Boxed macaroni and cheese might be a food of desperation or reverence, depending on your perspective. It’s powered many through a night when they had no energy for cooking, but it’s also a food that brings immense comfort when little else will. Indeed, boxed macaroni and cheese rings of days when pennies were tight, but it hits a spot in mind and body that little else, save perhaps cheap pizza, does.
While the beauty of boxed mac and cheese is in how simple it is—cook pasta, add butter and milk, sprinkle with cheese powder, stir—there’s one thing you can do to actually upgrade boxed macaroni into a side dish that’s seriously easy but immensely flavorful. You can add buttermilk. Yes, the same magic ingredient that makes biscuits fluffy and salad dressings thick and creamy.
Buttermilk is thick and viscous, and it has a rich tang that’s tart but rarely sour. Regular milk is a bit thinner and often a touch sweet. So substituting the same amount of buttermilk for sweet milk gives the boxed pasta dinner a creamier finish and a just-right zip. The alluring orange bowl will look like the dish you’ve always loved, but your clever upgrade will leave you feeling a bit creative, even if boiling pasta was the extent of the energy you had for tonight’s dinner.
WATCH: How to Make Blue Cheese Mac & Cheese
5 More Flavorful Ways to Upgrade Boxed Mac and Cheese
1. Buffalo Chicken Mac & Cheese – Add bottled buffalo sauce to prepared macaroni and cheese with chopped, cooked chicken and blue cheese.
2. Faux Carbonara – Combine powdered cheese mixture and two eggs, stirring well. Add egg-cheese mixture and milk to noodles. Stir to coat and cook over low-medium heat. Add chopped, cooked bacon and warmed English peas.
3. Fast Chili Mac – To prepared macaroni and cheese, add cooked and drained ground beef, drained kidney beans, and a sprinkle or two of chili powder or smoked chipotle powder. In a pinch, you can pour in canned chili. Freshen it up with sour cream and chopped cilantro or chopped green chiles.
4. Casual Caprese – When cherry or grape tomatoes are plentiful, this quick dinner is a brilliant hack: add halved tomatoes to boxed mac and cheese. Stir in basil ribbons and mozzarella pearls. For a bougie touch, you can broil the mozzarella on top instead of stirring it into the pasta.
5. Easy Italian – Combine cheese powder, butter, and milk with a half teaspoon Italian seasoning. Simmer to melt butter, whisking occasionally. Add to pasta. Stir in chopped tangy sun-dried tomatoes.
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