Just as no man is an island, no great mac & cheese would be complete without the union of a proper topping. This is why today our main squeeze (mac & cheese) is humbly taking a backseat to let the spotlight shine on its partner in crime, the garish. A good garnish can elevate a so-so dish and even make or break the entire performance of others. I want to share my favorite mac and cheese toppings to inspire you to go on an unexpected yet delightful journey next time you decide to kick up your mac and cheese a notch.
A mac and cheese topper could be anything, and I do mean that. I’ve used anything from crushed hot cheetos to toasted organic almonds. This is not an inclusive list, and it will evolve as we experiment with new and unexpected choices.
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Green onions are one of my absolute favorite things to top my mac and cheese recipes. It’s also one of the quickest and simplest to add. I prefer to only chop the green tops and add after the mac is dished. It’s fresh and light aromatic taste accent cheese flavors to perfection. Additionally, the texture it provides enhances the experience of every bite.
Another amazing topping is a generous serving of caramelized red onions. These obviously lend a much different flavor profile than fresh green onions so you’ll want to top recipes that have more bold cheeses. The sweetness will compliment the dish in surprising ways.
Chopping fresh herbs such as basil, parsley, or even cilantro add a burst of freshness that compliment your cheese or even other toppings.
Crispy jalapenos pair beautifully with cilantro. A tomato garnished mac and cheese is amazing with a little basil and balsamic vinegar.
The Meat Mac and Cheese Toppings
This descriptor doesn’t quite do this category justice. Proteins often are the centerpiece of a meal. However, when added to a beautiful bowl of Mac & Cheese they serve more of a supportive role.
My number one meat topping is the undefeated heavyweight champion of deliciousness, bacon. Cooked to a crisp that suits your preference and diced up into bits its fatty, smoky flavors will enhance every bite. The added crunchy texture also plays a huge factor into why this is such a staple.
Another fabulous protein to dress up Mac recipes is breaded chicken breast cut into slices. This is also hearty and fatty like bacon, but the flavor profile and texture is quite different. I prefer to top this on recipes that are based on cheeses with more pronounced flavors. The breading will soften but not dull those notes and allow for a harmonization of the dish.
While the former toppings all add texture in their own ways this set of toppings excels in that category. Initially, I didn’t realize how much of an impact the varied textures on a dish could enhance the experience as drastically as it does.
I encourage you to explore if you have not previously gotten into the realm of crunchy toppings for your mac. They elevate dishes in a way you don’t get from other toppings.
The easiest and most simple crunchy topping is toasted panko breadcrumbs. Melt a tablespoon of butter into a skillet. Add 1/2 cup panko and toast until it starts to brown. Toasting isn’t completely necessary. You can eat panko straight out of the box, but toasting them elevates them visually much more than if you just throw them on. This process also works great with crushed crackers. Straight out of the box, crackers tend to get soggy, but if you toast it with a little butter it holds up better in your mac. You can get a flavor bonus by stirring in a little powdered parmesan at the end for a flavor boost.
Two crunchy toppings you frequently see used in recipes here are crispy jalapeños and crispy onions. They are easy to keep on hand and toss into a recipe as inspiration strikes. They lend a burst of flavor that compliments many recipes. The crunchy texture it lends is a nice contrast to the soft noodles in the dish.
You aren’t limited to these ideas. Crushed croutons work wonders, as do tortilla chips, bonus points if they’re lime flavored.
By no means is this an exhaustive list. Just as there is no limit to the kinds of cheeses you can put in your mac and cheese, there is no limit to what you can use to garnish it. The world of mac and cheese toppings is open for you to explore.
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