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16 Absolute Best Ways To Upgrade Boxed Macaroni And Cheese

Mac and cheese with ingredients
Mac and cheese with ingredients - Static Media/Shutterstock

Where would the world be without those little blue boxes filled with the not-quite-but-almost elbow macaroni? We're talking about boxed mac and cheese, one pantry staple most Americans can admit to having in their kitchen cabinets. We can thank the Kraft company for coming up with this shelf-stable pasta meal during the Great Depression ─ which only requires butter and milk (and sometimes, just water) to make a spectacular cheesy dish beloved by eaters of all ages.

Now it seems like there's every shape of pasta and cheese variety to choose from. Regardless of whether you're on Team Annie's, Team Velveeta, or otherwise, we can't help but recognize a similarity across all of these mac and cheeses. While they're convenient, some can taste like industrially fabricated mush. Luckily, there are many ways we've found success in upgrading our guilty pleasure dinner. Many of these ingredients are already in your pantry, which means you won't have to choose between a cheap or flavorful serving of boxed mac and cheese.

Read more: 44 Types Of Pasta And When You Should Be Using Them

Add A Dollop Of Caesar Dressing

Caesar dressing in measuring spoon
Caesar dressing in measuring spoon - Michelle Lee Photography/Getty Images

Wait, Caesar dressing? Aren't we making pasta ─ not salad? Although this addition may seem a bit unconventional, it's a salad ingredient that unexpectedly elevates boring mac and cheese. The dressing itself has a very pungent taste and flavor. There are notes of garlic, umami-rich anchovies, and decadent parmesan cheese. These are all ingredients you may consider using in mac and cheese, so adding them via a dressing doesn't seem that strange at all.

You can add the dressing directly into the pasta when you add in the cheese sauce, or mix it separately with a liquid sauce before pouring it over your pasta. We recommend sticking with a creamy Caesar dressing rather than a reduced-fat one, since the dressing will also help make your cheese sauce more unctuous in texture, and taste homemade. Top it with extra parmesan, or consider baking it with crushed croutons on top.

Pour In Canned Soup For Extra Flavor

Campbell's soup cans in box
Campbell's soup cans in box - Dana Kenedy/Shutterstock

The one complaint we sometimes have with boxed macaroni and cheese is that it's too thin. Canned soup can give new life to boxed mac and cheese because it can help make the cheese sauce more vicious and infuse certain flavors into your meal, depending on your choice. You should always add condensed soup to your dish rather than a regular batch because it means that you'll be more able to taste the flavor notes.

For example, cream of onion soup will take your mac and cheese to the next level. It has an underlying sweetness that won't alter the savory umami notes of the cheese. You also won't have to worry about accidentally slurping down a piece of chicken or mushroom in the soup base. For a bolder option, you could also try a can of condensed tomato soup. Although it will dramatically alter the color of your mac and cheese, the balance of acidic and sweet notes will provide an unexpected harmony to your pasta.

Channel Umami Flavors With Fish Sauce

Bottle of fish sauce on table
Bottle of fish sauce on table - Phonlamaiphoto/Getty Images

Unfortunately, boxed mac and cheese (especially the lower-quality brands) never seem to taste like much. The cheese notes aren't always powerful enough to give the dish any real substance, while the pasta, if it's mushy, isn't doing it any favors, either. You need the help of a powerful ingredient that will infuse more diverse flavors into your dish.

Fish sauce will give mac and cheese an umami boost. This Asian sauce is made with fermented anchovies, so it is an effective carrier for salty, fishy flavors. To use this ingredient in your pasta, mix it in with the butter and the milk. The key to adding this ingredient to your boxed mac and cheese is not to go overboard. Especially if your mac and cheese is already salty; adding more than a scant teaspoon of fish sauce can shift the profile to something too overpowering.

Add Spinach And Artichoke Dip For Extra Creaminess

Spinach and artichoke dip in crock
Spinach and artichoke dip in crock - Elena Veselova/Shutterstock

You probably don't see the spinach and artichoke dip on your tailgate table and think immediately: "Wow, I wonder what that would taste like with mac and cheese?" But this dip staple will give you a creamy spin on boxed mac and cheese, and an excuse to make a ton of dip.

You'll want to stick with a complementary pasta flavor such as white cheddar or four-cheese, as these flavors play well with mozzarella cheese, which is a critical component in the dip. Prepare the dip and the mac and cheese separately before adding the veggies in with the pasta, cheese sauce, and a hefty garnish of mozzarella cheese. The dip base is brimming with garlic and the saltiness from the cheese, plus you'll get a hefty portion of veggies into your meal without having to work too hard. Although fresh dip is best, you can also substitute it with a premade or leftover artichoke dip.

Crack Open A Raw Egg For Extra Flavor

Cracked and whole raw eggs
Cracked and whole raw eggs - Fcafotodigital/Getty Images

A secret ingredient lurks in your fridge that will help you make your boxed mac and cheese memorable. A raw egg will add richness to your boxed mac and cheese and boost its protein content, too. The trick to adding this egg to your pasta dish isn't just to crack it in, swirl it, and call it a day. Rather, you'll first have to temper the egg by beating it and adding in hot liquid such as milk, slowly, to prevent the egg from scrambling. This also ensures that the mixture stays smooth.

