Mac and cheese is a crowd-pleasing meal that lends itself to many variations and add-ons, from crumbled bacon to roasted vegetables. The process of baking mac and cheese has two objectives: to warm the dish so it is hot in the center as well as at the edges and to create an appealing crispiness on top. However, because food in a conventional oven heats from the outside in, the topping on a pan of mac and cheese may become fully cooked and crispy long before the dish is fully heated. Covering the pan with foil, at least until the center is hot, helps the center reach the desired temperature without browning the top prematurely.
Covered First, Uncovered Second
Cover a pan of mac and cheese with foil to keep the moisture and heat inside while the dish is heating through. Removing the pan once the dish is hot allows the top to grow crispy and golden brown. When covering a pan of mac and cheese, avoid touching the top of the food with the foil. If the cheese melts onto the foil, it will stick, and you will likely lift away the top layer of bread crumbs when you remove it.
Uncovered First, Covered Second
Some mac and cheese methods instruct you to first cook the dish covered until the topping browns, and then cover the pan with foil until the mac and cheese is heated through. This procedure reduces the risk of foil sticking to the food because the top is already somewhat dry and less sticky by the time you cover the pan. Browning the topping first and covering the pan second also creates a different kind of texture for the topping, a crust that is both crispy and tender.
Uncovered Mac and Cheese
If all of your mac and cheese ingredients are hot and fully cooked before you mix them, you may not have to cover the pan with foil. A pan of hot pasta mixed with hot cheese sauce doesn't have to sit in the oven long to get up to serving temperature. Baking time for mac and cheese prepared this way is usually just 10 or 15 minutes, long enough for the cheese mixture to set and for the top to brown. However, if you mix egg in your cheese sauce, this method won't work because the egg also needs to cook fully to avoid food safety risks associated with raw eggs.
Make-Ahead Mac and Cheese
When you make mac and cheese ahead of time and keep it in the fridge until it's time for baking, you must cover the pan for the first part of the baking process. A cold pan of mac and cheese will have a much longer baking time than a pan prepared with hot pasta and cheese sauce, and its top is more likely to burn or brown before the dish is fully heated. Covering the pan with aluminum foil keeps the heat and moisture inside during this extended baking time.
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