Like most people, I stocked up at the grocery store before shutting myself away for the foreseeable future with social distancing and quarantining. I knew there’d be slim pickings, but my heart was especially broken when I saw shelves that were normally lined with boxed mac and cheese had been completely wiped out… until I discovered an easy way to create an even tastier homemade version of the comfort food.
The real beauty of boxed mac and cheese obviously lies in the fast preparation rather than flavor. Don’t get me wrong, the taste still totally satisfies my cheesy cravings, but we can probably all agree it’s not on the same level of as, say, an oven-baked recipe, right?
That’s what makes SeriousEats’ stovetop mac and cheese recipe so great: It’s just as quick and easy as box mixes, but elevates the flavor with just three ingredients. All you need is macaroni noodles, freshly grated cheese, and evaporated milk. That’s it! (It’s also worth noting that this is one less ingredient than most box mixes, which usually require butter, milk, the cheese packet, and pasta.)
Of course, I had to try it out. I started by putting some macaroni in a pot and adding just enough water to cover them. This allows the noodles to plump up and absorb the liquid which, on top of saving me from having to drain it, also helps the dairy components combine better. The recipe calls for 6 ounces of the pasta, but I just eye-balled it before letting the water come to a boil and cook the noodles for about 5 minutes. The key is to wait for most of the water to be soaked up and for the macaroni to be not quite al dente since it will keep cooking while you finish the recipe.
Next, I added in 6 ounces of evaporated milk (about half a can) and let the pot come back to a boil. The recipe then calls for 6 ounces of grated cheese, which my math put at about a cup and a half. I used traditional sharp cheddar, but the sky’s the limit on whatever your preference might be. After it was all in, I lowered the heat and stirred it together for a couple more minutes, until it looked like the melty goodness we want from a batch of mac and cheese.
Here’s how my stovetop mac and cheese turned out:
Don’t you just want to dig a fork into that? Well, I did — and it tasted exactly like I had hoped. There were the nostalgic notes of boxed mac and cheese I’ve eaten in the past, but with a much creamier and fresher flavor.
The whole thing only took about 8 minutes from start to finish for me (10 at the most). That’s roughly how long a box will tell you to wait just on the noodles to cook. Less ingredients, quicker cook time, and oh-so-creamy results — this homemade version has absolutely replaced any box I would have bought in the future.
The pasta cooking method also reminded me of Alton Brown’s cold water pasta trick, and it turns out he has a similar mac and cheese recipe. His is a bit more involved with the addition of butter, a couple eggs, a few pinches of dry mustard, and a splash of hot sauce along with evaporated milk and grated cheese.
Since I had half a can of evaporated milk left to use, I went ahead whipped this version up, too. You basically combine all of the ingredients except the butter and cheese while the pasta cooks, then melt the butter over the pasta before mixing in everything else. The eggs gave it a richer texture while the seasoning added an extra tang to the flavor. It didn’t really take that much longer, either. I’ll use this method when I’m in the mood for something a little more luxurious, but will probably play around with the spices.
And, in the interest of fairness, I tested out one more stovetop technique from Smitten Kitchen. This one has you create a traditional roux using butter, flour, and milk, before adding in cheese and cooked pasta. It also uses a bit less cheese than the other two options, so I found it lacking in flavor. It wasn’t bad, just sort of blah. Slowly pouring in splashes of milk (to make sure it doesn’t burn) also made it take a lot longer, so I’ll be sticking to the evaporated milk options.
The next time you get a hankering for boxed mac and cheese, I definitely recommend giving the three ingredient recipe a try instead!