Prepared meals from both Costco and Sam's Club are a popular way to feed a family on a budget, especially during busy weeknights when no one has time to cook. The selection of these freshly-made meals that you bake at home are practically mirror images at both warehouse clubs, so I decided to pit one of the most popular choices at Costco and Sam's Club against each other: macaroni and cheese.
I purchased both containers of take-and-bake mac and cheese on the same day and cooked them according to the package directions (with a couple small modifications to make them better — more on that later). I let them rest, photographed them, and tasted them to determine which mac and cheese is the superior version.
Costco Mac and Cheese ($3.49 per pound)
Costco's mac and cheese gets plenty of style points — it looks great with twisty noodles piled high. But as soon as I removed the plastic cover, a wave of pungent garlic powder hit my nose. I've made plenty of mac and cheese from scratch, and I always include just a little garlic, as do many typical recipes. But all I could smell was garlic, which was really off-putting — especially after taking a whiff of the unbaked version from Sam's Club and not getting any garlic at all.
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Once baked, the garlic no longer hit you over the head, but it was still too noticeable. Looking at the ingredients on the label, the source of the problem became clear: Alfredo sauce is the base of Costco's mac and cheese. Sure enough, the sauce made this version of mac and cheese more like a baked Italian pasta than what I think of as Southern-style casserole. There was plenty of creaminess, and the noodles had a little chew left in them (I'm a fan of al dente pasta, while limp noodles can be an issue with pre-made meals), but I was still missing some sharpness and color from a good cheddar.
Sam's Club Mac and Cheese ($3.48 per pound)
The mac and cheese I baked from Sam's Club matched the Southern casserole version in my head. According to the ingredient list, it was put together with a sauce made partially from processed American cheese, which was a much better option than Alfredo sauce. That gave it a home cooked, nostalgic feel, a light orange hue throughout, and a gooey consistency that's hard to top when it comes to mac and cheese.
Not only was the texture better than the Costco version, but the flavor was all around better as well. There was a lot more cheddar in the Sam's Club mac and cheese, leading to some nice cheese pulls with your fork. The cheddar also more than made up for the American cheese sauce, which is know for its wonderful texture, but not necessarily flavor.
Winner: Sam's Club Mac and Cheese
Frankly, I expected to like Costco's mac and cheese better than the Sam's Club version, mostly because it looked better before baking. But my expectations were off base: The Sam's mac and cheese was much more like the platonic ideal of the Southern staple, and most importantly, tasted way cheesier. Plus, no overwhelming garlic smell anywhere. Considering they're basically the same price, I'll always choose Sam's Club's mac and cheese over Costco's.
Pro tip: Both baking instructions direct you to cover the mac and cheese with foil. But if you're like me and need some of that crunchy, caramelized cheese on top, remove your foil cover for the last 15 minutes of baking, or pop it under the broiler for a couple minutes until it's golden and bubbly to your liking.
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