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!
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.
- 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
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
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.
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.
- 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.
- Garlic bread
- Buttermilk biscuits
- Caesar salad
- Coleslaw or baked beans
- Fried chicken or roasted chicken
- Pulled pork
Frequently asked questions
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Baked Macaroni and Cheese
- 4 quarts water
- 4 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
- 1 pound elbow macaroni
- 9 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper, (optional)
- ⅛ 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
- 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.
- 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.
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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