Best Macaroni And Cheese
Page 4: Mac And Cheese Testing Methodology & General Findings
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When I began my research, something noticeable immediately was a dearth of manufacturers. I had just assumed that boxed macaroni and cheese dinners would be similar to granola bars or preserves in that I’d find a lot of small-scale producers turning out their own specialty versions. I was wrong.
I found store brands, yes, and of course Kraft is about as widely known as food manufacturers can get. Otherwise, there were only a few other brands. Having noted that, the manufacturers who do make boxed macaroni and cheese dinners tend to make many different varieties. I ended up tasting microwave cups, classic stovetop types and even one or two that were finished in the oven.
All products were prepared according to package directions. Close attention was paid to cooking pasta, as it was almost always done sooner than the cooking time listed on the packaging. No more than two “mixes” were tried during the course of a day, and at least 20 minutes was allowed between tastings of different varieties. The same pieces of equipment were used whenever possible.
If the sauce seemed very thin after preparation was completed, I covered the cooking pot and allow the mac and cheese to stand for a measured amount of time—three to five minutes.
Cheese Flavor & Pasta Preparation
Most of the macaroni and cheese boxed “mixes” contained modest cheese flavor at best. I recognize that these products are almost certainly formulated for kids’ palates, and most kids are not fans of stronger flavors. Still, a more noticeable cheese flavor would be nice.
The cheese sauce in macaroni and cheese should provide a decent coating for the macaroni so there’s a good mix of pasta and sauce as you eat. In some mac and cheese mixes—especially the stovetop versions from Annie’s Homegrown, where milk was added—the sauces were as thin as the milk and remained that way, even after a timed, five-minute standing period not included in the instructions. The sauce gathered in a pool at the bottom of the plate, so it didn’t coat the pasta much at all.
I don’t find that consistent with a good mac and cheese, whether it’s homemade or a purchased mix. Annie’s microwavable varieties and stovetop deluxe varieties (those where a pouched cheese sauce is included in the box) didn’t seem to have this problem.
It’s very easy to overcook the pasta for any of these products, but you should try not to do so, as overcooked pasta renders them less pleasant. In my kitchen, pastas cooked faster than the times listed on the box or carton with only two exceptions. Test the pasta for doneness early, and keep testing often.
Boxed Product Versus Prepared Product
Since I didn’t want to have to list this under every type of mac and cheese I tried, take it as a given that all of these products had at least a slightly salty taste.
In addition to higher-than-anticipated sodium levels, there was something else I didn’t like about many of these products. When a box stated that a product serving is “about 1 cup prepared” and that the box contains “about 3 servings,” I expect that there will be roughly 3 cups of prepared product. With many of these mixes, however, that was not the case.
I measured the amount of prepared product before tasting, and in numerous instances, the amount of product fell far short of the box declaration. I don’t pretend that my measurements were conducted scientifically, but I know how to read the quantity of something in a measuring cup, and in some instances, this feels like consumers are being shortchanged.
Check The Label
If you’re looking for accurate nutrition information on a box, make sure you look carefully at the label. In many cases, the Nutrition Facts panels list two sets of nutrient counts; one is called “Mix” or “As Packaged,” but the other, “As Prepared,” is what you want to look at. (Is there anyone who eats these products as packaged, without cooking the pasta?)
You’ll find that “As Prepared”—due to the addition of milk and butter or some other fat in preparation—the mac and cheese contains additional calories, sodium, cholesterol, protein, carbohydrates, etc., or some combination of those. But because Nutrition Facts panels are not large, the information on additional calories, etc. typically appears in very small print. There were a few exceptions.
Wacky Mac Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, and some boxed mac and cheese from store brands, contained nutrition facts only for the product as packaged; there was almost no nutrition information about the prepared macaroni & cheese—not even on the website.
Since consumers don’t eat these products as packaged (unless they’re “complete” dinners with prepackaged cheese sauce, which none of these were), this is absolutely underhanded. When you add butter and milk to a boxed mac and cheese mix, you add calories, fat, saturated fat and more. Depending upon the quantities you use, the increases in these categories from what’s contained in the dry mix can be substantial.
So why won’t these companies tell you what quantities you’re really eating when you actually prepare the mac and cheese? And why aren’t they required to do so? I don’t have an answer to either question, but I suspect that sufficient consumer demand could cause them to change their ways.
“Lite Prep Mac And Cheese”
Some stovetop varieties of mac and cheese, in particular, some manufactured by Kraft, have “lite prep” suggestions, meaning a way to prepare your mac and cheese so the calories, fat, etc. are lessened. That’s commendable, though the flavor of the final product often suffers to a degree because fat is a major carrier of flavor. In some of their newer products, the suggested preparation is the “lite” version, and you’ll find instructions for a “classic” preparation on the box, as well.
Despite the sodium levels, fat content and other less-than-healthy aspects, I would eat some of these products again. Like most Americans, I love mac and cheese. It’s a supremely comfortable food that’s hot, filling and uncomplicated, and I adore cheese. But in the long run, it’s just common sense to limit your intake of these, and other, processed and prepackaged foods.
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