I Tried Ina Garten’s Famous Mac and Cheese and It Has One Genius, Surprise Ingredient

published Sep 4, 2021
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Credit: Thao Thai

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Some days are just mac and cheese days, you know what I mean? Maybe it’s pouring outside and everyone was late to school and there’s a roof leak for the upteenth time this year — all the small inconveniences that make the day drearier than it needs to be. But there are a few standout meals that can save the terrible, no-good day for our family, including creamy, soul-satisfying mac and cheese. Something about the hot elbow noodles, coated in a cheesy sauce, then layered with some crunchy breadcrumbs (or crushed cornflakes, if you’re in the Midwest like me) — well, it’s called comfort food for a reason.

I usually wing my homemade mac and cheese, stirring a béchamel sauce laced with whatever grated cheeses I have on hand, then baking it all in the oven until bubbly (is there a better way to describe cheese?!). But then I saw this 5-starred recipe by Ina Garten with over 1,100 reviews, and I wondered if there was a mac and cheese nirvana somewhere out there, just within my reach. (Spoiler alert: it was the equivalent of a mysterious luxury spa in the middle of nowhere for me.) 

Here’s how it went.

How to Make Ina Garten’s Mac and Cheese

The ingredients for this mac and cheese are totally accessible, with the unexpected addition of ripe tomatoes (perfect for an end-of-summer run to the store). First, you boil your macaroni noodles to the perfect al dente consistency. You make a béchamel with melted butter, flour, and warm milk, then stir in your grated gruyere and cheddar cheese with some salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Don’t forget the nutmeg, which always balances the flavor of the sauce! Mix together the cooked noodles and your sauce, then add the mixture to a baking dish. 

Slice ripe tomatoes and layer them on top of the mac and cheese dish. Mix together some melted butter and breadcrumbs and sprinkle the butter-coated breadcrumbs on top. Bake for about half an hour, until melted and bubbly-brown on top. 

Credit: Thao Thai

My Honest Review

This is a happy, sighing-in-your-chair combination of an easy, weeknight comfort food and special restaurant-quality execution. The tomatoes and breadcrumbs in this dish are the standout additions for me. That dance between creamy/melting tomatoes and crunchy, buttery breadcrumbs is an ideal textural contrast. And the mac and cheese itself? Heavenly. The nutty gruyere and sharp cheddar give the mac and cheese an elevated little zing of flavor. I also love the fresh, sweet-tart bite of the tomatoes, which helps cut through the richness and actually makes its way into the lower mac and cheese layers. An osmosis of tomato, if you will.

Now, this is not so much about me as it is my sometimes-hard-to-please roommates, a.k.a. family members. My daughter is a huge mac and cheese fan, though she has a certain loyalty to a blue cardboard-boxed brand, and even she liked Ina’s version, though I’m sure she wondered why it wasn’t bright orange. My husband hovered near the oven while the mac and cheese was baking, making multiple comments about how hungry he was — his impatience was telling! As we dove into our plates, we talked calmly about our days, and even managed to clear the table together without a single moment of whining. Who were we? Had we channeled Ina’s calm, smiling East Hampton persona? No, we just encountered a sublime, unexpectedly simple dinner that’s sure to be a new family favorite. 

So, my honest recommendation: make this mac and cheese! Banish those bad-day blues! And have heaping leftovers the next day for lunch. 

Credit: Thao Thai

5 Tips for Making Ina Garten’s Mac and Cheese

  1. Don’t skip the process of warming your milk in a separate saucepan. I am the last person to recommend an extra dirtied pot unnecessarily, but the warm milk helps create a smooth, non-clumping sauce. Trust me. I’ve used straight-out-of-the-fridge milk and spent too much time chasing down wily clumps in a Mornay sauce with a whisk. 
  2. For busy parents, I recommend getting out the Cuisinart and using the grater function for your cheeses (it saved me about ten precious minutes that I spent watching TikTok organization videos that I don’t intend to follow through on). 
  3. Ina (we are on first-name basis, ofc) doesn’t recommend a specific cut for your tomatoes, but I like a thicker slice, because the flavor seems to break up and permeate the sauce better. Also, I used thick beefsteak tomatoes, but smaller ones may be more bite-sized for eaters, especially kiddos. 
  4. You can easily halve this recipe if you’re not serving a large crowd. But if you love mac and cheese as much as we do, stick to the recommended amount as a gift to your future-self.
  5. This is a super rich dish, so counteract the creaminess with a salad with a tangy dressing, or a side of crisp apples. For little ones, add some diced meatballs or rotisserie chicken for extra protein.