This is a safe space where a person may freely admit that they still have room in their hearts and mouths for the boxed macaroni and cheese of their youth. And it isn’t just nostalgia—there’s something truly appealing about the squidgy blend of noodles, milk, butter, and the enigmatic sauce packet when it comes together to make its weird magic in a pot. It may not entirely taste like cheese, per se, and we’re a little suspicious about shelf-stable dairy in general, but the buttery, salty porridge feel of boxed macaroni and cheese can be best summarized by a quote from a native Italian I made it for once: “Why is it so terrible, but so good?”
That being said, with any degree of culinary know-how, it’s easy to use any boxed mac and cheese kit as a blank slate to propel it toward actual epicurean greatness. Try any or a combination of the following eight hacks or add-ins for improving the outcome of boxed macaroni and cheese.
Add Actual Cheese…or American Cheese
One need only look to pizza to understand how something already made with cheese benefits from extra cheese. Improve both the taste and texture of boxed mac and cheese by adding some actual cheese to the mix: Mozzarella makes it stretchy, gruyere adds sweet and savory notes, cheddar keeps it classic, and even parmesan adds depth and additional saltiness. Or frankly—even though it doesn’t qualify as actual cheese—a couple of slices of American cheese does wonders for instant ramen noodles, so why not for mac and cheese?
Upgrade the Noodles
Most mac and cheese kits rely on tiny macaroni noodles or shells to decrease the necessary boiling time—and therefore the time between when the craving hits and when the craving is satisfied. Smaller noodles are easier to overcook, as anyone who semi-fondly recalls the frayed look that boxed macaroni and cheese can sometimes achieve. Aim for al dente and save the macaroni for some killer art project. Upgrade the texture with any sturdier, short-cut noodle like rotini, penne, or campanelle.
Substitute the Milk
The milk in macaroni and cheese kits is merely acting as a liquid to help the butter and sauce mixture combine. Low fat milk does help keep it on the safer side nutritionally, but you’ve already committed to macaroni and cheese, so how much does that matter? You can enrich the situation with fuller-fat dairy options like whole milk, or—gasps—heavy cream. Add a little tang with your richness with sour cream or cream cheese.
Mix in Veggies
Does anyone else always take their mac and cheese with a side of vegetables or salad in order to achieve some sense of “balance” in the meal? Yes? Macaroni and cheese and broccoli are almost as ubiquitous a matchup as peas and carrots. A low-maintenance way to add sturdy veggies right into your mac and cheese is to toss in a handful to the boiling water for the last minute or two before draining. Sautéed or roasted vegetables will add even more flavor if you have the wherewithal for an extra pot or pan. Other green vegetables besides broccoli like spinach, Brussels sprouts, or asparagus are easy bedfellows, but cauliflower, roasted peppers, or even butternut squash are also equal to the task.
Herbs add massive flavor and color to any dish without adding much in the way of volume or caloric impact, and macaroni and cheese is no exception. Experiment with usual suspects like parsley or basil; you could even put a few spoonfuls of pesto in for an herb and garlic boost. Or go out of your usual bounds and add intrigue to your pantry staple with herbs such as a tarragon or chervil, or even blends such as herbes de Provence.
Top It with Breadcrumbs
The quickest way to tease baked mac and cheese texture out of a stovetop mac and cheese process is with a smattering of toasted breadcrumbs. Needless to say you can add extra cheese and breadcrumbs and finish the thing in the oven for even more of a casserole outcome, but even a quick saute of panko breadcrumbs and olive oil tips boxed mac and cheese into a meal worth actually sitting at the table for.
Caramelize an onion while you’re waiting for your pasta water to boil and now your kitchen even smells like you’re up to something extremely sophisticated. White cheddar mac and cheese plus garlic equals a cheap and cheerful alfredo. Or if you’ve been regenerating scallions in your kitchen window, macaroni and cheese is yet another place that benefits from their everyday piquancy.
Finish with Hot Sauce
I mean, you’re probably doing this anyway, but let’s go ahead and point out that different hot sauces have different salient characteristics, so if you’ve been dallying only with Tabasco or Frank’s your whole life, consider the transformative qualities of sriracha, Valentina, gochujang, chili crisp, etc.
Boost It with Bacon (& Other Proteins)
Bacon makes everything taste better…full stop. Riff on that same theme for a fast fix with other cooked proteins like ground beef, sausage, or rotisserie chicken. Start combining proteins with some of the hacks above for creations that start to resemble meals in their own right more than just boxed macaroni and cheese: pizza mac with sausage, basil, plum tomatoes, and mozzarella; chili mac with ground beef, cilantro, corn, and pepper Jack; or buffalo chicken mac with rotisserie chicken, blue cheese, scallions, and hot sauce.