A recipe like creamy, homemade Baked Mac and Cheese doesn’t come along every day… even though you wish it did. Thank goodness it’s so easy to make, right down to the garlic butter breadcrumbs.
The best Baked Mac and Cheese goes great with just about anything! Try it alongside 2-Ingredient Barbecue Little Smokies or Wisconsin Beer Brats for a football party menu that will bring cheers all around.
Doubling or tripling the recipe? Smart! Here’s how to do it. Click and slide the number next to “servings” on the recipe card below to adjust the ingredients to match how many you’re feeding—the recipe does the math for you, it’s that easy.
What kind of noodles make the best Mac and Cheese?
It’s all up to you and what you have in the pantry, what’s at the store, or what the pickiest eater in the house will eat. Pick a favorite shape; something that will cling to the cheese sauce and deliver it right into your mouth. There are many types of pasta shapes; here’s some of the best for mac and cheese:
- Shells. And cheese? It’s a natural fit. Aka Conchiglie.
- Penne. Hollow, tube shaped pasta definitely works with any sauce.
- Rotini. Corkscrew shaped pasta loves cheese.
- Fusilli. Feels fabulous in your mouth.
- Cavatappi. Think of it as elbow macaroni’s flamboyant aunt.
- Radiatore. Springy and fun.
- Rotelle. Little wheel shaped pasta that kids love.
What’s the best cheese for Mac and Cheese?
This is the fun part! This recipe uses a combination of cheddar cheese and Alpine-style cheese for a super creamy, cheese-forward sauce.
You can play around with different styles of cheeses and make it your own work of art. For best results, choose a couple cheeses (or more) to blend together.
- White cheddar. People love it. Trader Joe’s sells a tasty blend of White cheddar and Gruyère, in case you’re headed there.
- Extra sharp cheddar. Extra tangy, sharp cheddar cheese may be nice with garlic breadcrumbs.
- Goat cheese. Super creamy chèvre or goat cheese makes gourmet mac and cheese.
- Pepper jack. Add a little kick to your baked casserole.
- Blue cheese. A few generous handfuls of your favorite blue cheese (Maytag, Stilton) adds a unique depth of flavor. Pair it with another, meltable cheese to balance it out.
- Parmesan. Nutty aged Parmesan cheese is rich and bold.
- Velveeta. Southern style Baked Mac and Cheese recipes often use the impossibly delicious melty cheese.
- Smoked cheddar.
How to make Baked Mac and Cheese:
Let’s put it all together and get cooking! The pictures show you the steps, without giving exact amounts...look at the card below for specifics.
- Before you make the cheese sauce, you should cook the pasta. Bring a large pot (at least 4 quarts) of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta until just al dente.
- Make sure you don’t overcook the pasta. When ready, simply drain off the water—there’s no need to rinse the cooked pasta.
- Place the empty pot back on the stove and melt the butter until foaming. Then whisk in the flour and cook until bubbling, about a minute.
- Next, pour in the milk and bring the mixture to a boil. Then remove the pot from the heat and add in the cheese. Stir this around until the cheese melts.
- Finally, you can add the pasta. Fold in the cooked macaroni until the pasta is coated in the cheese sauce.
- At this point, you can season the Mac and Cheese. A little onion powder, salt and pepper, hot sauce, green chilies, whatever floats your mac and cheese boat.
- Pour the cheesy pasta into a buttered 1 1/2-quart casserole, or divide it up into smaller, oven-safe ramekins for individual Mac and Cheese servings. (If baking small portions, bake them on a sheet tray for easier handling.)
- To make the garlic breadcrumbs, you have options. It’s just as easy to melt the butter in the microwave as it is on the stove in a pan.
- Melt the butter and stir in some minced garlic. Then mix in the breadcrumbs and make sure that everything is well combined. Scatter the breadcrumbs over the macaroni.
- Bake at 350 degrees until the sauce is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are golden and toasty-looking. Depending on the size of the casserole you’re using, macaroni and cheese should be ready in 30 to 40 minutes.
How to make gluten-free Baked Mac and Cheese:
If you’re searching for how to make mac and cheese without flour, maybe because of a gluten allergy or because you’re watching your carbs, there are lots of ways to go.
This recipe can be made gluten-free using the exact same method shown in the recipe. Just make sure your pasta is rice- or corn-based and your bread crumbs are also gluten-free.
Gluten-free flour can be used in place of flour to thicken the cheese sauce, which is based on a Mornay sauce, but you don’t absolutely need to make a roux, as long as you melt the cheese in hot milk and butter.
Making Mac and Cheese with evaporated milk:
Some recipes swear by adding evaporated milk to the cheese sauce, but it’s not available absolutely everywhere.
