Ooey, gooey, stringy, melty … on a cold winter’s day, a big bowl of macaroni and cheese comforts like nothing else. While we’d be hard-pressed to say that any mac and cheese could ever be deemed bad, some versions excel so much that those who eat them seem to be in a state of bliss.
And though you could debate the merits of adding truffles or caramelized onions, argue over which type of pasta is preferable and pick fights over whether bread crumbs should be on top, the dish is really all about the cheese you use.
We asked six experts on mac and cheese to weigh in on their favorite ― and least favorite ― cheeses for comfort nirvana.
Fletcher said many cheeses can work well in mac and cheese, but she doesn’t recommend using really expensive cheeses or unusually flavored cheeses.
“I wouldn’t use anything super expensive or refined because you’re going to lose some of the nature of those cheeses when you melt them,” she told HuffPost. “I also probably wouldn’t use [something like a coffee-flavored cheese] because I wouldn’t want that coffee flavor in my mac and cheese.”
Her favorites are:
Red Butte Hatch Chile from Beehive. “It’s a cheddar base with hatch chiles folded into it, and it’s super good,” Fletcher said. “It melts really well, and it would give a really good kick to a mac and cheese and give it some distinction.”
Alpine cheeses, such as Comté, Gruyere, Appenzeller and raclette. “They are just great in mac ’n’ cheese,” she said.
A good cheddar. “A good, affordable cheddar I like a lot that you can find easily in a lot of supermarkets is Grafton Village from Vermont,” she said, adding that the 2- and 3-year-old cheddars are great in mac and cheese.
Werlin said there isn’t a bad cheese for mac and cheese, but there are better cheeses. “I’ve long said I think every cheese can lend itself to mac and cheese,” Werlin said. “Mac and cheese is the ultimate clean-out-your-cheese-drawer dish, and it elevates those cheeses that are just sitting there into something memorable.”
That said, her one qualification for a good cheese for mac and cheese is its melting qualities.
Here are her favorites:
Gruyere. “I like Gruyere because it melts so well, and ... it tastes so good even when it’s melted,” Werlin said. She likes other Swiss and Swiss-style cheeses for the same reason.
Mozzarella. “Again, mozzarella has notorious melting properties, and the thing about mac and cheese is you really want it to have an oozy, gooey factor so that’s what I think of when I think of mozzarella. Otherwise, it just becomes pasta with cheese,” she said.
Monterey Jack. “It’s a melty cheese, you know,” Werlin added.
Werlin said that after you pick a base of a great melting cheese, you can add other cheeses to enhance the experience, including cream cheese or fresh goat cheese for a creaminess factor or blue cheese for some pungency. “Almost all play well in the sandbox together,” she said.
Clark Wolf is the author of American Cheeses and president and founder of Clark Wolf Co., a food and restaurant consulting firm based in both New York City and Sonoma, California, and he says there are really three schools of thought on mac and cheese rather than three perfect cheeses.
“This is one of those religious denomination issues,” Wolf told HuffPost. “There is a certain orthodox sect that believes in 3-year-old, aged white Vermont cheddar, scalded milk and Parmesan, plus the appropriate seasonings. Then there are the more mainstream, 2-year-old kind of sharp, probably Wisconsin, good old yaller cheddar, and then, of course, there’s the guilty pleasure if you’re having barbecue with two sides, and somebody hands you a cup of mac and cheese that just happens to be made with Velveeta ... so you just smile deeply and apologize to loved ones.”
What all these mac and cheese orthodoxies have in common is cheddar. “If there isn’t a kind of zippy, cheddar-like quality to the mac and cheese, it turns out to be a casserole, not a mac and cheese,” Wolf insisted. “It’s way too close to turkey tetrazzini for comfort. Cheddar melts in a way that other cheeses don’t. Mac and cheese should be melty, not stringy, and if you put provolone and mozzarella in it, I don’t like it.”
4-year-old Wisconsin cheddar
A really good aged, white cheddar
Nick Santangelo is the executive chef at Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap in Chicago, and he makes a different baked, homestyle mac and cheese of the month ... every month. He’s used dozens of different cheeses, and the only cheeses he wouldn’t use in the sauce of a mac and cheese are cheeses that don’t melt well, like queso fresco, paneer or Kasseri. But he notes, “You could add them for a garnish on top.”
Santangelo has five recommended cheeses that all make great mac and cheese.
Velveeta. “Honestly, a Velveeta just melts so well, and it gets a nice, creamy consistency,” Santangelo said.
Any kind of cheddar. “Just a basic cheddar ― mild or sharp ― is good because they melt well,” he noted.
Smoked Gouda. “It adds a meaty flavor without any meat,” he said.
Monterey Jack. “If you want to add a kick, the best way to do it is to use a pepper jack cheese,” Santangelo said.
Blue cheese, especially Iowa’s Maytag blue cheese. “It’s not really strong, and it has a smooth flavor to it,” he said. “It adds some depth, but it isn’t overpowering.”
Sheana Davis is a Sonoma Valley cheesemaker, culinary educator and owner of The Epicurean Connection. She teaches cooking and cheesemaking classes, caters events and makes ever-changing varieties of mac and cheese.
“You make a roux, grate in any cheese and you’ve got it,” she said. “We joke in catering that you’d better enjoy this mac and cheese because we’ll never be able to make this one again.”
That said, she has five very specific cheeses she recommends for mac and cheese, all of which can be ordered online:
Roelli Dunbarton Blue. “I love the combination of the farmhouse cheddar with veins of blue that give it a Stiltony flavor,” Davis said. “It makes a thick, creamy Alfredo sauce, and the cheddar and blue shine together. I put it in the food processor to grate it.”
Vella Cheese Co.’s pesto jack. “It’s creamy and totally delicious for a mac and cheese, and we top ours with cherry tomatoes and roasted garlic,” she noted.
Carr Valley Cheese Co.’s Menage. “I love its blend of cow, goat and sheep’s milk in the cheese,” she said. “It’s really nutty, and it’s such a smooth cheese that it melts perfectly. We top ours with pink peppercorns.”
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.’s Toma. “It melts perfectly and has a beautiful, rich, creamy flavor,” Davis said. “We top this mac and cheese with toasted basil and chili pepper bread crumbs.”
Beecher’s bandage-wrapped cheddar. “This has a true, authentic cheddar flavor, and we top ours with chopped chives,” she added.
Kathleen Flinn is a chef, journalist and teacher, and she’s also the author of three culinary memoirs, including the New York Times best-seller The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry. While she grew up on processed cheese, she absolutely hates pre-grated, cheap cheeses.
“I know it’s really convenient, but crappy cheese just doesn’t melt very well,” she said. “Spend the extra money and get a better quality of cheese.”
Here are her favorites:
Gruyere. “I once was cooking for this dinner party, and I was planning to make a caramelized onion and Gruyere quiche, but then I found out the hostess couldn’t eat any eggs,” she said. “I had already caramelized the onions so I turned it into this really beautiful mac and cheese. I’ve been sold on the idea of using Gruyere ever since. The typical fondue cheeses are now the ones I go to when I make a mac and cheese.”
Tillamook cheddar. “I really don’t like in-store brands of cheddar cheeses,” she said. “I buy Tillamook because its quality is so much better.”