Some recipes stick with adding just the yolk to the pasta, while others will add the full egg. The yolk has a high-fat content that will make your pasta super rich and darken the yellow color of the cheese, so it's our go-to when upgrading a box of mac and cheese.

Customize It With Your Own Cheesy Additions

bowl of grated cheese
bowl of grated cheese - kiboka/Shutterstock

Although the mac and cheese title would imply that there is a copious amount of cheesy flavor in this dish, the reality is that boxed mac and cheese can often lack in the cheese department. Or, it will come out with a monotone, cheap cheddar flavor that doesn't make it extraordinary. A quick gander in your cheese drawer will help you improve your dish. Blake Lively's boxed mac and cheese recipe, for example, uses whole milk, a portion of a cream cheese block, and freshly grated cheddar, hard goat cheese, or gouda. These cheeses add sharpness to the dish and help make it super creamy.

You have to be mindful of the type of cheese you use for your recipe. Although the leftover cheese in your fridge is exactly what your recipe needs, you must be mindful of how it melts and tastes. Provolone, fontina, and mozzarella will melt easily and have a milder flavor profile compared to Roquefort or a creamy brie.

Substitute Some Of The Fats With Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt in jar
Greek yogurt in jar - olepeshkina/Shutterstock

The boxed macaroni and cheese recipe is relatively simple: Add butter and milk to your cooked pasta and cover with the powdered cheese sauce. But for an ultra-creamy mac and cheese, swap out the butter and the milk with Greek yogurt. This ingredient swap will instantly upgrade boxed mac and cheese and add a powerful punch of protein to keep you fuller for longer. You'll need to use a half-cup of unflavored, full-fat Greek yogurt to replace five tablespoons of butter and milk. You can also tweak this substitution slightly to ensure your pasta still has the buttery flavor with the smoothness of the yogurt.

To make this substitution, whip the yogurt and the powdered cheese together. You can thin out the mixture with your leftover pasta water until it gets to a desirable, smooth consistency. Then, pour it onto your pasta and enjoy.

Pour In A Splash Of Buttermilk

Pouring buttermilk into glass
Pouring buttermilk into glass - Fascinadora/Shutterstock

Boxed mac and cheese can tend to take on a singular, rudimentary flavor. What every crock of mac and cheese needs is a quick pour of buttermilk. Buttermilk is the secret ingredient that will make your boxed mac and cheese way better because it will not only thicken the cheese mixture but also help balance out the saltiness of the cheese packet with a hint of tang.

Some recipes will recommend you substitute all of the milk for buttermilk, but this may make it too puckery for your palate. We recommend starting with a half-and-half split between milk and buttermilk, at the most, until you know that you really like the flavor. This dairy product may not be a staple ingredient in your fridge, but you can substitute it for kefir. Just be mindful that this particular hack will result in a thinner liquid.

Add Healthy Fat And Texture With Avocado

Avocado chunks in bowl
Avocado chunks in bowl - Merrimon/Getty Images

We admit it, we can't always get through a bowl of mac and cheese. Sometimes it can taste so monotonous and boring ─ but not when we switch it up with a fruit like avocado. This ingredient will totally elevate your mac and cheese by adding a novel texture, but not one that entirely throws off the dish. It will also add a pop of color to your plate.

There are many different ways to try this spin on macaroni and cheese. Cut the avocado into small pieces and stir it in before serving, or slice it into thin slivers for a bit of avocado in every bite. Avocado is a relatively blank canvas to other flavors, so you can still add extra cheese, bacon crumbles, or even bagel seasoning to your pasta, too. It's creamy, full of healthy fats, and will help you stay fuller for longer.

Use Unconventional Spices To Boost Its Flavor

Whole nutmeg in a bowl with grounds
Whole nutmeg in a bowl with grounds - Annmell_sun/Shutterstock

Sometimes, revamping a classic recipe like macaroni and cheese requires you to seek new ways to use common ingredients. If you want to change your pasta forever, take a quick gander through your spice cabinet ─ starting with nutmeg. You should add a dash of nutmeg to your mac and cheese because it will create a sensational warming feel at first bite. This facet of the spice adds a zingy feel to both sweet and savory recipes without upsetting its balance ─ it's why people often add it to egg nog. You can subdue the flavor by adding it to the cheese sauce early on versus sprinkling it on top before serving.

Ground mustard is another spice you should consider adding to your mac and cheese. The pantry spice can upgrade every mac and cheese recipe by adding a hint of heat to the cheese and balancing out the flavor. If you don't have the ground version of this spice, you could also add a half-tablespoon of yellow or Dijon mustard to your mac and cheese.

Disregard The Cooking Time On The Box

Raw macaroni on wooden background
Raw macaroni on wooden background - Premyuda Yospim/Getty Images

Mushy macaroni and cheese (or really, any pasta) should be a home cook's worst nightmare. Everyone can probably remember a time in college when they left their cup of Kraft in the microwave for too long, which caused it to turn into nude-colored mush that no coating of industrially produced cheese sauce could fix.

