I’ve been a cheese lover my whole life, and that’s enough that last year I started the process of sitting through cheese marketing certification courses. I think the reason behind this is that most cheeses start with the same few ingredients – milk, salt, water and time – and can end up with completely different flavors depending on the processing of those ingredients.
Visit the cheese counter at your local supermarket or specialty store and you’ll find a variety of flavors found in this case. But which of these flavors makes the most sense to add to everyone’s favorite cold-weather comfort food, macaroni and cheese? After all, the pasta should taste good and melt and cover well. After doing a fair amount of testing of my own this winter, here are nine cheeses you should consider adding to your bowl next time.
When I think of the “classic” macaroni and cheese — whether it’s the creamy stovetop dishes or the casseroles my mom used to bake over the holidays — cheddar is definitely the dominant flavor. There is historical precedent for this. The first modern recipe for macaroni and cheese is attributed to the British writer Elizabeth Ravald. In her 1769 cookbook, The Experienced English Housekeeper, Ravald recommended mixing pasta with béchamel sauce cooked with cheddar cheese.
RELATED: The Crunchy Macaroni and Cheese on a Tray
Cheddar cheese certainly has its benefits. It is inexpensive, scalable, and easy to dissolve. Feel free to experiment with different varieties, from sharp to mild to flavorful (cheddar radish is an unexpectedly good choice in macaroni and cheese, especially served alongside a steak dinner).
Much like cheddar, gruyère is perfect for melting and is a favorite addition to macaroni and cheese. For example, one of Ina Garten’s macaroni and cheese recipes uses a mixture of cheddar and gruyere—with gruyère as the predominant cheese in the mix. Young gruyère is creamy and nutty, while older gruyère takes on a nice, earthy feel that adds some massive nuances to the mix.
This Giada de Laurentiis macaroni and cheese recipe calls for 2 cups of finely grated Fontina cheese. Fontina is traditionally made from unpasteurized milk, a mixture of cream and sourness. For a more high-end Mac, this is a great addition.
If I had to pick a favorite cheese, I think manchego should be. It’s a very salty and delicious Spanish cheese – enough that it even smells like grilled meat for some connoisseurs – that also happens to shred really beautifully. Use it as a starting point for a Spanish-inspired macaroni and cheese that includes chorizo and some toasted breadcrumbs.
Just like Parmesan, the quality of crunchy “cheese crystals” develops with age; These are indications of true umami flavor, which can help improve the creamy texture of a pot of macaroni and cheese on the stove.
Good Parmesan has plenty of taste notes: brown butter, toasted almonds, grass, and honey, to name a few. However, it is also a cheese that is really well known to most home cooks. This combination of complexity and familiarity when it comes to flavor makes an excellent addition to your next batch of macaroni and cheese.
I like cheese that has a bit of a brine, but some of my personal favorites, like feta, can take on an almost chalky flavor when melted and incorporated into dishes. This is where goat cheese comes in. Since it contains milk fat, it melts and incorporates into the béchamel flawlessly and adds a bit of funk and brine to a regular bowl. Note that a little goes a long way.
Butter is the name of the game when it comes to wild cheese. This cheese has an incredibly luxurious texture that shines when heated (hence the popularity of baked wild cheese on holidays) but a really mild flavor. If you’re looking for cheese to emphasize the flavors already in your cheese sauce without taking over, brie cheese is one of your best bets.
This is a straightforward add-on, but I didn’t think of it until I was home for the holidays this year and noticed my mom had updated her favorite recipe with a few tablespoons of cream cheese. The result was a casserole of macaroni and cheese, perfectly oven-baked top and creamy mac on the stovetop inside. He really helped make this dish, which was the best of both worlds, totally possible.
A short list of approved Barefoot Contessa recipes: