Pictured above: Goat Cheese and Sun-Dried Tomato Mac and Cheese
Macaroni and cheese is a quintessential comfort food, but if you’ve only ever had the blue box variety, you’re really missing out! Whether stovetop or baked, we’ve got the formula for getting gooey, delicious results every time.
Read on for tips on choosing the right pasta and cheeses, step-by-step instructions for making the perfect mac and cheese sauce and links to all our tasty recipe variations.
The Best Ingredients for Macaroni and Cheese
Making macaroni and cheese from scratch is an easy process that leaves a lot of room for personal taste and creativity. There are basic guidelines you need to adhere to, but once you’ve got those down, the sky’s the limit on cheese and add-in combinations.
- Whole milk and real butter are best: When making mac and cheese, it doesn’t pay to use low fat ingredients, so enjoy the indulgence and save the calorie counting for another night. A smooth, creamy cheese sauce with no lumps or separation is much easier to achieve when you use full-fat ingredients. We recommend using a good quality unsalted butter and whole milk to make your béchamel sauce.
- Pick a pasta that holds the sauce: Next, you want to choose the right type of pasta. Smaller cuts allow for the most cheese “coverage” and cuts with ridges are particularly nice because they hold the sauce so well. In addition to the ever-popular elbows, we like pipette (slightly larger elbow-shaped with ridges), cavatappi (small, twisted tubes with ridges), mini farfalle (bow ties or butterflies) and conchiglie (small shell-shaped macaroni with ridges).
- Choose smooth-melting cheeses: Of course, the most important ingredient is the cheese. You want to choose varieties that melt easily and are less likely to separate. Our top recommendations (in no particular order) are fontina, Muenster, Gruyère, Gouda, Havarti, mozzarella, Jack and Cheddar. All of these cheeses should be easy to find in just about any supermarket. Keep them well-chilled until ready to use for easy grating.
- Add a toasty crumb topping: Last but not least, if you’re making a baked version of macaroni and cheese, you’ll want a toasty crumb topping. Fresh breadcrumbs, coarsely chopped and toasted are the best choice, but store-bought panko will work nicely too.
Baked vs. Stovetop Mac & Cheese
While a casserole of nicely browned baked mac and cheese may be more traditional, some cheese combinations simply taste better when served straight out of the saucepan without ever visiting the oven.
As a general rule of thumb, macaroni and cheese recipes that incorporate semi-soft cheeses like fontina, Gruyère and Gouda can be baked with consistently delicious results.
Recipes that include soft, velvety cheeses like Brie and mascarpone are at their creamy best when served stovetop style. Regardless of which type you’re making, all homemade macaroni and cheese recipes start with the same ingredients and cooking technique.
The Best Mac & Cheese Starts with a Béchamel Sauce
Béchamel is made by cooking equal parts butter and flour until smooth and golden (roux), then whisking in warm milk to make a smooth, creamy sauce. The thickness of a béchamel sauce is determined by the ratio of milk to butter and flour.
When making macaroni and cheese, this sauce serves as the base and whatever cheeses you choose are melted into it.
Béchamel is one of the “mother sauces” in the classic French system. The recipe dates back to 17th-century France and was named for its creator Marquis Louis de Béchamel, who served as head steward to King Louis XIV.
Basic Recipe For Homemade Mac & Cheese
This is our basic recipe for fool-proof, homemade macaroni and cheese.
- Prep Time: 5 minutes
- Cook Time: 40 minutes
- Total Time: 45 minutes
- Yield: 4 to 6 servings
- Category: Main Dish
- Cuisine: American
- 1 lb dried macaroni
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 4 tablespoons flour
- 3-3/4 cups whole milk
- 12 to 14 ounces of cheese (up to 4 varieties)
- To make macaroni and cheese from scratch, you’ll need to start by making a roux. A roux is a mixture of equal parts flour and fat that is used to thicken sauces, soups and stews. For macaroni and cheese, we use butter as the fat component and make a light-colored (blond) roux.
- When the roux has reached the right color and consistency, warm milk is whisked in to create a thickened white sauce called béchamel. When the béchamel sauce has reached the right consistency, it’s time to stir in the cheese.
- Once all the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth and creamy, it’s ready for the pasta and any other ingredients you might be adding. If your recipe is for a stovetop mac and cheese, you can serve right away, whereas a baked mac and cheese needs a little time in the oven before serving.