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Macaroni & Cheese & Me (and You) – Round 1

May 29, 2015

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When I was a kid, my parents would go out on Saturday nights, and my brother and I would stay home and watch movies and play games, and eat Kraft Mac & Cheese. It was heaven. Ever since then, Kraft has been a cheap, easy, comfort food staple for me, and I always have a box in the house for emergencies. (My emergencies are typically food related.)

So when I saw this news story, relaying that Kraft is going to change their recipe, I was not psyched.  I agree that removing artificial flavors and colors is a good idea, but there is no way my mac & cheese is going to taste the same. I have two options: Buy a boatload of Kraft before January 2016, or find the closest possible substitute and start training my taste buds. So, in the name of science and my wallet, I have set out to try all* the mac & cheeses.

*By “all” I mean 4 at a time, because otherwise that’s just too much mac & cheese, even for me.

Round #1: Kraft against Back to Nature, 365 (Whole Foods Market Store Brand), and Annie’s

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For purposes of this experiment, Kraft is the control variable, as it is my favorite and that by which all other boxed mac is judged. Also of note, I prepared all of these according to the instructions on each box, which had slight variations in amounts of milk and butter. Typically when I make my Kraft, I alter the recipe by adding less butter and more milk, and throwing in some shredded cheddar at the end – but  not for this experiment. In the name of science, no fancy alterations.

While none of these is going to break the bank, it is worth noting the cost of the contenders. Back to Nature was almost three times the cost of Kraft.
Kraft: $.99
365 (Whole Foods Market) Original Mac and Cheese: $.99
Back to Nature Organic: $2.79
Annie’s Original: $1.99

Now, to the cooking. The first big difference was the color and texture of the sauce. Clockwise from the top left, we have Annie’s, Back to Nature, 365, and Kraft. Kraft is clearly the most neon in color, and 365 has a paste -like consistency that really made me want to toss it in the trash without even tasting it.

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Next, the noodles. The noodles were all very similar except for the box of 365, where they were shorter, fatter, and sturdier. All of the noodles cooked for the same amount of time, but 365 remained the most “al dente”.

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I tasted 365 first, and Kraft last, primarily because a) I didn’t want to ruin the taste of the others with my love for Kraft and b) by the look of it I really thought I was going to hate 365.

I’ll just say it, the 365 looks gross when compared to the others, or when compared to what I think boxed mac & cheese should look like. The sauce is so thick that it didn’t seem to spread evenly over the noodles, even though I gave it a vigorous stir in the pan. (My dog highly enjoyed the bits that ended up on the floor.) And the color was more brownish than orange.
But, despite how off-putting it looked, I liked it. The sauce, while thicker than the others, was mild but flavorful, and the texture was actually fine. The noodles had more heft to them than Kraft, which I liked. There was also another, very pleasant, flavor that took me a few bites  to identify. Was it a smokiness? No.  Garlic? No. After awhile I realized that it has the same cheese flavor as Cheez-Its. Which was a bonus for me, since I love Cheez-Its.

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Next up was Back to Nature (try to ignore the chipped bowl – I have a million bowls yet somehow I used the chipped one here). This was by far my least favorite. The consistency was chalky, and it had next to no flavor.  It wasn’t just bland, it was watery, and if I didn’t know it was supposed to have a cheese or cheese-like flavor, I’m not sure I would have guessed. This would need serious doctoring to make it worth eating. If this is what new Kraft is going to taste like, I quit right now.

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Next, Annie’s. A bowl of Annie’s is, thus far, the closest approximation to Kraft. It looks very similar, the sauce makes enough to coat the noodles with a bit left over so it doesn’t get dry after a few minutes. The flavor is good, more mild and less salty than Kraft, but a satisfying cheesy blend.

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And finally, the control. Note: I actually ate the bowl of Kraft for dinner, or as much as I could muster after all of the taste testing. Sadly, in this bunch of competitors there is just no comparison. Kraft is MUCH saltier (which isn’t necessarily a good thing, but definitely contributes to the flavor), and the fake cheese taste just wasn’t recreated anywhere else.

I’m soliciting requests/ideas for Round 2 competitors, and so far I’ve heard that I should try Trader Joes. Shoot me a comment if you think there is another brand worthy to go up against the gold standard. Until then, I’ll be squirreling away Kraft before the recipe changes…

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Lawrence Demase permalink
    May 29, 2015 12:44 pm

    I like the Kraft “Deluxe”. Seems more creamy and cheesier but I think a taste test of my own is in order.
    Dad

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