You might think, at first glance, that mac and cheese falls under the same tired adage as pizza: Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. The cheese in both scenarios may be of questionable provenance, but they’re both smothered in it. Cheese can forgive the sins of mediocre pasta. Cheese is good.
But when we set out to try some of the most popular store-bought macaroni and cheeses, we quickly learned: The difference between a good mac and cheese and a bad mac and cheese is as vast as the ocean is wide. And after a few tastes of these mac and cheeses, we wondered whether that ocean was actually orange and whether we were drowning in it.
We bought 12 frozen microwaveable mac and cheeses, and eight dry boxed brands with either powder or liquid squeeze cheese sauces. We prepared them according to the instructions, even though we knew some of them could probably be jazzed up with a little extra butter. In a blind tasting, a small panel of colleagues judged both the frozen and dry boxed versions of each product according to their taste and cheesiness — and those scores did not necessarily go hand-in-hand! Some brands that ranked high on taste were low on cheesiness and vice versa.
Here are the mac and cheeses that made us the happiest — and a few that made us wonder how pasta and cheese could go so wrong. And if you want to make your own mac and cheese from scratch, click here.
The worst frozen mac and cheeses:
Lean Cuisine Favorites Macaroni & Cheese
When asked to grade various attributes of this mac and cheese on a scale of 1 to 5, several testers awarded zero points. It “looks radioactive,” is “congealed around the edges,” and “looks like it was spontaneously created in a microwave.” “How can something that tastes like nothing taste so bad?” “This is vile.”
Amy’s Macaroni & Cheese
“It looks like cheese soup with pasta in it,” said one taster, and it “seem[s] like this is an extra thick pasta designed to stand up to the microwave,” noted another. “It tastes like the color gray.” It earned an average score of 1 in cheesiness. “A weird, muddy taste!”
Stouffer’s Classic Macaroni & Cheese
This is “’90s school lunch mac and cheese,” said one tester. “It wasn’t awesome then, either.” “It is a microwave product, through and through.” “Oh, good, more orange.”
Middle of the pack: Marie Callender’s Vermont White Cheddar Mac & Cheese, Evol Truffle Parmesan Mac & Cheese, Devour White Cheddar Mac & Cheese with Bacon, Stouffer’s Cheddar & Goat Cheese Mac, Lean Cuisine Marketplace Vermont White Cheddar Mac & Cheese, Blake’s Farmhouse Mac & Cheese.
The best frozen mac and cheeses:
1. Joe’s Diner Mac & Cheese from Trader Joe’s.
Tasters loved the real cheese in this mac. There are four of them, actually: cheddar, havarti, Gouda and Swiss. “Sweet lord, I see pulls of cheese!” one tester proclaimed. “It has a stringiness!” said another. “I’m so happy just looking at it!”
2. Trader Joe’s Hatch Chile Mac & Cheese
“Looks almost like real mac & cheese,” with “the slightest bit of kick” — which comes from a decent amount of roasted Hatch chile peppers in the mix. One tester “Love[d] the green chiles” and found it “nice and creamy, but not watery.”
3. 365 Organic Macaroni & Cheese
Tasters liked the pepper and nutmeg in the sauce of this mac. “The color is less fluorescent” and “a little clove-y,” and it had the “best noods of the bunch.”
The worst boxed mac and cheeses:
Trader Joe’s Wisconsin Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese
Trader Joe’s completely dominated the frozen mac market, but when it comes to its boxed mac, yikes. “This is like, actual cardboard,” said one tester, who “[couldn’t] tell if there is cheese” in the dish. It was “neon-colored” and “oddly bland.” One taster “would rather eat quinoa.”
Kraft Macaroni & Cheese
Tasters said this classic boxed macaroni was slightly cheesier than the TJ’s imitation, but that was faint praise: “The cheese tastes like it was grown in a lab.” It had an “unpleasant aftertaste,” and one taster described it as “the chaotic neutral of mac and cheeses.”
Middle of the pack: Annie’s Deluxe Macaroni and Cheese, Cracker Barrel Cheddar Havarti Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, Kraft Deluxe White Cheddar & Garlic Herbs.
The best boxed mac and cheeses:
1. Velveeta Shells and Cheese
The creaminess and nostalgia factor put Velveeta at the top, with the highest score in the entire competition, even beating the TJ’s frozen mac. It “has more of a cheese sauce texture” than others, which testers complained were too thin. The “extra cheesy, creamy” shells “provide a solid base for all the cheese,” and made one of our testers declare: “It’s like being a kid again!”
2. Annie’s Shells & White Cheddar
Though it “could benefit from some pepper,” and the sauce was a little loose, our tasters liked this cult-favorite mac and cheese, which was one of the few that didn’t have a nuclear orange hue. “The shells are adorable,” one taster said. “White is better than orange, but shells are better than macaroni: This is my theory of mac and cheese aesthetics,” said one taster (which, tbh, we could write a whole article on that, but we’ll spare you).
3. 365 Macaroni and Cheese
Testers praised its “good noodle texture” despite a “definite powdery cheese taste.” It “looks like a classic mac and cheese” — with its thin noodles and orange powder, but scored several ranks above the Kraft style it was so clearly trying to imitate.
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