Mac and cheese is a classic dish that brings back a whirlwind of nostalgia for many. Though it is considered to be a pretty simple and standard meal that everyone from children to adults adore, there is so much more to this pasta. Mac and cheese has played a huge role in the cultural cuisine of the United States. While we don’t know the exact origin of this iconic dish, examples of it are first seen in Northern Europe in 1769.
When it comes to ingredients, the name "macaroni and cheese" is pretty self-explanatory. However, while the macaroni pasta is obviously a huge part of the recipe, nothing is more important than the cheese. From cheddar to Monterey Jack, the using the best cheeses in mac and cheese is what makes this decadent dish so legendary. That being said, we’ve rounded up some of our favorites so that you can get cooking and cure your craving!
Cheddar is perhaps one of the most widely loved and known cheeses in the country. Nutrition Advance says cheddar is a medium-hard cheese made from cow’s milk, and its origins date back to at least the 12th century. When it comes to color, this beloved cheese can vary between a pale yellow to a bright orange, and its taste can depend heavily on how long it has been aged. That being said, there is also a big difference between sharp cheddar and regular cheddar.
Sharp cheddar is best for cooking since it has a more pungent and strong flavor, whereas more mild varieties might get lost after being melted or mixed with other ingredients. When it comes to making the perfect batch of mac and cheese, cheddar is a key player that results in a creamy and rich dish that never gets old. While cheddar is a great base cheese for a variety of dishes, this staple can also be topped with other cheeses for a more dynamic flavor profile.
If you want to put a rich and upscale twist on your basic mac and cheese recipe, gruyère is the way to go. Gruyère has wonderful melting ability, making it a popular option in recipes like fondue and French onion soup. Though this cheese is very high in fat (that’s part of what makes it so creamy and decadent), VeryWellFit says gruyère is a wonderful source of calcium and can take a simple recipe to the next level with very little effort.
Made from cow’s milk, gruyère is a specific kind of Swiss cheese: It has a rich flavor with a nutty aftertaste that makes it a solid option for more savory dishes. Adding it to your mac and cheese will result in a flavor-blasting recipe that puts others to shame. However, if you prefer more mild cheeses and like to keep things simple with your mac and cheese, go easy on the gruyère.
Looking for something extra vibrant and flavorful? Goat cheese is a pungent cheese that can add a tangy twist to your traditional mac and cheese. What’s Cooking America says goat milk is much lower in fat and cholesterol when compared to milk from cows, and it is far easier to digest. If you have an intolerance to lactose, goat cheese can be a wonderful substitute that still provides a dairy flavor that is hard to find with nut-based, vegan cheeses.
Goat cheese is typically very white and creamy, and when it is cold, it can be crumbled over a salad or soup for extra flavor. That being said, goat cheese is easy to melt into dishes like mac and cheese. Even if you don’t want to make a mac and cheese that is made purely out of goat cheese, it can be a tangy addition to your traditional recipe and pairs well with other cheeses like parmesan, gruyère, and gouda.
Parmesan is a distinct and vivacious cheese that is typically sprinkled over pizza, salad, or pasta for added flavor. Authentic parmesan is a hard cheese from Italy that also has a distinct scent. The process of making parmesan dates back more than 1,000 years, says Healthline. This hard cheese is one of the most widely known and loved varieties. While it is not typically used in large doses in most dishes, it is the perfect enhancer thanks to its strong flavor.
When making a tasty mac and cheese with parmesan, use other cheeses such as cheddar, Monterey Jack, or gruyère, as the base. You can then mix in parmesan with the rest of the cheese, as well as sprinkle it on top for a crumbly texture. If you plan on baking your mac and cheese, sprinkle a decent top layer for a slight crunch from the crisped parmesan.
Cream cheese is the ultimate ingredient when it comes to making your mac and cheese as creamy and silky as possible. Cream cheese can be used for far more than your typical morning bagel. From ice cream to pasta sauce, this rich and decadent cheese can enhance even the most basic of dishes by bringing out the flavor and improving the texture. For the most part, cream cheese is made from cow’s milk, though you can also find goat milk-based cream cheese and even vegan cream cheese at most grocery stores.
