intrigued by her recipe because she claims you can eat it simply mixed with the cheese sauce, or baked.

I’m sure you can see where all this is leading.  Pioneer Woman’s version did turn out to be my clear winner.  I made half a batch unbaked, and baked the rest in ramekins.  Though I was very excited at the prospect of the non-baked version, I would not recommend it.  It was okay, but not great.  The flavor of the dry mustard was too strong and it just had a strange texture.  I wasn’t expecting to like the baked version better, but it blew me away.  The texture was perfectly creamy, possibly due to the egg in the sauce, and the cheese flavor was perfect.  The recipe makes a huge quantity but I ended up baking all of it and we ate every last bit over the course of a week.  (I only got pictures of her unbaked version – sorry!)

Now let me say in hindsight, I wish I had used some sort of objective scoring scale to differentiate between all of these recipes (texture, cheesiness, flavor, etc.) but I did not.  I will just quickly summarize my thoughts on the others here, and then get to the good one!

The runner up - smoked mac and cheese from Williams Sonoma.

The runner up - smoked mac and cheese from Williams Sonoma.

Alton Brown – this probably ended up being my least favorite of the recipes.  It just didn’t have a very cheesy flavor.  It did taste slightly better as leftovers and I liked the Panko breadcrumbs on top, but I just wasn’t crazy about this version.  

Picky Palate – I was really expecting to like this recipe because it uses some wonderful cheeses (gruyere, mascarpone, etc.) but I thought while it was incredibly creamy, the cheese flavor again was just not strong enough.  (Ben loved this one.)

Ina Garten – This was probably my second favorite of the runners up.  The cheddar and gruyere gave it a nice flavor and I liked the use of cavatappi noodles.  I did skip the tomato slices on top because I just wanted a classic version.

Southern Living (via Elizabeth’s Edible Experience) – This is the only recipe of them all that does not involve making a roux as the base of the cheese sauce.  This is made even quicker and easier by simply adding the milk, flour and seasoning to a container, shaking vigorously and then mixing it with the cheese and noodles.  I was actually surprised at how well this turned out considering how easy it is.  It was good, just not the best.

Williams Sonoma – this was my favorite of the runners up.  I think the smoked gouda imparted a great flavor and the buttery French bread crumbs on top were a great touch.  This was excellent as leftovers, and I would make it again.

Pioneer Woman’s Baked Mac and Cheese
4 cups uncooked macaroni
4 tbsp. butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups whole milk
2 tsp. dry mustard
1 egg, beaten
1 lb. cheese, grated (I used all cheddar, but I’m sure a combination would be great too)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1/2-1 tsp. ground black pepper
Dashes of cayenne, paprika, and thyme (optional) – (I used all three)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Cook macaroni according to package directions until slightly firm.  Drain and set aside.

In a large pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat.  Whisk in the flour and cook the mixture for five minutes, whisking constantly and being careful not to burn.  Add the milk to the pot, stir in the dry mustard, and whisk until smooth.  Cook the mixture for five minutes until very thick.  Reduce the heat to low. 

Add the beaten egg to a small bowl.  Take 1/4 cup of the warm sauce and slowly pour it into the beaten egg, whisking constantly to avoid scrambling the egg.  Whisk until smooth.  Pour the tempered egg mixture back into the sauce, whisking constantly.  Stir until smooth.  Mix in the cheese, reserving a handful for topping, and stir until completely melted.  Add in salt and other seasonings.  Taste and adjust seasonings accordingly.  Add the drained cooked macaroni to the pot and mix well.

Pour the mixture into a baking dish, top with reserved cheese, and bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden and bubbly on top.

Source: adapted from The Pioneer Woman

39 Responses

  1. This is a great post! I too grew up on the ‘blue box’ and loved it, and all baked mac and cheese always seemed dry, so I’m glad to hear your reviews of these recipes!

  2. Great post! This is the same recipe my grandma uses; however, rather then the cayenne she adds freshly grated nutmeg (in addition to the paprika and thyme that you mentioned). You are correct– It is amazing!

  3. ooooh! I have definitely got to try this. I also have never been a fan of baked mac n cheese.

  4. I’ve been wanting to try several of those versions for a while now. I haven’t made mac and cheese in a while, but I’m craving some now 🙂

  5. I will have to try this, I’m always on the look out for a great mac & cheese recipe!

  6. this is awesome! I’m such a mac and cheese lover, I love that you did some serious research 😉

  7. The best mac n cheese I’ve ever had was at hotel nine zero in Boston. The dining experience was at KO Prime. They have a short rib mac n cheese that knocked me and all my friends over. I would not have guessed the background flavor and aroma came from short ribs at all! This dish was full of flavor, creamy texture…and a crusty top. It wasn’t traditional elbow noodles…something else, I’m not sure the name, but after trying tons and tons of both homemade and dining out mac n cheeses…that’s the best one I’ve came across!

    I also have a pretty awesome recipe in my collection (not sure where it came from-possibly the food network) for a great stove top mac n cheese that beats the boxed version by miles.

    I love PW’s recipies and will have to try her version. Mac n cheese is my daughter’s favorite dish so I don’t mind trying it again and again. She thinks she’s so special!

    Thanks for doing this comparision…I had a great read through all your thoughts.

