Baked macaroni and cheese with crunchy panko bread crumbs on top. A childhood favorite noodle dish that kids will love but elevated enough that adults will devour. There will be no leftovers!
Baked macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. This simple recipe uses a traditional roux base to help thicken the sauce. A combination of melty cheeses and milk helps to nail just the right creamy texture to coat those noodles. You’re going to love the crunchy panko bread crumbs on top!
My love for mac and cheese began like most American kids born in the 80’s, with the classic blue box of Kraft mac n’ cheese that contained two essential ingredients: elbow noodles and a packet of cheese powder that never completely dissolved. This was probably my first exposure to food science, and I didn’t even know it! This recipe uses wholesome ingredients to maximize flavor without the preservatives.
Keys to Success
- 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 butter as a base with milk, then allowing the starches to swell and thicken, essentially creating a béchamel sauce.
- Choosing the Cheese: I used a sharp aged 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 consistency because of it’s a higher moisture level.
- Pasta: Using shorter kinds of pasta such as elbow, rotini, or cavatappi are perfect for thicker cheese sauces because they hold its shape. They also catch the sauce inside the noodle for more flavor.
If you like stronger more pungent flavors, you can add in some aged Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, Swiss or Gouda in combination with the Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese.
I noticed that the Monterey Jack cheese gives a Velveeta-like texture that I was looking for, compared to the other times when I just used all cheddar cheese.
One typical mac n’ cheese 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 from and a pool of oil that separates. It may be more noticeable for higher fat cheeses and make for an unattractive broken sauce.
I read a tip from Cooks Illustrated to add some starch to those cheeses that don’t naturally melt well. Also using a more high moisture cheese like mozzarella or Monterey Jack helps to balance the more aged and harder cheeses to reduce any grittiness.
To take this baked macaroni and cheese recipe to the next level, I’ve added a little crunchy topping. Sprinkling some panko bread crumbs and broiling the entire casserole in the oven until golden brown makes for a hot and bubbly dish. It will be hard to resist not taking a huge spoonful and eating some mac and cheese directly from the skillet! If you’ve got children or kids that are hard to cook for, they will love this homemade version of their favorite food!
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How do you prevent your cheese sauce from getting clumpy?
Have you ever made mac n’ cheese from scratch and the sauce gets a little clumpy and gritty? Not so yummy. The solution, add some starch! In this recipe, 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 is added and begins to melt, the starch granules in the flour release elongated threads of amylose (a soluble polysaccharide in starch), which wraps around the casein proteins in the cheese and prevents fat from releasing and proteins from forming back together into broken clumps.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese with Bread Crumb Topping
- 1 pound macaroni, elbow shaped
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, (optional)
- 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 5 cups milk
- 8 ounces monterey jack cheese, shredded (2 cups)
- 8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (2 cups)
- 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs, or regular bread crumbs
- Bring 4 quarts water to boil in a large pot.
- Add pasta and 1 tablespoon salt and cook, often stirring, until tender (just past al dente) and drain pasta.
- Melt 5 tablespoons butter in large pot over medium-high heat.
- Add flour, 1 teaspoon salt, cayenne (if using) and nutmeg.
- Cook, constantly whisking, until mixture becomes fragrant and deepens in color, about 1-2 minutes.
- Gradually whisk in milk; bring mixture to a boil, whisking constantly.
- Reduce heat to medium and simmer, occasionally whisking, until thickened, about 7 minutes.
- Take the pot off the heat, slowly whisk in cheeses until completely melted.
- Add pasta to sauce and cook over medium-low heat, constantly stirring, until mixture is steaming and heated through, about 6 minutes.
- Transfer to a broiler-safe baking dish and sprinkle with panko bread crumbs.
- Broil in the oven until topping is golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Keep a close eye to not burn it.
- Allow casserole to cool for 5 minutes before serving.
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