Originally published in the November 2016 issue of Dispatch Magazine
Like many of the other foods in this column, I had never really given boxed macaroni and cheese all that much thought. I consider Kraft Blue Box to be the gold standard, a blank canvas that is perfect when fixed with Greek yogurt, sour cream, really good butter, chorizo, and a fistful of Ritz crackers. It truly is the “Mac and Cheesi-est.”
So for this tasting, to keep the playing field even, I procured 17 boxes of straight up yellow cheddar mac. There is one exception with the Organic Shells with White Cheddar from Trader Joe’s, which I added because they only make two kinds and a lot of people shop there. We are hosted by Damian Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez at their newly purchased Caiola’s on a night they’re closed – because to pull this off we are going to need at least five pots of boiling water.
All of the mac is prepared exactly as their instructions say, and all noodles are checked for doneness at the seven-minute mark (we found that most were done earlier than the cooking time suggested). For the 12 powdered ones, we use Kerrygold Butter and Oakhurst milk, while the others come with pre-made cheese sauce. We were surprised to see that many of the instructions specify the addition of butter as “optional” (presumably so they can keep the calorie count on the box deceptively low). Well, if they didn’t say to add butter, we didn’t add butter, and the results are as nauseating as you might imagine.
The Tasting Panel
Jon Dietz: Resident expert
Joe Ricchio: TV personality and food editor of Dispatch Magazine
Damien Sansonetti: Co-owner of Piccolo and Caiolas
Ilma Lopez: Co-owner of Piccolo and Caiolas
Alysia Zoidis: Owner of East End Cupcakes
Kate McCarty: Food writer and author of Portland Food: The Culinary Capital of Maine and Distilled in Maine: A history of libations, temperance, and craft spirits
Kraft Blue Box Macaroni and Cheese
$1.29 at Shaw’s Supermarkets
We all agree that Kraft tastes like childhood, but is also just solid across the board. The noodles are a bit mushy, but that’s just part of the experience, while the cheese is evenly distributed and comes together nicely. Can’t go wrong here.
Horizon Organics Sharp Cheddar Mac
$1.69 at Hannaford Supermarkets
Coming in a close second to Kraft, we enjoyed the firmness of the noodles and the slightly higher salt content. The more I eat, the more I like it. I just don’t see how you could ever complain about this one.
Trader Joe’s Organic White Shells
$1.29 at Trader Joe’s
Because Trader Joe’s only makes two different macs, I felt it necessary to include this despite the white cheddar. It turns out to be quite good, with al dente pasta and a sauce that actually tastes like cheese. The shells turn out to be a bit of a choking hazard when you inhale them (like Dietz did) but if you take your time and chew your food, it should be smooth sailing.
365 Brand Mac and Cheese
$1.99 at Whole Foods Market
As Damien brings this one to the table he points out that it “sets the gold standard for congealing.” Not only does it look wretched, but the flavor of burnt Cheez-Its and a horrendously clumpy texture make it trashcan-bound in no time.
$1.69 at Hannafords Supermarkets
Touting a “high protein content,” this vomitorium-in-a-box was one of the daring few that suggested to only add butter for a “creamier, smoother mac and cheese.” It was taupe in color, with a texture and flavor like an Odwalla protein shake. Damien points out the aroma of stale bread, while Dietz notes that tastes like the inside of a GNC smells. The slimy cheese continues to settle at the bottom of the bowl also, which at least provides an extra workout as you have to re-mix before each bite.
Signature Kitchens Creamy Shells and Cheese Dinner
$2.50 at Shaw’s Supermarkets
During preparation, Damien points out that the consistency of the cheese sauce is “like constipation,” and refers to the flavor as “like a cheap Halloween mask from Rite Aid that has been worn for two days.” My first bite reveals nuances of creamy, wet, old cardboard. The texture is gluey, pasty, and cloying.
Back to Nature “Crazy Bugs,”
$2.49 at Whole Foods Market
While Kate questions the use of bug shapes, we can all agree that the pasta is easily the best quality. It is also worth noting that they had a very long cooking time. Simply adding a bit of good sea salt would go a long way with these guys, but overall pretty tasty.
Hannaford’s Mac N’ Cheese
$.79 at Hannaford’s Supermarkets
For once, the Hannaford brand does not end up at rock bottom, which is why it deserves mention. While it is definitely strange how the cheese powder changes from white to orange during cooking, the price is right, and it could actually be considered passable.
Trader Joe’s Macaroni with Yellow Cheddar
$.99 at Trader Joe’s
Let’s just say you should spend the extra thirty cents and spring for the shells with white cheddar. My first impression of the flavor is Prell, while Kate mentions an incredibly unpleasant metallic characteristic. Ilma is spot-on with her assessment of a powerful “wilted spinach taste.” No, thank you!