This delicious macaroni and cheese recipe satisfies all your comfort food cravings. Get ready to dive into a bowl of gooey, velvety goodness that will have you returning for seconds and maybe even thirds!
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Don’t settle for a box of store-bought mac and cheese with orange powdered cheese. Instead, make a homemade version on the stovetop. Trust me, it’s a lot easier than you think! Your family will appreciate a side of creamy pasta to go with their meal. Great for holidays, but quick enough to prepare on busy weekdays.
This is the best macaroni and cheese recipe, and it can be broken down into two simple steps. First, elbow macaroni is cooked until al dente. Then, as the pasta boils, a simple cheese sauce is made. Combine the two, and you’ve got a winning combination! Serve as a side dish, or add protein to make it an entree.
- Pasta: Tubular elbow pasta is the classic noodle of choice. The holes catch all of the delicious cheese sauce. Other shorter types of pasta, such as shells or cavatappi, are great substitutes.
- Sauce: Make a roux-based sauce for a creamy mac and cheese texture. It’s just melted butter and flour cooked into a paste. I add two kinds of dairy: whole milk and heavy whipping cream. This technique is similar to creating a French béchamel sauce. A pinch of nutmeg and Dijon mustard adds a depth of flavor.
- Cheese: Use sharp cheddar cheese for a pleasant fermented and salty flavor. This firm but easy-to-shred cheese has enough moisture to dissolve effortlessly in the cream sauce.
Cook the pasta
When preparing the pasta, I always use my go-to pasta cooking method. For one pound of dried macaroni, boil 4 quarts of water and 1 tablespoon of salt. My culinary professors taught me it should be salty, like the sea. This yields well-seasoned pasta.
Cook until al dente with a slight chew. The cooked macaroni will be mixed with the hot cheese sauce, softening it further. Drain well before combining them with the sauce.
Make the roux
To quickly thicken the sauce, make a roux. Using a large pan, melt unsalted butter over medium-high heat. Whisk in the flour, salt, and nutmeg. Cook for a few minutes to create a golden hue. This removes the raw flour taste, but making a blonde rue ensures that the thickening capability of the starches in the wheat is maximized.
Make the cheese sauce
Gradually whisk in the milk and cream into the roux. The cream contains at least 36% milkfat, which helps enhance the texture. All whole milk can be used instead if you don’t have cream. I like to add in Dijon mustard for spice, but it’s optional if your kids prefer a mild flavor.
Bring the sauce to a boil, whisk constantly to keep the starches separate, then reduce to a simmer. The sauce only takes about 5 to 7 minutes to thicken. Turn off the heat, add the shredded cheese, and stir until it melts completely.
Add the pasta
Once the cheese sauce is prepared, add it to the cooked and drained macaroni. Give it a good stir until all of the sauce coats the noodles. Now, you can dig into the best macaroni and cheese ever!
If desired, you can take the dish up a notch by making it a baked macaroni and cheese by adding crunchy breadcrumbs on top. Add the pasta to a baking dish, top with buttery bread, and bake until golden brown and crispy. It adds a lovely texture contrast!
Now that you know how to make this creamy macaroni and cheese recipe, switching up the flavor is easy! Try these options on your next batch:
- Cheese: Try Monterey Jack for a gooey melt and mild flavor. Add aged Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, or extra sharp cheddar. Add gruyere or gouda for a nutty taste.
- Topping: Top with toasted bread crumbs, crushed Goldfish crackers, Ritz crackers, or Chez-it’s.
- Seasoning: Keep it simple with salt and pepper, or add some heat with cajun seasoning or taco seasoning. Drizzle in truffle oil, or make it spicy with hot sauce or sriracha.
- Herbs: Add dried Italian seasoning or fresh herbs like parsley, thyme, rosemary, or basil.
- Seafood: Make lobster mac and cheese. Add canned tuna or sauteed shrimp.
- Vegetables: Add broccoli florets, peas, caramelized onions, mushrooms, spinach, kale, or cauliflower.
- Meat: Add shredded chicken, diced ham, turkey, pancetta, prosciutto, pulled pork, or crispy bacon.
Frequently asked questions
Short-cut tubular pasta works best. The sauce is thick and heavy. Therefore, any pasta that holds its shape when mixed is ideal. Elbow macaroni, shells, penne, or cavatappi are great choices.
A firm cheese that grates easily and has enough moisture and fat that it melts well in a sauce. Cheddar cheese, Monterey Jack, and Gruyere are my top choices. Each has its unique flavor profile. Use a mixture of cheese to add dimension.
Add heavy cream and whole milk for an extra creamy texture. The increase in milk fat adds a more decadent finish to the sauce. To smooth the sauce, constantly whisk when combing the roux and dairy products. This helps separate the starch granules instead of becoming clumpy or grainy.
Instead of adding starches, you can use an egg yolk to thicken the sauce. Gradually whisk 1 cup of the cheese sauce into the egg yolk to temper it. Slowly whisk the mixture into the pan with the remaining cheese sauce. Stir and cook over medium heat until the sauce thickens. If needed, add another tempered egg yolk for a thicker consistency.
For the best results, cook the noodles and cheese sauce separately up to 2 days ahead. Combine and reheat on the stovetop until hot. Alternatively, the macaroni can be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months. The pasta tends to be slightly drier because the noodles absorb some of the moisture from the sauce. If needed, reheat with more milk or cream.
Use freshly grated cheese
Pre-shredded cheese is a great convenience product, but it doesn’t melt as well as a block of freshly grated cheese. Manufacturers add anti-caking agents like potato starch, cellulose, or cornstarch so that the shreds stay separate. Depending on the amount and type used, it makes the cheese not melt as well and can cause graininess.
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Macaroni and Cheese
- 4 quarts water
- 4 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
- 1 pound elbow macaroni
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg, optional
- 4 cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, or yellow mustard, optional
- 16 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, freshly shredded, 4 cups
- Cook the Pasta – In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Stir in 1 tablespoon of salt until dissolved. Add the pasta and stir to prevent sticking. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 7 to 9 minutes. Drain in a colander.
- Make the Roux – Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and nutmeg (if using). Cook, constantly whisking, until fragrant and lightly golden, about 1 to 2 minutes.
- Make the Cheese Sauce – Gradually whisk in the milk and cream. Whisk in the mustard (if using). 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 cheddar cheese until completely melted.
- Add the Pasta – Add pasta to the cheese sauce. Stir to coat evenly. Serve while still hot.
- Using Dry Mustard: Substitute 1 teaspoon of dry mustard for 1 tablespoon of Dijon or yellow mustard.
- Using Whole Milk: For a slightly less creamy sauce, use 5 cups of whole milk and omit the heavy whipping cream.
- 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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