Okay, I’m not going to reinvent the wheel with classic comfort food that everyone can agree on: mac and cheese. I used to love these as a kid and even when I stayed in my college dorm, I always made sure my tiny pantry had a box of instant mac and cheese. Dorm essentials, am I right?
But if, like me, you’re ready to graduate from boxed foods and cook your own killer mac and cheese from scratch, read on! This recipe is loaded with secret tips and tricks to make a kick-ass homemade macaroni and cheese.
This baked mac and cheese is bubbly, gooey, and indulgent. Most importantly, it truly warms the soul. It’s great for toddlers, kids, and adults. Seriously, everyone will love it!
What Kind of Cheese Should I Use?
What’s the best cheese for macaroni and cheese? Um… the one that uses your favorite cheeses, duh! I personally love cheddar and gruyere, but I have used smoked gouda, regular gouda, mozzarella, and Monterey Jack. They all taste great!
More importantly, if you are mixing cheeses, you will need to strike a balance of flavors. Experiment with what you like, and be sure to take notes so you can always return to your favorite combination.
- Dried elbow macaroni pasta – Macaroni pasta comes in all shapes and sizes, but for the classic look, let’s stick to elbow macaroni.
- Butter – We will use salted butter and unsalted butter. One to make the cheese sauce, and one to coat the macaroni with.
- All-purpose flour – To make the base of the roux.
- Whole milk – Whole milk or full-fat milk is best as it yields the creamiest cheese sauce.
- Half-and-half cream – Get your favorite brand of 10% milk fat half-and-half. I like to use Sealtest.
- Cheddar cheese and Gruyere cheese – This is my favorite combination of cheeses for homemade mac and cheese. Shred your own cheese! If possible, avoid using pre-shredded bags of cheese.
- Salt, black pepper, and paprika – Salt and black pepper are common seasoning ingredients, and paprika adds a touch of subtle sweetness.
Step One: Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a baking dish with cooking spray. I am using a 3-quart baking dish (9 x 13″).
Step Two: Cook the pasta.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When boiling, add dried pasta and cook for 1 minute less than the package directs for al dente.
- Pro Tip: Do not cook until al dente. Although al dente is the benchmark for well-cooked pasta, this macaroni will continue cooking while in the oven, so stop the boiling when it is 1 minute shy.
Once ready, drain the pasta water. Cool down the macaroni slightly and toss in two tablespoons of butter until melted. Set aside.
- Pro Tip: Coating macaroni with butter is crucial – it stops the macaroni from absorbing more liquid while baking. Hot pasta absorbs liquid faster, but butter creates a thin film to keep the pasta separate from the cheese sauce. This ensures your macaroni stays nice and saucy!
Step Three: Prepare the cheese. Grate cheddar and gruyere cheese. Toss together to mix, then divide into three portions. Approximately 3 cups for the sauce, 1 ½ cups for the inner layer, and 1 ½ cups for the topping.
Step Four: Make the roux. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle in flour and whisk to combine for about 1 minute until bubbly and golden.
Gradually add the milk and half-and-half into the saucepan, whisking constantly until the roux mixture is smooth and lump-free. The surface of the roux will begin to bubble.
Season with paprika, salt, and pepper. Continue whisking over medium heat until the sauce becomes very thick.
Step Five: Combine the cheese and roux. Remove the saucepan from the heat and gradually stir in 3 cups of the grated cheese.
Step Six: Assemble macaroni and cheese.
In a large mixing bowl, combine drained pasta with cheese sauce, stirring to combine fully. Pour half of the pasta into the prepared baking dish. Cover the pasta with 1 ½ cups of grated cheese, then top that with the remaining pasta mixture.
Step Ten: Bake.
Sprinkle the top with the last 1 ½ cups of cheese and bake for 25 minutes. Stop when the cheese is bubbly and a light golden brown. Don’t bake too long otherwise you’ll dry out the sauce!
- Pro Tip: For an extra crunchy top, feel free to broil for a couple of minutes at the end of your baking time.
Recipe Tips & Tricks
Cooking mac and cheese doesn’t have to be rocket science. Follow these tips for the yummiest, out-of-this-world mac and cheese recipe.
Thicken your mac and cheese sauce quicker:
If time permits, wait for your liquids to warm up to room temperature. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but cold liquids take longer to thicken than warmer liquids. I usually set my milk and half-and-half out while the water for the pasta is coming up to a boil.
How to avoid lumps in mac and cheese:
The simple trick to avoid lumps in the mac and cheese sauce is to pour the milk in slowly while constantly stirring the pot of roux. Then, switch to a whisk to remove any more stubborn lumps.
How to prevent soggy macaroni and cheese:
To avoid soggy macaroni, cook your pasta to slightly less than al dente (about one minute shy is perfect). The macaroni will continue to cook while in the oven, so don’t overcook it in the pot.
Avoid buying pre-shredded cheese:
Always shred your own cheese! I know it’s a pain, but look on the bright side: you can get an arm workout and cook dinner all at the same time. Multitasking at its finest!
Even though it can be tempting to use the pre-shredded cheese in the bags, just fight the urge. Pre-shredded cheese is coated with a starchy substance that keeps the cheese from clumping, which is why the pre-shredded cheese will not melt properly. You need to shred it yourself for the best result.
Variations & Add-Ins
This recipe is great as it is, but there are tons of add-in options to elevate a basic mac and cheese recipe. I’ve even seen recipes that use blue cheese! (I have a love-hate relationship with blue cheese.)
You could add shredded chicken, broccoli, sautéed onion, bacon, or even hot sauce to spice it up. And if you want to add a fun crunch to the gooey texture, top it all off with bread crumbs.
The options are endless – just have fun with it!
Storage & Reheating
Storing mac and cheese:
If you are not planning to bake your mac and cheese yet, simply assemble it and freeze it right away. It keeps in the freezer for up to 3 months. When ready to serve, thaw it in the fridge and then bring it to room temperature for 30 minutes.
Cover with foil and bake for 15 minutes at 350°F. Remove foil then bake for another 25 minutes until the top is golden. This method saves you some prep time and is a great make-ahead solution (but be sure to add slightly more sauce, as frozen mac and cheese will lose some of its creaminess).
Leftover baked mac and cheese can be stored in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. Seal tightly with saran wrap. When ready to eat, thaw it and reheat it in the microwave till warm. Then, spray the top with oil and broil it for 3 to 5 minutes.
Tips on reheating:
Keep the creamy texture of mac and cheese in the microwave by mixing in 1 tablespoon of milk or cream for every cup of macaroni. Microwave partially-covered with plastic wrap. Stir often while reheating.
Mac & Cheese Recipe
- 1 pound dried elbow macaroni pasta
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ cups whole milk
- 2 ½ cups 10% (half and half) cream
- 4 cups medium sharp cheddar cheese grated and divided (measured after grating)
- 2 cups Gruyere cheese grated and divided (measured after grating)
- 1/4 teaspoon paprika
- 1/2 tablespoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F and grease a 3 qt baking dish (9×13"). Set aside.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When boiling, add dried pasta and cook 1 minute less than the package directs for al dente. Drain and drizzle with a little bit of olive oil to keep from sticking.
- While water is coming up to a boil, grate cheeses and toss together to mix, then divide into three piles. Approximately 3 cups for the sauce, 1 1/2 cups for the inner layer, and 1 1/2 cups for the topping.
- Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle in flour and whisk to combine. Mixture will look like very wet sand. Cook for approximately 1 minute, whisking often.
- Slowly pour in 2 cups or so of the milk/half and half, while whisking constantly, until smooth. Slowly pour in the remaining milk/half and half, while whisking constantly, until combined and smooth.
- Continue to heat over medium heat, whisking very often, until thickened to a very thick consistency. It should almost be the consistency of a semi thinned out condensed soup.
- Remove from the heat and stir in salt, pepper, paprika and 1 1/2 cups of the cheeses, stirring to melt and combine. Stir in another 1 1/2 cups of cheese, and stir until completely melted and smooth.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine drained pasta with cheese sauce, stirring to combine fully. Pour half of the pasta mixture into the prepared baking dish. Top with 1 1/2 cups of grated cheeses, then top that with the remaining pasta mixture.
- Sprinkle the top with the last 1 1/2 cups of cheese and bake for 15 minutes, until cheese is bubbly and lightly golden brown.