It brings me immense, perverse joy to assert that mac and cheese is best when it’s wet.
Hear me out: Mac and cheese should be cheesy, yes, but it should also be smooth, luxurious, and velvety. Other variations of mac exist: baked, topped with breadcrumbs, and loaded with meats and aromatic vegetables. But mac and cheese done right doesn’t need any extra help. It needs no aid, no accoutrement, no crunch. A smooth, creamy, glossy (wet) mac is perfect as is. The rich cohesiveness of a properly prepared Kraft or Velveeta, each shell or elbow noodle coated thick with cheese sauce, cranks the decadence up in a way that other macs aspire to, but ultimately fall short. Whether it’s achieved through milk and butter or a packet of mysterious processed cheese goo, macaroni is best when it’s naked, gooey, sloppy, and wet. Baking mac and cheese only dries it out and muddles an already perfect dish.
But it’s more than just personal preference. I’m working from a place of traditional pasta principles. Stovetop mac is inherently Italian in nature. The most traditional pasta dishes are comprised of some combination of butter, cheese, and pasta. Take cacio e pepe, a dish that originated in Rome sometime in the 1800s. It is simply pasta, cheese, pepper, and pasta water. Those are literally the same ingredients that are in mac and cheese. A classic Roman alfredo, or al burro, is quite directly butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano. What’s more, these pasta dishes have the same texture as stovetop mac. Run a spoon through a perfectly plated mound of carbonara. Now do the same thing with a spoon to a bowl of Velveeta Shells & Cheese. They both produce the same sloshy, X-rated sounds. Italians, more than anybody, understand the rules of simple and understated decadence. And those tenets of good pasta, I would argue, should also be followed with mac and cheese. A proper mac needs to be stirred. It needs to absorb liquid, flavoring, and seasoning, and then it needs to be served. What makes Kraft, Velveeta, and the like all so iconically good is that they adhere to the classic Italian principles of pasta.
Baked pasta doesn’t quite follow those principles. Take that aforementioned cacio e pepe, a spaghetti dish that has absorbed and swelled with sauce in a pan, and bake it with breadcrumbs. It would add nothing. In fact, you would ruin the dish and cause several Italians to troll you online (they love to do that). That’s what baking mac and cheese is to me: It’s complicating an already perfect method for cooking pasta. Stouffer’s, Cracker Barrel, Amy’s, they all make the same error in judgment with their frozen, oven-baked macs. It mostly becomes dry and airy. It doesn’t achieve creamy mac greatness. The smooth, luscious texture of a stovetop mac is perfect the way it is.
I know what you’re about to say: “What about baked ziti?” Sure, the occasional baked ziti works when it’s topped with mounds of mozzarella, creating one giant, layered, Instagrammable cheese stretch. But you wouldn’t top baked ziti with breadcrumbs, right? I sure hope not. There’s this misconception that everything needs added texture, but that’s not the case. Take McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. The muffin, the ham, the egg, it’s all pretty much the same texture. It all squishes together like a sponge, and it’s delicious. An Egg McMuffin succeeds without crunch, without much variation in consistency. A good mac and cheese accomplishes the same thing. Its smooth, cheesy quality is singular, bound by the holy union of good pasta principles, and it never disappoints.
The rules of pasta exist for a reason, and like it or not, they apply to mac and cheese. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a box of $1.59 Kraft or a classically Italian cacio e pepe, wet is best.