We Tried 7 Boxed Vegan Mac and Cheeses and Found One Clear Winner
You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t a fan of mac and cheese: It’s just one of those delicious treats that can be a dinner in its own right or a hearty side dish, depending on your point of view. And according to lawyer and “soul food scholar” Adrian Miller, it originated as being a dish of royalty. While some may consider it sacrilege, I’ve always personally been a huge fan of boxed mac and cheese. In my opinion, it’s hard to beat the convenience and tastiness of this quick meal.
Cheese is one of the main things that keeps people from going all the way vegan. In fact, research from The Vegan Society found that “dairy (especially cheese)” was one of the top “barriers to veganism related to habit or taste.” Fortunately, years of innovation within the plant-based cheese space have led to a ton of great products, and a category growing double digits year over year and expected to reach $7 billion in sales globally by 2030.
While that holds promise for a future of homemade vegan mac and cheese recipes, I am still in search of the latest greatest boxed vegan mac. And so I embarked on this path of discovery to test seven different brands to find the best. While there are still more out there that I need to try, but for now I know who my winner is.
And the winner is Modern Table! For starters, Modern Table's Vegan Mac Classic Cheddar Style was one of few gluten-free options available. They use a very cool spiral noodle made from lentils, rice, and peas that would be hard to guess were gluten-free. It highest protein of any of the macs we tried at 16g per serving. These noodles also cook slightly faster than typical wheat noodles, only requiring about 6 minutes for a nice al dente bite. The flavor was very tasty but not too powerful and is as good as the real thing.
Annie’s has a couple of vegan flavors and since this was the only one available at Whole Foods I went for it. The preparation method was classic boxed mac - cook the noodles in boiling water, as they draining, heat up some non-dairy milk and stir in the sauce powder. The powder clumps up but nothing a little vigorous stirring can’t fix. All reviewers agreed that while not a super-powerful taste, this cheddar mac could definitely pass for the real thing. Where Annie’s lost points in our book were for the noodles, which were a little thin and slippery.
When I see mac and cheese with fun shapes on the shelf, chances are I’m going to get it. The under-the-sea shapes like starfish and seahorses, make it perfect for young children (or a big kid like myself). Flavor-wise, Pastabilities scored in the top half of all products tested. It was on the lighter side, but definitely very tasty. The shapes were not a favorite of one of our (Grinch-like) testers, but the others found them fun and with a satisfying texture.
Upton’s wins for the most innovative cooking methods. I was skeptical when I saw that the noodles were pre-cooked since a shelf-stable pre-cooked noodle just didn’t seem right. But both taste and convenience turned me into a fan. You can cook these in either the microwave in only a minute, though I chose the stovetop. Simply add the noodles to a lightly greased frying pan, with the packet of liquid cheese sauce, and mix it all together. Pro tip: break up the noodles in the package to save yourself any rogue noodles flying out of the pan. It took only 5-6 minutes to cook and it came out with a wonderful golden brown crisp on the noodles. The cheese sauce was pretty solid overall, with a good cheesy flavor. It had a bit of a smoky flavor and aftertaste.
Now I know you’re thinking it’s unfair that I tried two products from one brand and not any others. But the fact of the matter is, I saw Upton had an option with “bacon” in it and I was curious. All reviewers agreed it tasted like the real thing. Everyone loved the crispy cheesy texture and wish there was more of the cheese sauce. The seitan bacon adds a nice extra smoky touch and additional texture.
As a plant-based cheese innovator, we had to try Daiya's mac and cheese. It got points for having a gluten-free noodle made from brown rice. The cheese sauce came in a pouch that makes for easy prep. Once the noodles are done cooking and drained, simply add in the cheese sauce, mix and enjoy. The noodle was great but the sauce had an overpowering flavor. For future iterations, we would definitely add some pasta water or non-dairy milk to thin out the sauce a bit.
Never being one to turn my nose up at the addition of a little heat, I expected to like Howl Deluxe's Spicy Chipotle Mac, but overall this one was a disappointment. While the chipotle spice gave it a nice touch of heat, it wasn’t enough to overcome the tart taste of the sauce. Even when we thinned it out slightly with almond milk there was still a funky taste that not everyone will love.
Final Thoughts on Vegan Mac Taste Test
So in sum, the clear winner for me was Modern Table. Despite having to follow the more time-intensive “traditional” method, it had the best combination of texture, flavor, and nutrition. In a close second was Upton’s Naturals product with their crispy cheesiness, followed by Pastabilities and the fun-shaped organic pasta. With all this said, this is but the first step in my lifelong journey to find the greatest vegan mac and cheese. And a tasty first step it was.