Return of the mac and cheese debate: Creamy, baked, or with breadcrumbs?

Fall means family gatherings, with mac and cheese gracing many of our tables. But is there a right way to prepare this classic dish?

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When your grandmother says, “Boy, you done did it now,” you know you did it. So let me tell you a story about what I once did to her mac and cheese recipe.

My grandmother was a macaroni and cheese purist with a simple recipe. Elbow macaroni, cheddar cheese, whole milk, salt, pepper, and a spoonful of that bacon grease that sat in the tin can on the stove. Don’t ask me why she added the grease. I just know she used it in most everything.

My grandmother taught me how to cook, which led to an early fascination with cooking shows. One weekend afternoon, while watching one of the four available channels on my nine-inch black and white TV, I saw the chef take the macaroni and cheese, pour it into a glass dish, and then (gasp!) put it in the oven.

WHAT???????

Macaroni and cheese theGrio.com
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That was a technique my grandmother never showed me. But I was transfixed, like a teenage boy watching Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion in “WAP.” The mac and cheese came out of the oven brown on top; a tad bit gooey but firm when scooped out.

I need to do that, I thought to myself. And I’ll surprise my grandmother!

So the next time I went to her house, I asked if I could make mac and cheese while she watched her stories (aka soap operas. If I knew one thing, I knew this: Don’t disturb Mama during “Dark Shadows”).

So I made the dish just like the chef did on TV and was so proud that it was, well, decent. It didn’t look as picture perfect, but it was still nicely brown on top. I took it out of the oven, placed it on top of the stove, and waited for my grandmother to see my creation.

“What is that?” she said as she entered the kitchen.

“Mac and cheese, mama,” I proudly said. “But I baked it.”

Mama’s eyes opened as if she just saw Barnabas Collins himself levitate through the window. And then, she uttered this classic phrase:

“Boy, you done did it now.”

Oops.

That was my introduction to the great mac and cheese debate. My grandmother believed in the creamy stove-top version, and that’s it. Others believe in baked. Still others believed in a third variation more controversial than adding pineapple to potato salad.

Using breadcrumbs to create a crunch.

That’s a “done did it now” if I ever heard. There are pros and cons to each method.

CREAMY MAC AND CHEESE

Yes, I’m biased. This is my favorite because I think this version provides the most flexibility. You can make this stove-top version as thick and creamy as you like. I use cheddar, gruyere, and gouda (preferably smoked) along with half-and-half (though the whole milk works just fine). I can adjust the level of cheese and thickness to my liking as I stir over low heat. That’s important to me because I vary the consistency based on my meat course. I use a creamier version as a dipping sauce with meatloaf (don’t judge!) and carrots or a firmer version with ribs and greens.

BAKED MAC AND CHEESE

There’s a poll for just about everything, and back in 2015, YouGov surveyed America’s mac and cheese preferences. Nearly half of those who responded (48%) preferred baked mac and cheese, and 40% preferred the stove-top method. (The remainder said they didn’t know how they liked it or didn’t make the dish homemade).

Despite my experiments as a child, I never really did get into the baked stuff. First, I’m a lazy cook, so making the dish and putting it into the oven for the top to brown seems like an unnecessary step. Besides, there are so many things that can go wrong. You can burn the bottom. You can burn the top. The noodles can dry out. And for me, most importantly, it’s hard to adjust the flavor.

Having said all of that, there are advantages. Once cooled, it’s easy to cut this version into squares, making for a terrific presentation. Cut into squares, sprinkle some fresh chopped parsley on top, and you’ve got yourself one good-looking and, hopefully, tasty dish.

More importantly, this method makes killer deep-fried mac and cheese because the shape will hold as you coat it with eggs, milk, and breadcrumbs. That’s a tasty snack that travels well anywhere.

And since I mentioned breadcrumbs, let’s bring up the elephant in the oven. (See what I did there?)

BAKED MAC AND CHEESE TOPPED WITH BREADCRUMBS

Certain foods simply don’t work well together. For example, I like beans and I like cheese, but simply mixing those two together doesn’t get you an enchilada. So why add breadcrumbs on top of mac and cheese?

Some people like the crunch and the end product, which is more a casserole than the classic food. This version tends to be firmer than the baked version because you have to keep it in the oven long enough for the breadcrumbs to brown. When you scope out the macaroni you will get bits of crunch, but loose crumbs inevitably fall into the baking pan and become mixed with the mac and cheese, creating this weird texture inside. I know some people love this technique, and it’s far more effective in individual serving bowls that in a 13-by-9 pan.

In the end, I believe my grandmother was right. There’s simply no substitute for creamy stove-top mac and cheese. Since I have a recipe that I love, I guess I done did it now—and in a good way—but you do you.


Ray Marcano

Ray Marcano is a longtime, award-winning journalist who has written and edited for some of the country’s most prominent media brands. He’s a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, a two-time Pulitzer juror, and a Fulbright Fellow.


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