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Macaroni and Cheese

Published April 2011
Update, March 2019
We recently learned our winner, Kraft Homestyle Macaroni & Cheese Dinner Classic Cheddar Cheese Sauce, was discontinued. Kraft Velveeta Original Shells & Cheese is our new winner.

How we tested

Although making macaroni and cheese from scratch isn’t hard, many busy parents (and hungry, budget-conscious college students) still opt for the convenience of box mixes and frozen dinners—and their numbers are growing. Sales have risen 25 percent over the past four years, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. New brands and varieties (Kraft alone offers more than 50 kinds) have exploded onto the market. Are they any good?

To narrow down our choices, we conducted two preliminary taste-offs of Kraft and Annie’s, companies that offer a dizzying array of product styles. We plucked the winners from among 19 of their best sellers and added other brands to round out our list, including two brands of frozen dinners; after all, what’s more convenient than heat and serve? We carefully followed package instructions, microwaving the frozen dinners (much quicker than baking), and asked 22 cooks and editors at America’s Test Kitchen to weigh in.

“Revolting.” That’s how they judged most of the brands in our blind tasting. We found just three brands we would even consider eating.

The so-called “cheese sauce” was one of several features that distinguished winners from losers. Our favorite reinforced its sauce with blue and cheddar cheeses, and all our top choices used liquid sauce, which was creamy and suitably clingy. Brands that relied on a cheese-powder packet (to which the cook adds milk and/or margarine) tasted “artificial” and were “chalky” and “thin.” Also, dry noodles triumphed; frozen dinners turned pasta into mush. Both elbows and shells were acceptable (confession: we skipped Kraft’s “SpongeBob SquarePants” shape).

Our winner requires the cook to make a milk-based cheese sauce, substituting a seasoning packet for flour and a cheese sauce for grated cheese. The effort is slightly less than from-scratch, and so is the flavor (though we did like the crumb topping). Only one other brand earned a recommended rating. We found a third acceptable, with reservations. The other five brands are not worth eating, even if the kids are screaming.

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The Results


Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*