Everyday Macaroni and Cheese
Weighing in at about 650 calories and 40 grams of fat per serving, a bowl of homemade mac and cheese should really be a treat every once in awhile, like a slice of cheesecake. The truth, however, is that it winds up on the dinner table much more often because it's easy to prepare and kids will eat it without complaint. We wanted to develop a macaroni and cheese recipe that could be used as a weekly workhorse meal with reasonable amounts of calories and fat, but without losing too much of the cheesy flavor or creamy texture that make it such a perennial favorite.
Starting off in our cookbook library, we found dozens of recipes for low-fat mac and cheese. Making a few of these lightened recipes to get the lay of the land, we wondered if we had bitten off more than we could chew. Some of the recipes were downright awful, producing flavorless, rubbery mixtures due to large amounts of nonfat cheese, while other recipes turned out versions with a grainy texture because they included ricotta or cottage cheese. Obviously, we were on our own here. Heading into the kitchen with the motto "Make the fat count," our philosophy was that every calorie and gram of fat needed to work for us and that none would slip by unaccounted for.
With lots of ideas to test, we decided to focus on the cooking method first, then tweak the ingredients and flavors. The most common cooking method for mac and cheese is to make a béchamel (a milk sauce thickened with butter and flour) and then stir in the cheese and cooked macaroni. Another popular Cook's Illustrated method involves slowly cooking a mixture of milk, eggs, cheese, butter, and cooked macaroni over low heat until it thickens and becomes creamy. Yet a third, and somewhat unusual, method calls for boiling the pasta in a small amount of milk (the pasta starch thickens the milk to a sauce-like consistency) then stirring in cheese to finish. Giving these three methods a whirl, we were able to eliminate two right off the bat. The popular method of cooking a mixture of milk, eggs, cheese, butter, and cooked macaroni over low heat yields great--tasting mac and cheese but it simply doesn't work without the eggs and lots of cheese, both of which are very fatty; this approach was out. Also, cooking the pasta right in the milk was an interesting and naturally low-fat technique; however, tasters found the resulting flavor to be one-dimensional and the texture of the pasta to be gummy. Making a béchamel was the winning approach so far, but we still had a lot of calories and fat to trim.
Using 2 percent, 1 percent, or skim milk instead of whole milk in the béchamel was an obvious way to reduce more fat and calories. Testing them side by side in batches of mac and cheese, tasters didn't like the sauces made with 1 percent and skim milk because they tasted too thin and didn't coat the pasta well. The sauce made with 2 percent milk, however, was acceptable and helped to trim about 2 grams of fat per serving.
Wanting to reduce the fat in the sauce further, we took a closer look at the roux (butter and flour mixture) used to thicken the milk into a béchamel. Cutting back on the butter as far as we could from the original 3 tablespoons, we found we needed at least 1 tablespoon of butter to make a roux with the flour. But even 1 tablespoon of butter adds a fair amount of fat and we wondered if we could lose it all together. Making two sauces without any butter, we tried thickening the milk with either a flour slurry (flour dissolved in a liquid) or a cornstarch slurry (cornstarch dissolved in a liquid). Both slurries were able to thicken the milk to an appropriate sauce consistency, but tasters described the sauce thickened with flour as tasting grainy and pasty, while the sauce thickened with cornstarch had a smooth, silky texture. Using cornstarch instead of a traditional roux had saved us another 10 or so grams of fat per serving.
The cheese is obviously one of the heavier ingredients in the dish, and using low-fat cheese was an easy way to trim even more off the calorie and fat counts. Most mac and cheese recipes use about 12 ounces of cheddar per H pound pasta (serving 4 to 5 people), and we made batches of mac and cheese using incrementally less cheese until the tasters cried uncle. Eight ounces of cheese turned out to be the breaking point, beyond which tasters thought the mac and cheese tasted too bland. We then tested several batches of mac and cheese substituting other types of cheese (including Parmesan, Monterey Jack, and Gouda) for some of the cheddar, but tasters preferred the flavor of the cheddar alone. Finally, we made two more batches pitting nonfat cheddar against low-fat cheddar, and the tasters unanimously hated the rubbery texture and sweet flavor of the nonfat cheddar. Using 8 ounces of low-fat cheddar in place of the 12 ounces of regular cheddar, however, had already saved us a whopping 72 grams of fat in the overall recipe.
By now our recipe had been substantially reduced to just 422 calories and 13 grams of fat per serving, but we realized that somewhere along the line, we had lost the creamy, velvety texture of the original. Had we gone too far? Looking into how we could add back some of that silky texture, we landed on the idea of evaporated milk (an ingredient used in the popular Cook's Illustrated method which we had dismissed earlier). Substituting a can of evaporated milk for some of the milk in the sauce, we hit the jackpot. The evaporated milk rounded out the texture of the sauce and even fooled some of the tasters into thinking that they were eating the real deal—full-fat mac and cheese. Testing the difference between whole evaporated milk, 2 percent evaporated milk, and skim evaporated milk in the béchamel, we found that tasters preferred the texture, flavor, and fat content of the 2 percent evaporated milk. Using low-fat (2 percent) evaporated milk not only helped the mac and cheese's texture, but it actually reduced its fat and calorie count even further, to just 360 calories and 10 grams of fat per serving.