Having been a college student for the past three years, I know my way around a microwave. From making cookies in a mug to taking out a bag of popcorn at exactly the right time, my life at college has trained me to be a microwave master. One of my biggest pet peeves is when foodies ;look down upon using the microwave as if it’s not real cooking. Some days you don’t want to have to put on pants to go to the dining hall and eat, and the microwave is a perfect alternative.
What’s my favorite thing to make in the microwave, you might ask? That’s easy—macaroni and cheese. Ever since I was little, mac and cheese has been one of my favorite dishes in the world, combining two of my favorite things on earth: cheese and pasta. When I got to college and started to look for good dorm room snacks, I was awestruck to see how many different brands made microwaveable macaroni and cheese cups. It was almost as if they were saying, “Hey kid, college is gonna be just fine.” And I believed them. Many a night have I spent with my nose in a textbook and my mouth filled with Easy Mac, so I thought it would be a good idea to figure out which brand makes the best of the best. Without further ado, let’s get this show on the road and eat some mac and cheese! I’m starving over here.
First up in the tasting was a lunchbox favorite, good ol’ Kraft. If there is one color that most accurately defines my childhood, it would be Kraft Royal Blue (followed closely by Annie’s Lavender). I mean, honestly, is there anything more American than wiping Kraft cheese dust off of your hands and onto your GAP logo sweatshirt? Thinking about how many childhood dreams this stuff has fueled, the number has to be in the gajillions, and for good reason. I mean, this stuff tastes like a playdate. The classic packet of Kraft orange cheese powder dissolves seamlessly into the pasta water, creating a viscous sauce that thickly coated every tube of pasta. There is definitely a distinct roundness to the zingy flavor, a sort of caramel umami finish that gives your insides a big old hug. Sure, the pasta was way overcooked, but there’s no way to get a nice al dente from a microwaveable pasta cup. This stuff is the real deal, and more than any of the other cups it tasted like actual cheese. Maybe not great cheese, but cheese for sure. In my opinion, Velveeta needs to drop their “liquid gold” campaign, cause Kraft is it.
Next up in the tasting was Velveeta. Known for its strangely large cult following of chefs, Velveeta cheese is characterized by how beautifully it melts into a vat of gorgeous gooey goodness. Personally, I feel like Velveeta is always a secret ingredient in recipes. If you were to go to your local diner and order a slice of blueberry pie, I can render a guess that the chef would proudly giggle while asking you if you could guess the secret ingredient, only to lean in close and whisper, “It’s Velveeta.” Then, he’d grab you by the wrist and threaten to cut off your pinky to swear you to complete secrecy. But I digress. Unlike Kraft (which actually owns the Velveeta brand), the Velveeta cup of instant mac came with a sauce pouch rather than powder, which was extremely difficult not to just squeeze directly into my mouth. However, once it came in contact with hot water, the cheese transformed into a watery sauce that had a very tame flavor that could have benefited from an extra pinch of salt. The shell shapes were definitely a plus and added a fun texture and mouthfeel, but the flavor was just too bland.
Batting third in this week’s taste test was the supermarket brand Stop & Shop. Priced at a whoppingly low 69 cents, it was clear that Stop & Shop was trying to redeem itself from last week’s Mozzarella Massacre. Just like Velveeta, the pasta in this cup were shells (which I found quite odd since I always considered Annie’s queen of the shells). The sauce for this mac and cheese was a whole lot glossier than the other three, and was a bit too runny for my liking. There wasn’t a very strong cheese flavor, but then again there wasn’t a very strong flavor at all. Everything was just ok. But to be honest, after the past few weeks Stop & Shop has had here at Supermarket Showdown, I’d say “just ok” is worth celebrating.
Last up was Annie’s, the fluffy white bunny we all know and love from the “natural” section of the grocery store. Personally, I’m a diehard White Cheddar Shells Annie’s fan, but for this taste test I thought I’d keep things fair and opt for the Real Aged Cheddar microwavable cup to keep the flavor the same across the board. While Annie’s will forever hold a special place in my heart, I did run into a few problems with their microwavable cup. First off, the cheese packet never fully dissolved into the hot water, making for a bit of a clumpy sauce that didn’t distribute very easily. The sauce definitely tasted the most like cheese out of all the competitors, but I felt as though there could almost be a sharper cheddar flavor, especially if they’re going to label it as a “Real Aged Cheddar.” Don’t get me wrong&mash;this mac and cheese was still tasty—it simply was up against an industry juggernaut and fell a little short.
And with that, we have a mac and cheese champ. Congratulations Kraft, you truly have created something magical. I have no hesitations in saying that I’m sure you will forever be a part of the American childhood. Keep doing what you do, ’cause you do it so well.