The trick to perfectly cooking boxed macaroni and cheese is to avoid following the directions on the side of the container. A microwave with a different wattage may alter the time it takes for your pasta to cook ─ which may leave you with dry, crumbly pasta or mush. The secret is to taste-test the pasta before the timer goes off. Once your pasta reaches the perfect al dente stage, remove it from the heat and drain the water immediately. Letting your pasta sit on the stove will cause it to come out overdone.

Bake It Rather Than Just Making It On The Stovetop

Baked mac and cheese in pan
Baked mac and cheese in pan - harexape/Shutterstock

While you will likely get some odd looks if you bring a casserole dish of baked Kraft or Annie's mac and cheese to your next Thanksgiving meal, popping your macaroni and cheese in the oven is an easy way to add extra texture and make your boxed macaroni and cheese taste homemade. After all, who doesn't love mac and cheese that's gooey underneath and slightly crispy on the top?

The secret to making delicious baked mac and cheese is always undercooking your noodles slightly on the stove to prevent overcooking them in the oven. You should also add an extra layer of cheese to the pasta before baking it, and add an additional crunch factor with breadcrumbs or crackers. This will prevent your macaroni and cheese from drying out and also add a satisfying cheese pull when you go to spoon out a portion.

Scour Your Fridge For Extra Protein

Bacon macaroni and cheese
Bacon macaroni and cheese - Alexander Prokopenko/Shutterstock

Macaroni and cheese can be a meal, but it's not always a satisfying one. This is because it's high in fat and carbs but consistently lacking in the protein department. If you want to make your macaroni and cheese more filling, find some protein-dense ingredients to add to it. For example, you can use your leftover bacon to top your pasta and add a breakfast flair to it. We recommend sticking to crispy bacon for this recipe since it is bound to add extra texture to an otherwise gooey pasta.

Another great leftover that shines in macaroni and cheese is taco meat. The saltiness of the seasoning, along with the warming notes of cumin and chili pepper, can do wonders for a plain boxed mac and cheese. We recommend bringing the taco meat up to room temperature before adding it to the cheese sauce and the pasta. Just don't forget the crushed tortilla chips on top!

Make Fritters Out Of It

Macaroni and cheese balls
Macaroni and cheese balls - Lauripatterson/Getty Images

The easiest way to upgrade a claggy macaroni and cheese is to make it crunchy. Deep-fried macaroni and cheese bites will make this pasta dish an option for your game-day spread, or a quick appetizer for a casual gathering. Once you have your prepared macaroni and cheese (sauce and all), pop it in a casserole dish and freeze it for a few hours. Then, slice the macaroni into shapes and roll in an egg wash and breadcrumb seasoning before dropping them in a hot pan of oil, frying until each side is crisp and golden in color.

There are numerous recipe variations depending on your palate. Add chopped jalapeños for a spicy bite, or add some chopped bacon for added savoriness. You can add your favorite spices, like dried parsley, to the breadcrumbs for herbaceousness and a more sophisticated flavor. You can also switch up what you serve it with, like marinara sauce or aioli.

Top It With Crunchy Chips

Chips spilling out of bag
Chips spilling out of bag - Burke/triolo Productions/Getty Images

If you're grabbing a container of boxed mac and cheese from your local corner store, don't forget to take a walk through the chip aisle on your way out. A crunchy snack topping is an easy way to upgrade your next batch of mac and cheese and channel new flavors and textures. Cheese crackers are always a solid option because they can amp up the savory, familiar flavors in the pasta. To up the complexity further, crumble up a bag of Cheez-Its (bonus points if it's a box of extra toasty ones) and spread it on top of your pasta dish. You can also recruit help from more fiery flavors like Takis, Doritos, and Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

Besides crumbling the chips and tossing them on top of the pasta, you can also use them as vehicles to scoop the pasta into your mouth. Regardless of the chip you choose, it's important to remember that these snacks don't hold up well in leftovers. So, it's best to sprinkle them on each serving and add the rest as you go.

Add Chili Crisp For A Bit Of Zing

Asian chili crisp in jar
Asian chili crisp in jar - Vm2002/Getty Images

If you've never purchased a container of chili crisp sauce, now would be the time to do so. This condiment is like Sichuan cooking in a jar; it's brimming with Sichuan peppercorns, chili peppers, aromatics like fried garlic and onion, and oil. It also bursts with spiciness and heat, and is perfect for slathering on many different dishes ─ including boxed mac and cheese.

Although it may not be the top condiment of choice for someone with a delicate palate, we're all about bringing on the chili crisp. The oil soaks into the boxed mac and cheese and carries the flavor throughout the dish. Although it might look tempting to slather all over your pasta, we recommend capping the chili crisp at a couple of teaspoons. To soothe the heat, add extra melty American cheese and top your dish with a sprinkle of green onions.

Static Media owns and operates Tasting Table, The Daily Meal, Foodie and Mashed.

Read the original article on Tasting Table.