If you're ready to graduate from boxed macaroni and cheese to something homemade, one of the first questions you might have is what kind of cheese to use. Fortunately, if you're following a recipe, you don't have to think too hard about it. Just use whatever cheese the recipe specifies.
But how do you choose a recipe? A hint as to whether a mac and cheese recipe is a good one is if it calls for at least two types of cheese. That's because the best cheeses for making creamy mac and cheese aren't necessarily the most flavorful ones, and vice-versa. So a good recipe will use a combination of cheeses.
Melting Cheeses: Creamy Vs. Stretchy
When it comes to cheeses, you can think of them in terms of two types: some that turn creamy when you melt them and others that turn stretchy.
The difference has to do with moisture content. Cheese is made up of protein, fat, and water. The protein, a milk protein called casein, is sort of like a sponge, with the pockets filled with fat and water. When the cheese is heated, the fat liquefies, causing the structure of the the protein network (the "sponge" in our analogy) to collapse and the cheese melts.
The more moisture in a cheese, the creamier it will be when it melts. Conversely, a drier cheese can turn oily and grainy when melted. Each cheese has its own unique ratio of fat and water, but you can generally expect that a young, soft cheese will be creamier while an aged, harder cheese will be stretchier.
In general, hard cheeses tend to be more flavorful than soft ones. That's due in part to aging, which dries the cheese out while intensifies its flavors as natural enzymes interact with the proteins over time.
Creamy cheeses, on the other hand, tend to be younger, high-moisture cheeses, and these tend to be less flavorful. Think Monterey jack (soft and mild) versus an aged cheddar (hard and sharp). So you're left with somewhat of a dilemma in that the best cheeses for making mac and cheese tend to be less flavorful.
The solution? Use a combination of cheeses to make your macaroni and cheese—some creamy cheese to allow for maximum coating of the pasta combined with some drier cheese for flavor.
Making the Perfect Cheese Sauce
With mac and cheese, you're looking for a creamy consistency that will coat the macaroni evenly. In other words, you're making a cheese sauce.
It's worth remembering that, when making mac and cheese, the goal is completely different from what you want when you're making a grilled cheese sandwich or pizza. With those, you want the cheese to melt in a stretchy way, so that it pulls away from your mouth when you bite into it. But if you use too much stretchy cheese in your cheese sauce, you'll end up with a grainy, clumpy cheese sauce that will be prone to separating, a phenomenon you're seen where melted cheese breaks apart into a pool of oil and some clumpy-looking milk solids.
Which is not to say that you can't use stretchy cheese to make mac and cheese. You should, since it tends to be the tastiest. But you have to balance it out with creamy cheese so that your cheese sauce turns out nice and smooth.
A standard cheese sauce is made first by making a basic white sauce called a bechamel, then adding shredded cheese. A cheese sauce will coat the macaroni and produce a rich, creamy texture, and because of the starch in the bechamel, it will also resist separating.
Which Cheeses to Use
In general, you want to use a base of soft, creamy cheese like Monterey jack, combined with some medium and harder cheeses for flavor. Examples of medium cheeses include Gruyere, Comte and Emmental, while a sharp, aged cheddar would be considered hard. A good ratio would be two parts Monterey jack, two parts Gruyere, and one part cheddar.
Cream cheese and even process cheese like Velveeta (which has starches added to ensure smooth melting and no separation) are also excellent to use as a base for your cheese sauce. Cheeses that don't work so well are feta, farmer's cheese and paneer or queso blanco, since they really don't melt at all, but merely soften.
Baking Vs. Stovetop
To technique to use depends on how much milk to use in your bechamel—if you're baking it, your sauce should be a bit thinner, since the starches in the pasta will absorb moisture as it bakes. Also, your goal should be to cook it only long enough to brown the top, since the longer a cheese is heated, the more likely it is to break. To save time, and help prevent your cheese from separating, you can briefly brown the top of your mac and cheese under the broiler.