Best Fast Food Mac & Cheese Taste Test

Mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. This seemingly simple aspect, however, can be complicated. Sure, it can be made in minutes from the box, but authentic home-style mac and cheese takes skill, and sadly, some fast food places can’t stand the challenge.

The best mac and cheese is based on the French roux technique of cooking flour in butter, adding milk and finally cheese to make mornay sauce. This gives the cheese a non-sticky, creamy and smooth finish. French technology is the best, but there are a few other ways to get velvety results, and processed cheeses like Velvita with emulsifiers incorporated is one of them. If you’ve tasted them side by side, you’ll know which one is better. So the best way to make mac and cheese is slow cooking with the best ingredients.

Again, most fast food restaurants don’t have the time or resources to do this. At Panera, for example, cooking is done off-site and food is delivered and heated in bags. Macaroni and cheese get better as they melt together, so that’s totally fine too. The downside, of course, is that it can make the pasta too soggy and ruin the sauce. The best ones are rebaked dishes with a layer of cheese on top, even if they weren’t made in a restaurant.

But with that done, we decided to give the best fast food versions a try. Find out which one surprised us with its look and taste.

RELATED: I’ve tried McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich, and this is still the best!

KFC Mac and Cheese
Megan Cameron / Eat this, not that!

What could be better than mac and cheese with a fried chicken dinner? KFC’s Mac & Cheese had all the right ingredients. After all, the chain has long sold mac and cheese alongside its famous bucket of chicken. The mac & cheese bowl, which combines pasta with chicken nuggets and cheese, is also popular.

exterior: Sadly, the old adage that looks can be deceiving applies to this creamy-looking mac and cheese. Sure, it had a weird chunky element to it, but other than that, it has nice little macaroni noodles in a thick sauce.

taste: This mac and cheese had a very odd texture, it was gooey instead of creamy.It was so soft that the pasta would crumble. Additionally, it had no cheese flavor at all and was very bland. I thought it would be nice to have leftovers, so I made a large size. It wasn’t. Was it the use of pasteurized cheddar cheese products instead of real cheese that let this down? This is a skip!

panera mac and cheese
Megan Cameron / Eat this, not that!

Panera was once called out for reheating its ready-made mac and cheese in the restaurant instead of making it from scratch. should not cause much damage to the final product.

exterior: Panera uses large, fancy, ridged macaroni noodles for their macaroni and cheese. The cheese was clearly not very thick, as it looked oddly uniform, showing small ridges on the noodles.

taste: This dish wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t like mac and cheese. It tastes very creamy but not the sharpness of a good cheese mac and cheese.The noodles were borderline al dente. Panera’s lists real cheddar his cheese here as an ingredient, but unfortunately it didn’t feel sharp at all and the mac and cheese was very he one note. The wow factor was definitely missing.

Panera Broccoli Cheddar Mac and Cheese
Megan Cameron / Eat this, not that!

I had to try Panera’s Broccoli Cheddar Mac and Cheese after hearing it uses the same base as Panera’s famous soup.

exterior: This looked more golden than regular mac & cheese and the addition of veggies was a nice touch.

taste: Panera might call this dish mac and cheese, but they stretch it. Sure there’s macaroni and cheese, but this is actually the chain’s broccoli cheddar her soup over pasta. It had a cheddar flavor that was missing the classic mac and cheese but was much more soupy. If you want real mac and cheese, you won’t be satisfied with this version.

Chick-fil-A Mac and Cheese
Megan Cameron / Eat this, not that!

Chick-fil-A bakes their mac and cheese in-house and layers the cheese on top, though the base may not be restaurant-made. Also uses 3 types of blended cheese: Parmesan cheese, Cheddar cheese, and Romano cheese.

exterior: The Chick-fil-A Mac and cheese is very rich with a cheese sauce covering the noodles. Upon stirring, I saw pieces of browned caramelized cheese that I initially mistook for bacon. Apparently, the cheese is baked on a large tray and the mac and cheese is scooped into the serving cups.

taste: Chick-fil-A’s mac and cheese was as creamy as Panera’s, but with the added cheesy flavor, you’ll want to try it again. A combination of parmesan, cheddar and romano cheese keeps the flavor of this mac and cheese from becoming too uniform. Although lighter than Popeyes Mac and Cheese, the Chick-fil-A version was very well made and perfectly emulsified. The noodles were a little soft, but had a moderate chewiness.

I honestly didn’t have any major issues with this mac and cheese. If Poppy hadn’t shown up and ruined the party, I would have won. Unless you’re anywhere near Popeye, get this dish whenever you need something creamy and cheesy in your life.

popeyes mac and cheese
Megan Cameron / Eat this, not that!

Popeyes has a knack for disrupting the fast food industry, as it did with its famous chicken sandwich in 2019. Additional cheddar topping.

exterior: This tiny little cup of mac and cheese looks’s almost like Creme brulee Mac and cheese with a crisp topping of browned cheddar. The cheese sauce seems a little broken, which can happen with mac and cheese, but not enough to make a difference in taste.

taste: Popeye has done it again. If the mac and cheese war were to start at fast food restaurants tomorrow, Popeyes would have to drop the mic by serving this little bowl. Cheddar cheese has a caramelized nutty flavor.

Was the dish a little greasy? yes. Wanted to stop eating? no. We threw in adjectives like ‘melt in your mouth’ and ‘full bodied’. These words are not usually associated with fast food. If you like mac and cheese that doesn’t come out of the box, don’t skip this gem from Popeyes.

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