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No dish screams “ooey-gooey comfort food” quite like baked mac & cheese. While virtually every non-lactose-intolerant person loves this dish, few could agree on the perfect way to bake it at home. For instance, there’s still a debate over whether to bake mac & cheese with or without a cover. If you’re struggling to decide whether to break out your aluminum foil, fear not! This post will provide you with all the details on whether to cover your mac & cheese while it’s baking.
Most chefs prefer baking their mac & cheese uncovered, especially if they put lots of breadcrumbs on top. Baking without a cover increases the odds of forming a crusty top and corners, adding great contrast to this creamy dish. However, it’s not “wrong” to bake your mac & cheese with a cover. Just know that an aluminum foil top will trap moisture, which could produce a soggier texture on top.
Finding your ideal mac & cheese recipe can take some trial and error to perfect. However, you could speed up your “cheesy expertise” with some of the baking tips listed below. Whether you’re cooking mac & cheese for two or twenty, this post will help you create a comfort dish everyone will remember.
Should You Cover Mac And Cheese While Baking?
There’s no law against covering your mac & cheese while baking, but it’s not the best choice if you love toasty breadcrumbs and crunchy edge pieces. By covering your mac & cheese, you will trap all of the steam while baking. This effect produces a soggier top layer, which defeats the purpose of toasting breadcrumbs like Panko.
For many mac & cheese enthusiasts, the top layer of breadcrumbs provides a delicious contrast to the creamy cheese and soft pasta. The best way to achieve this effect is to bake or broil your mac & cheese uncovered.
To learn more about making a brilliant breadcrumb-focused mac & cheese, you have to watch this recipe:
All that being said, some chefs prefer the melt-in-your-mouth taste of covered mac & cheese. If you’re not a fan of topping your mac and cheese with breadcrumbs, then you may like the taste of covered mac & cheese. So, be sure to experiment with different recipes until you find what works for your tastebuds.
How Long Do You Bake Mac And Cheese?
Most recipes recommend popping your assembled mac & cheese in a 375°F oven for between 25 - 45 minutes. However, everyone’s oven strengths are slightly different, so it’s essential to keep a close eye on your mac & cheese. Also, please remember to turn your heat down by 25°F if you’re baking in a glass dish to avoid burning your mac & cheese.
For more info on baking in convection vs. non-convection ovens, be sure to check out our previous post: Do Convection Ovens Cook Faster?
You could also watch this fun video for a scientific explanation on baking times for different cheeses:
How Do You Know When Baked Mac And Cheese Is Done?
According to most chefs, mac & cheese should be almost done before putting it in the oven. What this means is your macaroni should be at or just before al dente. The baking process simply helps evenly distribute heat in your dish, softens the macaroni, and crisps up any breadcrumbs on the top.
Therefore, figuring out when mac & cheese is “done” depends on your taste preferences. In most cases, this depends on just how crispy you like your mac & cheese to be.
An excellent way to gauge your mac & cheese is to take a peek at the color of the breadcrumbs. As they change to a shade of deep brown and the edges start to crisp up, it’s a good bet your mac & cheese is ready to eat. Another key indicator is whether the center is bubbling. If you don’t hear sizzling or see bubbles in your mac & cheese, it may need a few more minutes.
Figuring out when mac & cheese is “done” can take a bit of practice, especially when working with different ingredients. Please always take dutiful notes on cooking times to save yourself aggravation on future mac & cheese nights.
Could You Eat Mac And Cheese Without Baking It?
If you can’t be bothered to heat your oven, you could still enjoy a hearty bowl of mac & cheese for dinner. There are loads of stovetop-friendly mac & cheese recipes that don’t require baking. In fact, America’s Test Kitchen recently put together a fool-proof mac & cheese stovetop recipe:
If you aren’t going to use the oven, please be sure you have a mac & cheese recipe that says explicitly “no bake.” Since your mac & cheese won’t spend any time baking, there are significant time adjustments to consider.
How Do You Keep Mac And Cheese From Drying Out?
One of the benefits of covering mac & cheese in the oven is that it can keep your meal from drying out. According to chefs, you can keep covered mac & cheese in a 180°F oven for 30 minutes to preserve it before mealtime. This is a fantastic tip if you want to cook your mac & cheese ahead of time for a large crowd.
Another pro tip many foodies recommend is adding sodium citrate to your cheese mix. This common food additive is well known for its emulsifying properties, which help keep your cheese incredibly moist. You can learn more about adding sodium citrate to mac & cheese on this video:
How Do You Keep Baked Macaroni And Cheese From Breaking?
Most chefs claim there are two main reasons mac & cheese curdles or breaks down. First, your cheese sauce was exposed to heat for too long. Second, you’re using too many processed cheeses that have loads of chemical additives and emulsifiers.
Thankfully, there are many techniques you could use to prevent this scenario. One tip is to use high-quality fatty products like whole milk and butter rather than skim milk and margarine. These rich ingredients not only give your mac & cheese a delicious flavor, but they also reduce the chances of separation. Many pro chefs also recommend grating a high-quality cheese block into your sauce rather than relying on overly-processed, pre-shredded products.
It’s also crucial that your pasta is at least just before al dente before popping your mac & cheese into the oven. If your pasta is uncooked or too undercooked, it will pull moisture from your sauce, thus causing cracks in your mac & cheese.
Another popular tip is to always add breadcrumbs to the top of your mac & cheese before popping it in the oven. Besides adding a crunchy bite, these breadcrumbs can protect the more delicate cheeses from the oven’s intense heat. As a bonus, you could better gauge your mac & cheese’s “doneness” by looking at the color of your breadcrumbs.
If you’d like more pro tips on grating cheese into your mac & cheese, be sure to read through our previous post: Can You Grate Cheese In A Blender?
How Do You Make Mac And Cheese Last Longer?
If you couldn’t finish all of your glorious fresh-baked mac & cheese in one go, then you’re probably thinking about storing some in the fridge. However, don’t forget that you could freeze your mac and cheese in freezer-safe Tupperware to make it last longer.
Generally, mac & cheese in the fridge lasts about three to five days. By contrast, frozen mac & cheese could last at least two months without significantly losing its rich flavor.
Just be sure to use a freezer-safe, airtight container to preserve your mac & cheese for the long haul.
What Can I Add To Macaroni And Cheese To Make It Taste Better?
There are countless ingredients you could add to your mac & cheese to make it tastier. However, here are a few of the most common spices in mac & cheese recipes:
- Black pepper
- Mustard powder
- Dried thyme
- Nutmeg (grated)
- Cayenne pepper
If you need extra inspiration for mac & cheese additions, here are a few of the tastiest ideas we’ve run across:
- Bacon Mac & Cheese
- Tuscan Grilled Chicken Mac & Cheese
- Fresh Tomato and Basil Mac & Cheese
- Creamy Broccoli Mac & Cheese
- Balsamic Caramelized Onions and Mushrooms Mac & Cheese
Cover Your Mac & Cheese? Do Whatever You Please!
Every chef has a different opinion on covering baked mac & cheese. Those who like crisp corners and toasted breadcrumbs will prefer leaving their mac & cheese uncovered. However, people who want magnificently moist mac & cheese may want to consider using a layer of aluminum foil. Whatever method you choose, your mac & cheese should satisfy your cravings for luxurious, lactose-laced comfort food.