Baked Macaroni and Cheese

4.78 from 121 votes
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Amazing baked macaroni and cheese with crunchy panko bread crumbs on top. A childhood favorite that kids will love but elevated enough that adults will too!

Homemade baked macaroni and cheese with crunchy panko bread crumbs on top.

This homemade baked macaroni and cheese recipe uses a traditional roux base to help thicken the sauce. Combining melty shredded cheeses and milk helps nail the right creamy texture to coat those noodles. You’re going to love the crunchy panko bread crumbs on top!

My love for this comfort food began like most American kids born in the ’80s. Our pantry was stocked with blue boxes of Kraft mac n’ cheese that contained two essential ingredients: elbow noodles and a packet of cheese powder that never completely dissolved. This recipe uses wholesome ingredients to maximize flavor without the extra preservatives.

Key ingredients

Ingredients needed to make this amazing baked macaroni and cheese recipe.
  • Pasta: Using shorter types of pasta such as elbow, rotini, shells, or cavatappi is perfect for thicker cheese sauces because they hold their shape. They also catch the sauce inside the noodle for more flavor.
  • Add a Roux: To achieve a creamy sauce texture, add starch to the cheese as it melts to prevent clumping. A roux-based sauce uses flour and melted butter as a base with milk, then allows the starches to swell and thicken, essentially creating a béchamel sauce.
  • Choosing the cheese: I use sharp Cheddar cheese and Monterey Jack cheese for the sauce. Add equal ratios of each cheese. The aged cheddar provides a subtle flavor, while the Monetary Jack creates a super creamy, velveta-like consistency because it’s a higher moisture level.

Cook the pasta

Cooked elbow pasta being held in the air over a pot with a wooden spoon.

Cook the dried macaroni in a large pot of salted water until al dente, with a slight chew. The pasta will continue to cook in the oven, absorbing more moisture. You don’t want them to become too soft and mushy before baking.

Make the roux

Whisk moving around a roux that's forming in a cast iron skillet.

One typical homemade mac and cheese recipe pitfall is that the cheese may become gritty and clumpy once added to the cream sauce. The proteins in the cheese must break down with heat before they can flow. As the proteins regroup, you may get a gritty texture and a pool of oil that separates. It’s more noticeable for higher-fat cheeses and makes for an unattractive broken sauce.

To address this issue, add some starch! By making a flour and butter roux, the starches thicken the sauce and coat the proteins in the cheese to prevent them from clumping together. I season the mixture with salt, cayenne, and nutmeg to infuse warm flavors into this side dish. Cook for about 2 minutes, until the roux is lightly golden in hue.

Make the cheese sauce 

Once the roux is prepared, gradually whisk in the milk. Always add a cold liquid to a hot roux for proper mixing. Bring it to a boil, constantly whisking to prevent the starches from clumping. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the sauce is thickened.

The process takes about 5 minutes. Off the heat, whisk in the shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese. It should melt entirely into the bechamel sauce.

Bake the macaroni and cheese

Add the cooked macaroni to the cheese sauce and stir it! The rich and creamy sauce should cling to the noodles. You could eat it straight from the pan (we often do!). However, to take the dish to the next level, make it a baked mac and cheese. Add the noodles to a greased 13 by 9-inch baking dish. Alternatively, it can be baked directly in a large cast iron skillet if you use one to make the roux.

Combine melted butter with coarse panko bread crumbs to make the crunchy topping. Sprinkle it evenly over the pasta casserole. Bake at 350ºF (177ºC) until golden brown and crisp. Baking times vary between 15 to 25 minutes, so keep a close eye on color changes. Taking the extra 30 minutes to add a contrast between creamy pasta and crispy bread is worth the wait.

Flavor variations

So now that you know how to make baked macaroni and cheese, you can experiment and switch things up with different mix-ins. Try these tasty suggestions when making your next batch:

  • Cheese: For more robust, more pungent flavors, add in some aged Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, or extra sharp cheddar. Try Gruyere or Gouda in combination with Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese.
  • Topping: Use finer traditional bread crumbs or Italian seasoned bread crumbs for a more compact crunch. Crush up salty Ritz crackers, Chez-it’s, or Goldfish crackers to add on top.
  • Seasoning: Keep it simple with salt and pepper, or add cajun seasoning to make it spicier in taste. Add mustard powder or Dijon for a tangier flavor. Hot sauce of extra heat! Smoked paprika for a lightly charred taste. Add truffle oil for a gourmet aroma and taste.
  • Herbs: Mix into the bread crumb topping or sauce, dried Italian seasoning or fresh parsley, thyme, or basil. Alternatively, use it as a garnish.
  • Seafood:
  • Vegetables: Peas, caramelized onions, broccoli, or cauliflower for extra fiber.
  • Seafood: Lobster, shrimp, crab, or tuna are delicious additions.
  • Meat: Add diced ham, chicken, turkey, pancetta, prosciutto, or crispy bacon.
Spoon taking a scoop of baked macaroni and cheese.

Serving suggestions

Frequently asked questions

Should mac and cheese be baked covered?

Keep the pasta casserole uncovered when baking. The heat of the oven with help brown and crisp the topping. Covering will create steam, making the bread crumbs soggy.

How do you make baked mac and cheese less dry?

If you find that the pasta absorbed too much of the milk when combining the sauce, or you let it sit too long before baking, an easy fix is to add more milk or cream, 1 tablespoon at a time to loosen the sauce. This also helps when reheating the macaroni and cheese.

