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How to Make Boxed Mac and Cheese Better

Right now, to avoid going to the grocery store more than necessary, lots of us are turning to shelf-stable, long-lasting pantry staples that are easy to make but also provide some much-needed comfort. And what tasty staple of the pantry better fits those criteria than boxed mac and cheese? A childhood classic that most of us still enjoy in adulthood, we all may be making this a bit more than usual right now, so maybe we’re getting a little sick of just regular mac and cheese and might be looking to get a little creative. There are plenty of easy ways to jazz up this simple dish, from additional ingredients to condiments to alternate cooking methods. Here are some of the best methods for making boxed mac and cheese even better.

Add Real Cheese

Yes, yes, yes, the cheese blend that already goes with the pasta is both absolutely delicious and definitely not the best thing in the world for our bodies. But if you want to make your mac and cheese even cheesier, grate some real cheese in as well to make it extra gooey. After draining the water and stirring in the cheese packet, milk, and butter, add gratings of your favorite kinds of cheese: cheddar, gouda, gruyere … there are udderly limitless options. Keep over low heat, mix it up until everything is melted and blended together, and enjoy! And don’t forget to experiment with different varieties of cheese to find the best combinations.

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Top with Panko or Bread Crumbs

Looking to really class up your mac and cheese? Cover it with a crunchy coat of panko (a type of flaky bread crumb that is popular in Japan as a coating for tempura and other fried foods) or by crumbling up some stale bread to make your own breadcrumbs. Spread the prepared mac and cheese out in a casserole dish and liberally sprinkle with bread crumbs. Stick it under the broiler for a few minutes to allow the panko to get nice and crispy, and then you’re good to go! For an added treat, toast your bread crumbs in some butter and herbs in advance before putting on top of the mac and cheese.

Sprinkle Your Favorite Hot Sauce

Give your mac and cheese a little kick by stirring in some of your favorite hot sauce. Whether it’s a standard classic like Sriracha or Tabasco or a small-batch brand from a local restaurant or producer, it’s bound to make your meal more flavorful.

Bring on the Bacon

The only thing that goes together better than macaroni and cheese is mac and cheese and bacon. And you can go as fancy or as basic as you went with the bacon. For something simple, just sprinkle the finished product with some bacon bits (or stir them in when adding the cheese, milk, and butter), or fry up some real bacon, break it up into tiny pieces, and add those.

mac and cheese shells bacon peas
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Use Green Chile

In the American Southwest, one of the best ways to eat mac and cheese is with the addition of the region’s famous green chiles, the best of which come from Hatch, New Mexico. After harvest every year, these green chiles are roasted to smoky, spicy perfection, which pairs perfectly with the gooey, oozy mac and cheese. You can usually find chopped green chiles in the Mexican or Hispanic section of your local store (Trader Joe’s specifically carries canned Hatch green chiles). Drain some of the excess fluid and then mix the chopped chiles in with the mac and cheese.

Add Broccoli and Ham

Turn your mac and cheese into more of a casserole affair by bringing some meat and veggies into the mix. This classic combination brings the addition of savory ham and tasty broccoli, which not only makes for a more interesting flavor palate but also a more diverse sensory experience, with the crunch of the broccoli juxtaposed to the rubbery ham and tender noodles. Either prepare the ham and broccoli in advance and mix them in with the cheese blend, cook the broccoli together with the pasta during the last few minutes of boiling, or add everything to a casserole dish, top it with more cheese or panko, and then bake or broil it a bit longer for everything to melt together.

Make Fried Mac and Cheese Balls

Bring a touch of whimsy and creativity by turning a mac and cheese meal into a carnival-like treat! After making the mac and cheese according to the box directions, let it cool slightly, scoop it into balls using an ice cream scooper, roll the balls in panko or bread crumbs, and then fry them up in hot oil on the stove for a minute or two until the outside is crispy and golden brown. Allow them to cool for a few minutes before eating.

fried mac and cheese balls
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Try Breakfast Mac and Cheese

Who says mac and cheese is just for lunch or dinner? (Plus, there are no rules anymore, so you might as well mix it up). You can do it for breakfast, too! Add some cooked breakfast sausage and bacon, mix in some extra cheese, and then top it all with a sunny side up egg.

Go Extra Fancy with Lobster or Crab

Need to celebrate something special while stuck indoors and don’t want to go over-budget? Next time you’re at the store, grab some canned crab meat and mix that in to make it a bit more upscale. Add more cheese or top with panko to go the extra step. And if you’re really looking to pull out all the stops, grab a lobster tail (hey, we gotta live for today, right?), broil or bake that until done, and then tear up the meat and mix it into the mac and cheese.

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