Like Bert, Garfunkel, and Thelma, elbow macaroni is best known as half of a beloved duo. While these curved tubes can be eaten in pasta salads and casseroles, their claim to fame is their use in macaroni and cheese.
It had been more than a decade since we last reviewed elbow macaroni, so it was time to retest. We selected five widely available products and tasted each one plain (tossed with canola oil) and in our Classic Macaroni and Cheese. At the end of the tastings, a clear winner had emerged, thanks to its outstanding flavor and larger size.
It quickly became apparent that not all elbow macaroni are created equal. Once cooked, the macaroni ranged in length from roughly 0.5 inches to almost a full inch long. As it turned out, these size differences affected how easy the tubes were to eat, both plain and in macaroni and cheese. In the plain tasting, one taster reported having to “chase them around a bit” in an attempt to spear them with a fork. In the macaroni and cheese tasting, another taster noted that the smallest elbows were overwhelmed by the cheese sauce. Our favorite macaroni, which were deemed the easiest to spear with a fork and held their own in the macaroni and cheese, were the longest, averaging 0.88 inches long once cooked.
There were two textural matters at hand in this tasting. Most of the products were smooth in appearance, but one had faint ridges. However, that small textural difference didn’t give those elbows a leg up on the competition. In the plain tasting, their texture was on par with those of other elbows; tasters described the pasta as “tender” with a “great bouncy chew.” Some tasters said that the ridged pasta seemed to hold the cheese sauce well, but not significantly better than any of the other pastas.
While the elbows’ surface texture wasn’t a big deal overall, the texture of the cooked pasta certainly was. Most of the elbows in our lineup had a satisfactory springy quality, but our favorite was notable for its “slightly firmer” cooked texture that was tender but not overly so; it had a nice chewiness that tasters liked.
Some of the elbows we sampled lacked a pronounced flavor, with tasters describing them as average, plain, or bland. We sometimes detected “nutty” or wheaty flavors, but our favorite macaroni was on another level. It had a “classic,” “buttery” flavor, noticeable when tasted both plain and in macaroni and cheese. Our science editor explained that there are buttery-tasting compounds naturally found in wheat flour, primarily diacetyl (also called 2,3-butanedione), the same chemical used to flavor some microwave popcorns. It’s possible that our winning elbow macaroni has a greater concentration of diacetyl in either the semolina or the durum flour or in both.
It was no contest. Our winner, Creamette Elbow Macaroni, had nice, long tubes that were pleasantly firm and easy to spear, but its delightful buttery flavor was the real standout factor. It was “delicious” plain, and its “great flavor” was evident even when the macaroni was mixed with other ingredients in macaroni and cheese. One more thing to note: Though Creamette Elbow Macaroni is found primarily in the Midwest, we were able to easily purchase it online. If you’d prefer to pick up another product in your supermarket, we suggest De Cecco No. 81 Elbows or Barilla Elbows, which also scored well and are more widely available than our winner.