Can mac and cheese go bad?
The short answer is yes, absolutely. The long answer is… well, longer.
Let’s start with the pre-packaged stuff. While the bright orange colour might lead you to believe that it will last forever, that is not quite the case. In its dry, powdered form, mac and cheese mix does have an astonishingly long self-life of up to two years, and even then it may be safe to eat provided no moisture had gotten into the packet. However, the taste of the pre-made mix may begin to change or fade over time, so it’s best not to leave it for too long.
If moisture does get into the packet, then things are a little different. Bacteria require moisture to flourish, but they really don’t need much to get going. Any amount of moisture in a dried foodstuff will almost certainly cause it to begin forming clumps and start to go moldy. Naturally, if you notice mold developing on any foods, they should be thrown out immediately. Basically, when it comes to pre-packed mac and cheese, moisture is the enemy until you add it in the saucepan.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about how long mac and cheese lasts once it’s cooked. Most pre-made packets will require the addition of some kind of dairy during the cooking process, usually in the form of milk or butter. These components are what give the dish its distinctive creaminess and what make it so ridiculously moreish. However, as wonderful as they are, dairy products are not great at staying fresh. The addition of dairy into your mac and cheese will bring its shelf life down to about 3-5 days if stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. However, there is also a significant amount of salt in packet mac and cheese, which might help to preserve the food a little longer, if stored correctly. Just remember, if you notice any changes in colour, odour, texture or taste, just throw it out and start over.
Freshly made mac and cheese is slightly harder to judge, because its ingredients differ from person to person and chef to chef. However, almost all recipes still contain dairy, which we have already discussed. To be on the safe side, if kept refrigerated, homemade mac and cheese should last for around the same time as the pre-packed stuff, though perhaps slightly less. In general, you can probably expect 2-4 days from your leftovers if they are stored correctly, but again, keep an eye out for any changes that might indicate things are going a bit bad.
Can you freeze Mac and Cheese?
Yes, you can! All kinds of mac and cheese can be frozen and doing so will keep all that cheesy goodness safe to eat for longer. In fact, if frozen in the right way, you can expect your sub-zero mac and cheese to last at least 2-3 months.
There are, however, some caveats.
First of all, mac and cheese, and actually all pasta-based dishes, need to be frozen correctly in order to ensure optimal results. Make sure that your leftovers are fully cooled before they go into the freezer, and store them in a sealed, airtight container while they are in there. This will hopefully stop too much moisture being trapped in with your food, which could then make everything quite soggy when you eventually come to thaw it out for dinner sometime in the future.
When thawing mac and cheese out, like with most things, the fridge is your best bet as it will keep the food cool and thus prevent most bacteria from settling in. However, you can cook mac and cheese directly from frozen, just make sure to keep an eye on it. Thawed pasta sometimes looses some of its original structural integrity, which means that vigorous stirring or over cooking may pulverise the pasta and turn your lovely mac and cheese into a starchy, gloopy mess. This very much depends on the type of pasta you’re using, how it was cooked originally (al dente is the best way to cook pasta that may be frozen later), and how it is being reheated.
It’s also worth pointing out that dairy based sauces can split when frozen, or when being reheated. This is not overly likely, as the other ingredients in the sauces should stabilize them to some extent, but it is a possibility. When a sauce splits, it basically means that the dairy proteins sperate from the liquid that they were suspended in. This on its own does not technically mean the dish in inedible, but it can give the food a grainy, unpleasant texture. Whether or not your sauce splits can also be down to the type of cheese you added, with stronger, fattier cheeses being more likely to destabilize the mixture at high temperatures.
Split or curdled dairy can also indicate the presence of acid producing bacteria which are bad for your health, so if you notice that your mac and cheese sauce has split, be extremely careful with how you proceed. If there are any other signs, or even hints of signs, that there might be some spoiling, through the batch away and whip up a fresh serving.
Mac and cheese is truly one of the kings of the midweek-meal. Rich, comforting and decadently delicious, it’s no wonder that it’s one of the most popular dishes in the US and beyond. Whether enjoyed from a packet in 5 minutes flat or made from scratch, these are leftovers that none of us really want to throw away. Thankfully, you don’t have to right away. All that mac and cheese wonderfulness should be just fine for a few days in the fridge, or a few months in the freezer. But remember, even the best things don’t last forever, so if you notice any changes in taste, texture, colour or odour, even if they happen before the expected spoiling time, make sure you get rid of the offending foodstuff, clean out all containers and utensils that came into contact with it, and make yourself some fresh food instead.