Though it may seem surprising given the name, Self finds that cream cheese is actually low in lactose compared to a glass of milk, making it easier for those with an intolerance to indulge. When it comes to making your mac and cheese, you can break cream cheese into chunks before mixing it with the rest of your noodles and cheese. While you don’t have to, baking your mac and cheese allows for the cream cheese to melt perfectly.
Ready to hear why Gouda is so great? According to Live Eat Learn, Gouda cheese is a dynamic and complex cheese that can differ immensely in taste and texture depending on how long the cheese has aged. For example, young Gouda cheeses are much more mild and soft, and there is a sweetness in the aftertaste. Older gouda has a much more potent, strong, and savory flavor.
This Dutch cheese is most often made from cow milk, though you can find sheep or goat varieties that might be easier to digest for some people who have an intolerance to lactose. When using Gouda in mac and cheese, it is best to stick with a younger selection to keep things simple and avoid overpowering the dish. On top of that, aged gouda is much drier and loses moisture as it ages, meaning a young varietal will provide a much creamier texture for your mac and cheese.
Brie is perhaps one of the most decadent and beloved soft cheeses known to man (at least, we think so). Brie is recognized by its soft center and hard outer rind. Even when it is enjoyed cold, brie maintains a very creamy texture that makes it spreadable on bread, fruit, and more. That being said, melted brie is out of this world. Between the buttery flavor and the gooey texture, warm brie is an absolute must for cheese lovers.
Though some people prefer to avoid the rind, Love to Know says brie rind is totally edible. However, when making mac and cheese, the rind can cause some disruption due to the hard and chewy texture. So, try to avoid the rind in your recipe. When it comes to taste, brie tends to be milder, and there are sweet undertones that will expand the flavor profile of a traditional mac and cheese. It is a game changer when it comes to trying something different.
Originating from California, Monterey Jack cheese is incredibly meltable, making it a popular option for nachos, mac and cheese, and more. This cheese can be semi-soft or dry from the aging process, but the high-moisture varieties work best when making a creamy and melted dish like mac and cheese. This cow’s milk cheese has a pretty mild flavor, which makes it a solid foundational cheese that can easily be built upon with more pungent and strong varieties.
Monterey Jack often comes shredded, and in addition to mac and cheese, it can be used in soups, casseroles, and even grilled cheeses. When it comes to pairing your Monterey Jack, everything from cheddar to mozzarella can work, making it pretty versatile. If you want to add a little kick to your mac and cheese, go with a pepper jack cheese, and enjoy some extra spice.
Fontina cheese is a rich and creamy variety that is known to have a slightly nutty aftertaste. Kids Are Great Cooks says this cheese was first made north of Italy in the Aosta Valley, and it is definitely one of the stronger cheeses out there. It can be recognized by its pale yellow coloring and semi-soft texture. Though some people prefer to slice Fontina while it is cold and put it on a sandwich or a cheese board, it is most decadent when it is baked.
This cheese melts pretty easily, and it’s a great resource for adding a unique flavor punch to your mac and cheese. Since it is very buttery, Fontina enhances the creamy and milky undertones of this beloved pasta dish. Fontina is made from cow’s milk, and it pairs nicely with other cheeses like gruyère, provolone, and Gouda for smooth mac and cheese. Though it might not be the most common cheese, it is a great option to have on deck in the fridge.
Similar to Monterey Jack, Colby cheese is a great option when it comes to making a creamy and somewhat sweet mac and cheese. Kids are Great Cooks says Colby cheese is on the sweeter side, though it is considered to be pretty mild in flavor overall. It often is sold cubed and is used as an appetizer on a cheese board or with other meats like salami and turkey.
Though it is delicious served cold, Colby is also a great melting cheese as it has a pretty soft and creamy texture. Since it has a bright, orange color, Colby cheese can also be confused for cheddar. However, it is less tangy than cheddar, making this a great option for a mac and cheese recipe that is meant to be subtle. If you plan on enhancing your dish with other ingredients like meat or pungent veggies, Colby cheese can be used to balance out the dish.