Ever since Thomas Jefferson helped popularize macaroni in America, we have found ways to innovate the recipe, which is somehow both sophisticated and comforting. Laced with black pepper? A treat! Baked with quattro formaggi? Abbondanza! And now, national chain Panera Bread is upping the stakes by employing that bastion of modernist culinary technique, the sous vide, in their macaroni and cheese plating. Eat your heart out, Ferran Adrià.
Curiously, people are really upset about this TikTok which shows that Panera Bread’s mac and cheese is made by dunking a pre-packaged bag of pasta and sauce into a bath of boiling water to cook. It’s how…a lot of fast food is cooked, and given that it has about the same ingredients as a box of Annie’s, the preparation seems like a minor crime, barely a blip in the fast casual landscape. Panera Bread has been trying to rebrand itself as a place for “whole” foods, from sustainable sources and free from preservatives and artificial colors, evoking kitchens where everything is made from scratch. So it’s understandable that the sight of a box full of vacuum-sealed bags of pasta doesn’t fit that image. Then again, this isn’t so different from freezing servings of soup at home and reheating them as needed, and it is probably easier to keep sanitary than a bubbling vat of cheese.
The TikTok was repackaged in a tweet from UberFacts, which has since gone viral, inspiring others to share similar “surprising” dispatches from fast food kitchens. Others have pointed out that when a fancy-pants New American restaurant puts “sous vide” on the menu everyone is willing to shell out an extra $ 15. Panera says they use the frozen bag method “to avoid using certain preservatives that do not meet our clean standards…This is how we are efficient and how we make it consistent. We want that experience to be great, and that’s the best way to do it.” But despite some defenses, the woman who made the video said Panera Bread fired her over it.
If you didn’t know that “fast food” generally means a lot of prepackaged food getting reheated (that’s how they guarantee the fast part) — well, now you know. Panera’s warmed-up offering is still leagues better than the instant Easy Mac I microwaved in college.