Types of Pasta Commonly Used for Macaroni and Cheese

Types of Pasta Commonly Used for Macaroni and Cheese. (Image: Rimma_Bondarenko/iStock/GettyImages)

Sometimes, your grown-up idea of comfort food isn't exactly the same as it was when you were a kid. There are dishes that stay just as appealing as you mature, though, and macaroni and cheese is definitely one of those. In fact, it can get even better as you grow up and learn that it doesn't have to come out of a box. Making your own sauce from scratch and choosing more interesting kinds of pasta can make it a totally different dish. There's no reason not to use good ol' macaroni, but that's just one of your options.

Straight or Elbow Types of Macaroni

There's no one best pasta for mac and cheese, but macaroni makes a pretty strong case, which is why it's the canonical version of the dish. The two main types of macaroni, straight or elbow, are equally good options. Both are small enough to fit neatly on your fork or spoon — and in your mouth — but their hollow, cylindrical shape provides plenty of surface area to hold the creamy, cheesy sauce.

Which one you choose is mostly a matter of personal preference or what you happen to have on hand on a given day. Your choice of silverware comes into play as well: Elbow macaroni is shorter and easier to eat with a spoon, while straight macaroni is a little bit longer and better suited to a fork.

Cavatappi, Sometimes Called Scooby-Doo

Another of the best noodles for mac and cheese is cavatappi, which could be thought of as an extreme form of elbow macaroni. It's a much bigger noodle, curved into a spiral — the Italian name translates literally as "corkscrew" — and it's thicker and chewier than macaroni. The added folds and length give it more places to hold cheese, and the noodles are often ridged as well for even more sauce-holding power.

For the adults, cavatappi provides a heartier, more substantial meal. For kids, the extra-big, absurdly curly noodles make mealtime a lot more fun. That makes it a clear win-win. The only potential downside is that the thicker pasta takes a bit longer to cook, so you'll have to start your meal earlier or else prepare either the pasta or the sauce in advance.

Shells, or Conchiglie

If you'd rather go in the opposite direction and have a lighter, more delicate pasta, shells might be your best bet. Sold in various sizes under both their English name or the Italian conchiglie, you can find a shell that's just right for your favorite recipe. It's natural to think in terms of using smaller shells when you're cooking for kids and larger shells when you're feeding adults, but it doesn't automatically have to be that way.

A hearty, medium-sized shell can be easier for youngsters to get on their fork, while petite shells work well in a lighter, grown-up sauce with more sophisticated kinds of cheese. Either way, the delicately curved noodles make an ideal cup for your chosen sauce.

Bow Ties, or Farfalle

Among the less common types of pasta for mac and cheese, bow ties have a solid following. Kids love them because of their fun, butterfly-like shape, while adults appreciate their versatility. The relatively flat shape of farfalle provides surfaces where add-in ingredients can shine, whether you favor fresh herbs, delicate baby peas or kid-friendly options like diced hot dogs. Farfalle don't mesh together the way curlier pastas do, which can make them a bit slippy-slidey on your plate. If your usual sauce is relatively thin, you might want to serve bow ties in a bowl instead, or thicken up your sauce with some extra cheese or a starch thickener.

Penne and Ziti

If cavatappi could be described as "elbow macaroni, only more so," then penne and ziti are equally upsized versions of straight macaroni. They're simple cylinders of pasta, like both types of macaroni, but they're bigger and thicker. The downside of this is that they'll take longer to prepare, but there are definite upsides as well. One positive is that they make for a heartier meal and give each mouthful a satisfying degree of "chew."

The other tip — and this is some of the best mac and cheese advice — is that they keep their texture better if you like to bake your pasta in the sauce. Ordinary macaroni can become soft and mushy if you're not careful, but it won't happen with penne.

Fusilli and Rotini

The whole point of a well-constructed mac and cheese is to coat the pasta liberally with the creamy, cheesy sauce. The best pastas always have a way of trapping the sauce and the noodles together, and few common pasta shapes do that better than fusilli and rotini. Their spiral shapes cover the entire surface of the noodle with ridged grooves where the sauce can cling, whether yours is painstakingly scratch-made or whipped up from a package.

Fusilli and rotini are sturdy enough to eat comfortably with a fork, but they're still small enough to fit equally well into a spoon. Garnishes such as chopped herbs, fresh-grated Parmesan or toasted breadcrumbs stick to them beautifully, as well.

Cool, Funky Shapes

Pasta manufacturers offer a variety of unusual pasta shapes with pockets or extra-deep ridges to hold sauce. No one specific variety is an especially common choice for macaroni and cheese, but when you take them all together, those specialty shapes add up to a reasonably popular option. Some of that popularity is a function of their appearance: With the right die, a pasta-maker can turn out noodles that look like robots, spaceships, dinosaurs, cartoon characters and a world of other shapes to attract kids' attention.

Other, more traditional shapes such as ridged radiatore or round ruote — the "wagon wheel" shape — are equally adept at trapping sauce, and they are appealing to kids in their own right. They're often only available at a premium price, so you wouldn't necessarily serve them every day, but they're a fun change of pace.

When Is Macaroni Not Macaroni?

Sometimes, the best noodles for mac and cheese aren't pasta at all. If you're trying to cut down on carbs or simply get more vegetables and fiber into your kids, you can swap out the traditional pasta for a variety of different options. The most kid-friendly form of "mockeroni" is probably the kind that's cooked with cauliflower florets, lightly steamed or boiled and then added to the cheese sauce and cooked until they're al dente.

Other good options include spiralized vegetables, such as winter squashes, zucchini or even rutabagas, simmered gently until just tender and then tossed with the sauce. For a more noodle-like option but still without carbs, you can try konjac noodles, also called shirataki. Their pasta-like shapes are made from the starch of an Asian root vegetable, but because they're almost all fiber, they're suitable for low-carb eaters.

Don't forget all of the goodies you can add to your macaroni too. It's not uncommon to see this kid-friendly dish on an upscale menu with lobster added to it. Or maybe you want to keep it simple but add some veggies. In that case, you can add some steamed carrots or peas to increase the nutritional value.

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