There Is a Single Perfect Way to Improve Boxed Mac and Cheese

And it's inspired by Marcella Hazan.
Bowl of mac and cheese on a gray lace backdrop with a yellow napkin.
Photograph by Isa Zapata, Food Styling by Judy Kim, Prop Styling by Stephanie De Luca.

In Cheap Tricks we’ll help you make the most out of everyday supermarket staples. Today, how to improve boxed mac and cheese.

Boxed macaroni and cheese had quite the 18 months. Kraft factories had to dramatically increase shifts to meet tidal waves of demand spurred by nostalgia and remote work. Cheetos released its own neon-hued Flamin’ Hot contribution, which flew from shelves. Even Gal Gadot made a foray into the aisle, with her DTC crafted-from-plants take on the classic.

All of which changed, for me, exactly nothing.

I still maintain that all boxed macs are created equal, and that there is a single perfect way to prepare each and every one of them. It’s the 15-minute, zero-fuss technique I turn to when I’m craving fancy pasta but can't be bothered to chop an onion or uncase a sausage. It goes like this:

1. Take a salty swim

The first step toward better boxed mac? Over-salt your water. Whichever brand you choose, the noodles tend to be tinier, with a quicker cook time. Use those minutes wisely, to season. For a single box of macaroni, I add 1 heaping Tbsp. Diamond Crystal kosher salt to 6 cups water.

2. Ignore the box instructions

When the water comes to a boil, set a timer for 2 minutes less than the box says to cook the noodles. Because most boxed macaroni shapes are little and flimsy (like elbows or wagon wheels), they can turn to mush quickly. Start checking for doneness once your timer goes off. You’ll want to get the noodles outta there as soon as they’re al dente, which means just cooked all the way through, with a firm bite in the center.

Meanwhile, as the noodles cook, prepare your mix-ins.

3. Give it the tuna casserole treatment

Box instructions would have you drain and toss the cooked noods with cheese powder, milk, and optional butter. But for a much better mac, you’re going to ignore those directives. The trick to upgrading boxed mac is to work with the flavor packet, which can veer a little chemically. The ingredients in Macella Hazan’s fettuccine col sugo di tonno con aglio e panna (fettuccine with tuna sauce, garlic, and cream) do just that. (nonnas everywhere, I beg for your forgiveness.)

The cream and canned tuna introduce velvety, briny elements that actually—and shockingly?—complement the sharp tang of powdered cheese. And the result tastes like a deconstructed tuna casserole: creamy, salty sauce coating chewy pasta, with flaked tuna for texture (hold the canned soup). Parsley and freshly ground black pepper keep it from tasting like the punchline of a joke about the 1950s.

So, while your noodles are cooking, add the following to a bowl large enough to fit all of the mac, using a fork or whisk to combine until no large clumps remain:

  • The flavor packet from your box of mac and cheese
  • 2-ish Tbsp. chopped parsley (note: chop and reserve a little extra for garnish)
  • Half a clove of raw garlic, finely minced; you can amp this up to a whole clove if you’re a certified Garlic Girl
  • A large handful of freshly Microplaned or grated Parmesan or any hard, salty cheese
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 Tbsp. softened butter
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • 1 can oil-packed tuna, drained
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Then when your noodles are al dente, use a spider or slotted spoon to transfer them directly to the bowl. They’ll bring a bit of salty cooking water with them, which will help to emulsify the sauce. Mix until it’s creamy and coats the macaroni evenly. If you need a little extra liquid, another splash of cooking water will do the trick. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed with salt and freshly cracked black pepper—you shouldn’t need much.

4. Finish with toasty crumbs

For the true tuna cass experience, top each bowl with panko—bonus points if you’ve given it a brief toast on the stovetop with olive oil and salt. Or crumbled saltines. Or crushed Cheez-Its, oyster crackers, or Ritz crackers. Really, it’s hard to go wrong.

Unless, of course, you try to serve this to a nonna. In which case, you didn’t hear about it from me.