  8. This is such a GREAT idea! I LOVE mac and cheese. My favorite is Martha Stewarts Mac and Cheese 101. My mom made home mac and cheese when I was a kid and it was awful. It took me a while to get up the guts to make it myself…using someone else’s recipe. 🙂

  9. I’ve been reading for a while but never posted. Just wanted to recommend my favorite baked mac and cheese recipe: The recipe is seriously perfect. But I haven’t tried any of the other recipes you’ve posted, so I don’t know how it compares. Thanks for all the great posts!

  10. I’ve never been a fan of baked mac & cheese, but my husband and kids love it! I’ll have to try PW’s recipe to see if they like that one better than the blue box (they insist on that one every time… ).

  11. Looks delicicous. I have seen this on her site and keep wanting to make it too!

  12. now I would have gained 15 lbs. on this experiment.
    I must try this recipe when I feel skinny. LOL

  13. will definitely try this! Thanks Annie. 🙂

  14. I have always heard Martha Stewart’s baked mac and cheese is good. And also – search out Patti Labelle’s “Over the Rainbow” mac and cheese (or heart attack on a platter – the sheer amount of fat in that one is staggering!).
    Great post!

  15. Mac and cheese is fun to make because you can experiment. One night I had nothing in the fridge but a lot of different, small portions of cheeses. Cream cheese, a few slices of American, Parmesan, Swiss and cheddar. I melted them all together with a little cream and milk…It was the best mac and cheese I had ever had!

  16. […] Baked Mac and Cheese Comparison   I’ve always been a fan of macaroni and cheese – who isn’t?  Of course, most of my life that […] […]

  17. What is “crustless country-style bread” from the WS recipe?

  18. I made the Pioneer Woman mac & cheese a few weeks ago and it was by far the best I have ever made (and I have made dozens)… Maybe it was the egg?? I also notice that using the pre shredded bagged cheese does not come out nearly as good as grating a fresh block (I use Tillamook Medium cheddar), the bagged makes a more grainy texture as opposed to the smooth silky texture I get from the block.

  19. I just found your blog and love it! I cannot wait to try out this Mac and Cheese! Thanks for such great posts! = )

  20. What a great post and now I have PW’s recipe on my must try list!

  21. I totally agree with you about the baked mac and cheese!! Why bother??? It’s always dry and gross! You’ve inspired me to try this version though 🙂

  22. Hi Annie … I’m always on the lookout for great Mac and Cheese.

    The best I’ve found are two macs at LunaCafe. There’s a traditional creamy mac and a green chile mac that is unbelievable!!!

    Thanks for sharing your discoveries.

  23. I need to try some of these recipes. The only baked mac & cheese I’ve ever had has always been made by my aunt. It’s “her thing” to bring every time we have a get together. Everyone else raves about it, but I think it’s just WAY too greasy, and the cheese gets so hard in the oven. It’s not creamy at all. Thanks for this fantastic mac & cheese round-up!!

  24. […] I found a lovely blog through Foodbuzz called Annie’s Eats that has lots of classic recipes, like a taste test of Baked Macaroni and Cheese, as well as some […]

  25. I am a true mac n cheese connoisseur. It’s my very favorite thing to eat and I’ve tried many recipes… my favorite being the baked mac n cheese that I grew up eating.

    There’s a FANTASTIC mac n cheese at a local restaurant called Claytons. They put bread crumbs on top, though and I can’t stand that. Once you dig past that into the rest of it, it’s truly divine.

    My favorite boxed mac n cheese is Annies in the purple box. It’s white cheddar.

    I need to get back into trying more different recipes again. I can’t wait to try this one.

  26. Hi Annie

    Did you switch some of the seasonings in your version, pw did not call for onion and garlic powder.

    • Hi Jackie,
      Yes, if you notice at the bottom of my recipe it says “adapted from”, meaning I’ve made some changes. Also, I believe Ree suggests using whatever seasonings sound good to you.

  27. Yum!! I made pasta with this sauce today and it was really good. I also added the bread crumb topping 🙂

  28. love the website! I have made the pioneer version 2x now and in her recipe she states to add the cheese and stir it up and you can even turn the heat off at this stage. The cooking time is very short for this aspect of the recipe as well. It took over 40 minutes at a medium heat for the cheese to fully melt into the sauce, do you have any suggestions?

    • Hi Angie,
      I’m not sure I understand your question. Everytime I make macaroni and cheese (or anything with the cheese sauce), the cheese melts into the sauce within a matter of minutes (probably 3 minutes max). It makes no sense that it would take 40 minutes. Sounds like there is an error being made somewhere.

  29. I totally agree with you about Mac and Cheese. Will have to try your nanny’s version as I don’t care for the baked either. But Pioneer Woman is cool.

  30. So, I just made this. Thought it sounded brilliant, and it is. I made a few changes, I added sauteed bacon, leeks and thyme, and added all the random cheeses I needed to use up, and this is easily the best I’ve ever had. Bar none. It’s super creamy, and doesn’t have that grainy texture that I seem to find in all baked mac and cheeses. I didn’t have macaroni, so I used rotini, and it worked wonderfully. I can’t wait to make this again… maybe with caramelized onions next time!

  31. I have to agree w/ you the Alton Brown recipe is not as cheesy as I wanted it! This Thanksgiving I will try TPW’s recipe! 🙂 Thanks for taking all the trouble out of it! 🙂

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