Even if macaroni and cheese didn't originate in the U.S., the dish as we know it today feels distinctly American — like a ketchup-covered hotdog or warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream. The simplicity of this creamy dish is ultimately what makes it so comforting and nostalgia-inducing. So, when we decided to pit Ina Garten and Gordon Ramsay's celeb chef takes against each other, the projected mac bowl winner seemed like a total no-brainer. Ina Garten is an East Coast cooking queen whose classic American recipes we'd gladly bow down to in the kitchen any day. And, although Gordon Ramsay is an undeniably on-point super chef, he isn't exactly our go-to for the more casual staples of Americana. But, we couldn't just award the Barefoot Contessa with a mac and cheese crown on birthright alone — Ramsay and his recipe deserved a fair fight for comfort food champion. So, naturally we had ourselves a cheesy bake-off.
I began with a quick comparison of the two recipes: Garten's Mac and Cheese and Ramsay's Macaroni Cheese and Cauliflower Bake. Both takes called for similar base ingredients: macaroni noodles, milk, flour, butter, breadcrumbs, and cheddar cheese. And assembly was also relatively the same: making a roux into a cheese sauce, combining with the cooked pasta, and baking the final breadcrumb-topped mixture in an oven-safe dish until golden and crusty.
The few distinct differences fell into the ingredient category: while Ramsay's recipe called for cauliflower and an addition of two British cheeses along with thyme leaves, Garten's instead incorporated tomatoes and gruyere. For someone who usually relies on the boxed variety for her comfort food fix, whipping up these two recipes in succession on a weeknight was uncharted territory; however, it turns out that homemaking mac and cheese is easier than I'd ever imagined it to be. After just about an hour of kitchen time, my only real complaint was over the sheer volume of cheese I had to grate by hand. But after pulling the below baked beauties out of the oven and inhaling the bubbling cheese, butter, and breadcrumb scent, all my frustrations immediately melted away.
It was time to dig in, so I scooped a cheesy heap of each into separate bowls and grabbed a spoon. The first major difference I noticed was in texture: Ramsay's recipe had a thicker cheese consistency that clumped together with the crusty topping when served, while Garten's was looser and on the saucy side. I ate a spoonful of Ramsay's first, and the visual texture matched the mouthfeel: it was ideally cheesy, clumpy, and crusty without being too dry. I'd liken it to a homestyle mac and cheese consistency that you might get as a BBQ side. Although the additional British cheeses were stinky pre-bake, their flavor within the finished dish was subtle and smooth. Plus, the thyme addition was an easy way to elevate the overall flavor. Ina's on the other hand, while it tasted equally cheesy and delicious, was lacking in the texture department. The entire mixture felt less like a baked pasta dish and more like a tomato and cream-sauce situation that you might make on a stovetop.
Who won the mac and cheese crown? You may have already guessed it: Gordon Ramsay. He won largely because of texture. We'd venture to guess that Ramsay's incorporation of cauliflower added softness and moisture to the dish without thinning it out, while the liquid from Garten's sliced tomato-topping seemed to be her downfall. The tomatoes steamed and seeped through the mixture resulting in a thinner end result. But maybe you prefer a slightly soupier mac and cheese, and in that case, go for Garten's recipe. Because as we found in our celeb chef brownie battle, when both recipes are good, it really comes down to personal preference.