Evaporated milk does, however, make an incredibly rich mac and cheese. If you want to give it a try, switch out some of the milk in the recipe for evaporated milk, and write about your experience in the comments.
Evaporated milk can be substituted with a combination of whole milk and half-and-half, in case you like the extra-rich taste, but don’t have the canned milk on hand.
What else can you add to Baked Mac and Cheese?
Oh, so many delicious ideas! Here’s what other cooks love to do:
- Onion powder. A little sprinkle of onion powder in the mac and cheese tastes incredible.
- Smoked paprika. A dash of smoked paprika adds smokiness without the hot, hot heat.
- Green chilies. Canned Hatch-style chopped green chilies add texture and mild heat.
- Hot sauce. Hot sauce of any kind in cheesy pasta is standard fare for spicy food lovers.
- Broccoli. Blanched or roasted broccoli are fabulous added right in or served alongside baked mac and cheese for a healthy mac and cheese dinner.
- Chili. Healthy chili plus a little mac? Ladies and Gentleman, we have Chili Mac.
- Chicken. Leftover rotisserie chicken is a great way to add protein.
- Bacon. Crumbled cooked bacon mixed into the mac and cheese—or sprinkled on top along with the breadcrumbs—definitely takes it up a notch. Okay, at least two notches.
- Lobster. Lobster mac and cheese may just be the ultimate in luxury.
Making Baked Mac and Cheese ahead of time:
This dish can be made up to a day ahead if you get the macaroni and cheese ready, but wait to spread on the breadcrumbs and bake it until you’re ready to serve it. Wrap the unbaked casserole up in foil and store it in the refrigerator until you're ready to bake. Makes a great Thanksgiving side dish!
Baked Mac and Cheese
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound elbow macaroni (see note 1)
- ½ cup butter divided, plus extra for buttering the dish
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 3 cups milk hot (see note 2)
- 8 ounces cheddar cheese shredded (2 cups, see note 3)
- 8 ounces Gruyere cheese shredded (2 cups)
- Hot sauce to taste
- 1 clove garlic minced
- 1 cup bread crumbs
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2 1/2 quart or larger casserole dish.
- Bring 4 quarts and 1 tablespoon salt to a rolling boil. Add macaroni and cook until just al dente, about 6 minutes. Drain well. Do not overcook and do not rinse macaroni.
- Return pot to stovetop. Over medium heat, melt 6 tablespoons butter until foaming. Whisk in flour and cook until bubbling but not browned, about 1 minute. Whisk in milk and bring to boil. Remove from heat and stir in cheeses until melted.
- Fold in macaroni and stir until uniformly combined. Season to taste with salt and hot sauce, if desired. Pour into prepared casserole dish.
- In a medium bowl, melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in microwave. Stir in garlic until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add breadcrumbs and toss until evenly coated.
- Pour breadcrumbs over macaroni. Bake until sauce is bubbling and breadcrumbs have browned, 30 to 40 minutes.
- Macaroni: Any bite-size pasta is fine. Pick a favorite shape; something that will cling to the cheese sauce and deliver it right into your mouth.
- Milk: Any fat percentage of milk you like. To make it even more indulgent, switch out some of the milk in the recipe for evaporated milk.
- Cheese: I write the recipe using equal amounts of shredded cheddar and gruyère for creaminess and cheese-forward flavor. But you can go in any direction, and use white cheddar, goat cheese, pepper jack, Velveeta, mozzarella, smoked cheddar, fontina, even blue cheese. Pick a couple of cheeses for more depth of flavor.
- Season at every step: I like to salt and pepper at several stages, just to layer the seasoning and make the flavors really pop. If you don't season the sauce, the sauce will be bland.
- Spices and herbs: A little sprinkle of onion powder, garlic powder, or chopped herbs. A dash of smoked paprika adds smokiness without the heat
- Green chilies: Canned chopped green chilies add texture, acidity, and mild heat.
- Broccoli: Blanched or roasted broccoli are fabulous added right in or served alongside to balance everything out.
- Chili: Chili plus a little mac? Ladies and gentlemen, we have Chili Mac.
- Add a meat: Leftover rotisserie chicken is a great way to add extra protein. Crumbled cooked bacon mixed into the noodles, or sprinkled on top along with the breadcrumbs, definitely takes it up a notch.
- Make ahead: Make it, but don't bake it. Wait to spread on the breadcrumbs and bake it until you’re ready to serve. Wrap the unbaked casserole up in foil and store it in the refrigerator for a day or two until you're ready.
- Storage: Store leftovers in the refrigerator and eat within 4 days.
- Freezing: You can freeze the casserole before or after baking, but it stays creamier if you freeze it before the final bake; that way it isn't heated up twice. Wrap tightly in plastic and foil, label, date, and freeze. Thaw overnight in the fridge before baking.