Many of us have a go-to mac and cheese recipe we always use whenever we want to get our fill of cheese-doused carbs. But while your classic mac and cheese routine may work for the days when you just need some comfort food in your life, it’s probably not ideal for the times when you want to try something new. Luckily, it doesn’t take much to adjust a mac and cheese recipe to come up with something that has a totally different flavor profile.
It’s time to think outside of the box when it comes to mac and cheese. (I mean this both literally and figuratively.) By adding some unconventional toppings and additions to your average, everyday mac and cheese, you can have a completely new cheesy pasta experience. Let’s take a look at some of the best.
1. Oyster Crackers
Need an extra bit of crunch in your mac and cheese but don’t have any breadcrumbs on hand? Not a problem—just opt for some oyster crackers instead. These small, crunchy crackers are relatively neutral in flavor, but when you crush them up and sprinkle them over a dish of mac and cheese before you throw it into the oven, you’re in for a crispy, crunchy treat.
2. Cottage Cheese
Stay with me here. I know cottage cheese isn’t for everyone, and if you’re staunchly against cottage cheese in all forms, this addition can sound like a surefire way to ensure your mac and cheese comes out terrible. But in reality, you don’t taste it much once you mix it in. You can use it in place of the butter and milk if you want your mac and cheese to be on the lighter side, or you can just add it to the mix for some extra creaminess.
Hear me out. I usually hate ketchup, but it’s actually really, really good on mac and cheese. If your mac and cheese dries out in the oven a bit, the ketchup adds some much-need moisture, and the combination of sweetness and acidity provides a balance of flavor that you often won’t find in blander mac and cheese recipes.
Lobster? Sure. Pulled pork? Absolutely. Bacon? Of course. But why stop there when it comes to mac and cheese proteins? If you ask me, shrimp makes an excellent addition to mac and cheese because it adds a whole new texture to the mix. If you go this route, though, don’t forget to add plenty of garlic as well.
This isn’t the most unconventional mac and cheese addition out there, but it may just be the best. Scallions add a brightness to an otherwise heavy, fatty dish, and they can even offer a bit of crunch and color. Sprinkle them on top of your mac and cheese after it comes out of the oven, and you’ll never go back to unadorned mac again.
6. Potato Chips
Just like oyster crackers, potato chips offer a crunchiness that can take the texture of your mac and cheese to the next level, but they also provide even more saltiness to the dish. Crush them and put them on top of your mac and cheese. Mixing them in with the pasta and cheese will cause them to get soggy and break down—probably not what you’re going for.
For those looking for relatively inexpensive meat to add to their mac and cheese, kielbasa might just be the way to go. This Polish meat staple is super flavorful, so even adding a small amount of it to your mac and cheese will make the dish even heartier and more savory. It’s like adding hot dogs to your mac and cheese but better. Just be warned: A little kielbasa goes a long way.
Not everyone is going to enjoy this addition—if you’ve never been an olive person, this probably isn’t the best time to try them again—but for olive fans, there’s not much that can compare to the combination of briny, fatty olives with the creaminess of a good mac and cheese. Feel free to use canned black olives if you’re feeling lazy or trying to save some money, but I personally think that Kalamata olives are the way to go.
9. Dijon Mustard
I love mac and cheese, but it can be somewhat of a bland food, even if you pack it with spices. If you want to give your mac and cheese a real punch, a spoonful of Dijon may just be your best bet. It’s sharp and tangy, which cuts through the heavy fat and carbs present in most mac and cheese recipes. Give it a try before you decide it’s not for you.
Everyone who grew up eating tuna noodle casserole is well-aware that tuna, pasta and cheese are a match made in heaven. It’s an easy way to incorporate more protein into your mac and cheese, taking it from a side dish to a whole entrée.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.