I believe boxed macaroni and cheese tastes best in a mindless state, when thinking is kept to a minimum and familiarity sounds more enticing than excitement.
I doubt any scientist would back me up, but you probably know what I’m talking about, right? Perhaps you’re a bit stressed, and any decision hurts your head, or maybe your kids refuse to eat any other edible substance on earth. No need to explain. The box is there for you when you need it.
Growing up, I assumed that the box required for this particular moment had to be Kraft. But while it remains the most popular brand, the number of competitors continues to grow, making what used to be an automatic choice into something slightly more complex.
We tested eight nationally available boxes, sticking to the most basic version of each, while avoiding flavor options or other pasta shapes. (Sorry Minion-shaped mac and cheese, your day will come.)
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Our criteria: The pasta needs some kind of texture. Sauce that is smooth and creamy beats gritty and dry. And while this should go without saying, actual cheese flavor helps.
We held a blind taste test, asking everyone to give notes and a final score for each. Real differences abounded, and the results were decisive.
Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, still the most popular brand around, ran away with the taste test. To further drive home the point that the company knows what it is doing, Kraft Deluxe came in second.
Of course, no matter how much you try to shut off your brain, no boxed macaroni and cheese compares to your grandma’s. “Good enough” is high praise here. The less you think about that powdered cheese packet the better.
Our full rankings below, arranged best to worst:
1. KRAFT MACARONI & CHEESE ORIGINAL FLAVOR
The electric yellow sauce was tangy and salty, with a smooth and creamy appearance and an ideal sauce-to-pasta ratio. The noodles themselves also had actual bite. It’s almost as if Kraft has been doing this for a while.
2. KRAFT DELUXE MACARONI & CHEESE
Kraft’s Deluxe line skips the powdered cheese packet in favor of a pre-mixed cheese sauce you squeeze onto the cooked noodles – no extra butter or milk required. It was the most divisive, with tasters giving it both the lowest and highest scores. Some tasters loved for the sauce’s velvety smooth texture, while one said it “tastes like nacho cheese sauce at a ballpark, but worse.” Nearly all agreed that these were the best noodles of the bunch.
3. 365 EVERYDAY VALUE MACARONI & CHEESE
The Whole Foods house brand managed squeaked into third place. Tasters liked the springy texture of the pasta, but opinions on the sauce were mixed. Some enjoyed the flavor, even if it didn’t remind them of real cheese, while others found it mild, flavorless and bland.
4. ANNIE'S HOMEGROWN CLASSIC MACARONI & CHEESE
Our tasters believe it has a long way to go before it can compete with Kraft. Most liked the texture of the noodles. But the sauce was grainy with a muted color. Some detected a little cheese flavor, but most called it bland and underflavored.
5. CHEESE CLUB MACARONI AND CHEESE DINNER
Despite the name of Aldi’s offerings, tasters found no real cheese flavor in the sauce. There was a lot of sauce, though, and it was decently smooth and creamy. Too bad some of the noodles were so mushy.
6. SIMPLY NATURE ORGANIC MACARONI & CHEESE
Aldi’s organic offering was docked significantly for its dull color. Though smooth, the sauce also lacked flavor, tasting more like butter than cheese.
7. GREAT VALUE MACARONI & CHEESE DINNER
Walmart’s brand did decently on the smoothness front, with one taster commenting that the sauce was as “velvety as a boxed mac can be.” Sadly, the noodles were mushy, and there was not much cheese flavor at all.
8. TRADER JOE'S MACARONI & CHEESE
Poor Trader Joe’s. While tasters didn’t mind the noodles, the sauce was universally panned as gritty, dry and chalky. It was also hard to get past the artificial cheese flavor.