From penne to fusilli, and even gnocchi, here are the 10 best pastas for mac and cheese!
Who can resist a delicious plate of mac and cheese? This creamy, cheesy, time-honored classic never disappoints.
It’s perfectly simple, but there are endless ways to jazz up this humble dish. Switching up the pasta is one of them.
Sure, you can’t go wrong with elbow macaroni. But the pasta world offers a plethora of exciting options.
Whether you want to be traditional or adventurous, you’ve come to the right place. This list has you covered with the 10 best pasta types for mac and cheese!
Best Pasta for Mac and Cheese
It’s not rocket science, but a few tips will steer you in the right direction.
First, opt for dried pasta instead of fresh. Dried pasta can be cooked to al dente and has superior structural integrity. This is especially important for baked mac and cheese. The pasta continues to cook in the oven, so take that into account.
Steer clear of smooth, thin pasta like spaghetti, linguine, and fettuccine. These sleek types simply can’t grasp the creamy, rich cheese sauce the way you want.
Instead, seek out pasta shapes with hollow centers, and nooks and crannies to trap the sauce.
Want to know more? Let’s take a closer look at the top 10 pastas for mac and cheese.
1. Elbow Macaroni
Kicking things off is the most common and obvious choice, elbow macaroni. The dish is called “mac” and cheese, after all!
Elbow macaroni is made from durum wheat and water. The dough is cut into short, hollow tubes, often with ridges on the outside and a curved shape.
The short length and hollow center of elbow macaroni are masterfully designed for this dish. These tubes soak up the cheese sauce beautifully while still maintaining a pleasing texture.
Pro-tip: cook your pasta al dente. It should be cooked through but still have a bit of firmness in the center. This method prevents your pasta from turning mushy, ensuring each bite is a delight.
2. Shell Pasta
Next up is shell pasta, also known as conchiglie. Shells clutch onto sauces well due to their unique shape and ridged surface. The hollow inside of shell pasta also traps more of the sauce, giving you a fun surprise in every bite.
They offer a slightly chewy texture, which offers a nice contrast to the creamy sauce. Mini or medium shells are great for mac and cheese. But for a twist, try lumache, a snail shell-shaped pasta with a pinched end.
Pro-tip: To amp up the creaminess, add cream or half-and-half to your sauce before baking.
Third on the list is the corkscrew-shaped pasta called cavatappi. It goes by many other names, such as cellentani, amori, spiral, or Castiglione.
Think of cavatappi as the longer, curly cousin of elbow macaroni. It has a hollow center and ridged exterior, perfect for holding sauces and extras.
It’s more substantial than the classic elbow macaroni, offering a satisfying chew. It also provides plenty of surface area for the sauce to cling to.
Its twists, ridges, and thickness make cavatappi ideal for loaded mac and cheese. It can bear heavy ingredients like breadcrumbs, protein, or vegetables without losing shape.
Similar to cavatappi, fusilli sports a corkscrew-like shape, but it’s smaller and tighter. This unique shape positions fusilli as an excellent choice. It offers a perfect middle ground between cavatappi and elbow macaroni!
The twists of fusilli effectively ‘grab’ the cheese sauce, guaranteeing a fulfilling bite. Another strength of fusilli lies in its crevices. These ensure the cheesy goodness stays on and doesn’t slide off.
Fusilli holds its shape, too, making it a solid pairing with the heavy mac and cheese sauce.
Pro-tip: boil fusilli for only 2-3 minutes before adding it to your dish. This keeps the texture al dente, not too soft or mushy.
The best pasta shapes for mac and cheese are ones that can catch the sauce well. Penne fits this description perfectly. It’s shaped like tubes or cylinders, with distinctive diagonal cuts at both ends.
The ridges on the pasta’s exterior and the hollow center work in harmony to hold onto creamy sauces. This means each penne bite is packed with sauce both inside and out, making for a flavor-packed dinner.
This tubular pasta works well for both stovetop and baked mac and cheese. It holds its shape well during cooking and baking, keeping you from a mushy mad and cheese.
For an incredibly tasty and charming mac and cheese, go for farfalle, aka ‘bowtie’ or ‘butterfly’ pasta. With its unique shape and texture, farfalle is my personal favorite for its sheer appeal.
This distinct pasta is excellent for mac and cheese, salads, soups, and casseroles. Its shape, resembling a bow tie or a butterfly, is perfect for trapping sauces and other ingredients within its folds. Its ridges also provide an intriguing texture that enhances the overall flavor of any dish.
When cooked al dente, farfalle offers a satisfying bite that pairs wonderfully with creamy cheese sauce.
Pro-tip: add some shredded mozzarella cheese before baking for extra flavor and creaminess.
Shaped like a corkscrew or spiral, rotini is a versatile pasta ideal for salads, soups, and casseroles.
Its signature twist is not just for show. It perfectly captures all the rich flavors of the sauce. Rotini outdoes spaghetti or penne in holding onto the sauce, thanks to its exterior ridges. These ridges ensure every bite of the mac and cheese is loaded with flavor.
The sauce collects inside the spirals, providing a delightful, savory surprise with each mouthful.
Pro-tip: add 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil to the boiling water. This keeps the noodles from sticking together, ensuring your pasta is cooked evenly.
Larger than penne and smaller than ziti, rigatoni has a tube shape perfectly designed for holding sauces. Its ridges on the outside and hollow center mean every bite is soaked with flavor.
Rigatoni’s shape holds firm, which results in a perfectly soft yet chewy mac and cheese. It’s a magnet for creamy sauces, leading to a richer, tastier dish compared to smoother pasta.
Pro-tip: experiment with cooking the rigatoni in milk instead of water. This infuses the pasta with a creamier texture and deeper flavor.
It’s a simple hack for leveling up your mac and cheese game.
I know gnocchi doesn’t quite match the criteria I set earlier, but hear me out.
It’s made from a dough of potatoes mixed with flour and sometimes eggs. The dough is typically rolled out, then cut into small dumplings and gently pressed with a fork to create ridges. These ridges are designed to hold sauces and boost the dish’s overall flavor.
Gnocchi’s texture is unique among pasta varieties. It’s soft and slightly chewy, with the potato giving it a light, airy quality.
While gnocchi strays from the typical mac and cheese pasta, its texture is an excellent match with the sauce.
Pro-tip: sauté mushrooms or roast vegetables like bell peppers or zucchini. Mix them into your gnocchi mac and cheese for a nutritious and delicious upgrade.
10. Spaghetti or Fettuccine
It’s far from the typical choice, I know! In fact, these two are exactly the opposite of what I recommended. But again, stay with me on this.
Spaghetti or fettuccine definitely don’t make good candidates for mac and cheese. But they’re perfect candidates for variations of the traditional dish.
Fettuccine Alfredo, for instance, is essentially a creamy mac and cheese. Another example is Italian cacio e pepe, a creamy blend of cracked pepper, cheese, and butter.
So, while they aren’t ideal for traditional mac and cheese, they can certainly craft something unique and delicious.
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