What cheese is best for mac n cheese?

Cheeses that are firm enough to grate but have enough moisture and fat that, when heated, meld together. Sharp cheddar has a good balance of flavor and melt, or milk cheddar for a less aged taste. Add in Monterey Jack for extra gooeyness. Avoid dry aged parmesan unless adding some in addition to other high melt varieties to boost the taste.

Plate of macaroni and cheese with a crispy baked crust on top.

Prevent the cheese sauce from clumping

I use flour as the starch component. I start with a roux (butter and flour) cooked briefly, then add the milk to help thicken and disperse the starch into the base. When the cheese begins to melt, the starch granules in the flour release elongated threads of amylose (a soluble polysaccharide in starch). It wraps around the casein proteins in the cheese, preventing the fat from releasing and the proteins from forming back together into broken clumps.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

I love making baked macaroni and cheese because the combination of tender pasta, creamy cheese sauce, and crispy topping is irresistible. Plus, it's a crowd-pleaser that's perfect for any occasion or meal.
4.78 from 121 votes
Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time40 minutes
Total Time55 minutes
Servings 8 servings
Course Side
Cuisine American

Ingredients 
 

  • 4 quarts water
  • 4 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
  • 1 pound elbow macaroni
  • 9 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • teaspoon cayenne pepper, (optional)
  • teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 5 cups whole milk
  • 8 ounces monterey jack cheese, shredded
  • 8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs, or regular bread crumbs

Instructions 

  • Heat the Oven – Set the oven rack to the middle position. Heat to 350ºF (177ºC).
  • Cook the Pasta – In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Stir in 1 tablespoon of salt until dissolved. Add the pasta to the water. Stir to prevent the noodles from sticking together. Cook according to package directions, stirring occasionally, until pasta is al dente. Drain in a colander.
  • Make the Roux – Melt 5 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the flour, 1 teaspoon salt, cayenne (if using), and nutmeg. Cook, constantly whisking, until fragrant and lightly golden in color, about 1 to 2 minutes.
  • Make the Cheese Sauce – Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring the mixture to a boil, whisking constantly. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, whisking until thickened, about 5 to 7 minutes.
    Take the pot off the heat and slowly whisk in the Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses until completely melted.
  • Add the Pasta – Add pasta to the cheese sauce. Stir to evenly coat.
  • Bake – Lightly grease a 3-quart casserole dish or 13 by 9-inch baking dish. Spread the pasta evenly into the pan. In a medium bowl, combine 4 tablespoons of melted butter and the bread crumbs. Evenly sprinkle it on top of the macaroni and cheese. Bake until the topping is golden brown, about 15 to 25 minutes.
  • To Serve – Serve macaroni and cheese while still hot.

Recipe Video

Notes

  • Baking in a Skillet: The macaroni and cheese can be baked in a large cast iron skillet. 
  • Broiling: Add the bread crumb topping, and broil until golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Keep a close eye to not burn it.
  • Storing: Store in an airtight container in a refrigerator for up to 5 days. Freeze for up to 3 months. 

Nutrition Facts

Serves: 8 servings
Calories 428kcal (21%)Carbohydrates 28g (9%)Protein 19g (38%)Fat 26g (40%)Saturated Fat 16g (80%)Polyunsaturated Fat 1gMonounsaturated Fat 3gCholesterol 69mg (23%)Sodium 569mg (24%)Potassium 99mg (3%)Fiber 1g (4%)Sugar 1g (1%)Vitamin A 1100IU (22%)Calcium 700mg (70%)Iron 2mg (11%)

Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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70 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Priscilla says

    I can’t wait to try this recipe out this weekend. At what temperature should I broil the dish at? Your recipe doesn’t say….

  2. joanne p giard says

    I am making mac and cheese in my slow cooker to deliver to people here living alone. Can I use the same recipe for the topping after I have cooked it? Thanks for your help.

  3. Julia Levy says

    I absolutely LOVED this Mac n cheese. I would 100% recommend this recipe to my girlfriends and it brightened the gloomy quarantine day for my 6 kids and I!

  4. Tori says

    I really wanted to love this, but the nutmeg ruined it for me and my hubs. I should have omitted it. I will say that the instructions were clear and it came together nicely, though! Very cheesy and perfect texture.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I appreciate your feedback, Tori! Good thing the nutmeg is something easy to omit if you’re not a. fan. Thank you for giving it a try. I hope you make the macaroni and cheese again!

  5. crystal says

    made this tonight– we loved it…added 1 long pepper, scallions and garlic…also added some franks red hot to melted butter before adding to the panko. delicious!!

  6. Maria T. says

    I was making oven to grill ribs for dinner tonight and I wanted Mac N Cheese, but needed flexibility. I figured out I could make this earlier in the day and heat it up while the ribs were on the grill. I put the Mac N Cheese in the oven after I placed the ribs on the grill. Same temperature as the ribs so I left the oven on – I baked the dish covered with foil at 350° for 35 minutes. Then I removed the foil sprinkled the Panko over the top and put the bubbling mac under the broiler and watched it like a hawk while it browned. Worked perfectly. This Mac N Cheese was so very really absolutely good. Loved the crunch from the Panko and the fluffiness of the mac N cheese itself. So darn good. I will make this again. Also, I cut the recipe in half for me and Tom so we’re not overwhelmed with leftovers. It’s worth eating again. How I adore Mac N Cheese from scratch. Not much better than that.

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