How to make creamy macaroni and cheese with butter, flour, milk, and cheeses. Jump to the Easy Macaroni and Cheese Recipe or read on to see our tips for making it.
Like many, my favorite food growing up was macaroni and cheese. I would take it anyway I could get it — out of a box or made from scratch by Mom. In fact, it’s one of the first things I learned to make as a child. Mounds of cheese melted into a velvety creamy sauce and tossed with pasta. It’s heavenly. Below, you’ll notice we share a bunch of tips from our experiences in our kitchen.
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Easy Recipe! How to Make Creamy Macaroni and Cheese
One of my favorite parts of the last few weeks was testing, learning, and eating macaroni and cheese. Not a bad couple of weeks, right? After each try, we got a little closer to our favorite recipe and how to make it the best — every time.
One note. There are two popular ways to make mac and cheese. The first uses a combination of butter and flour to make what’s called a “roux.” Milk is added and whisked into the butter and flour. Starches from the flour swell and thicken the milk and we’re left with a thick, creamy, glossy sauce.
The second is custard-based and uses egg yolks to thicken the sauce. For this recipe, we went with the first option (it’s how our Moms make it and, in our opinion, a little easier). There are definitely two camps. Here’s a great comparison of the two methods.
For our easy recipe, you will need butter, flour, milk and cheese. That’s all you really need to make our creamy macaroni and cheese. Here are a few tips so you can make it best — It’s the little things that make a big difference in the end.
The Pasta – Shape and Cooking It
We’re traditionalists when it comes to mac and cheese. We choose elbow macaroni and try to find a brand that adds little grooves to the sides of the pasta. The sauce sticks better. Other pastas like penne, cavatelli or spiral shapes work well.
It’s really important to undercook the pasta before tossing with the cheesy sauce. Whether you enjoy the mac and cheese as stovetop pasta or baked pasta, the pasta will continue to cook in the hot sauce. By undercooking slightly, you remove the risk of mushy pasta. We cook pasta 1 to 2 minutes under what the pasta package calls for.
We use what we have in the fridge — that’s most likely 2 % reduced fat milk. Whole milk works wonders, too. In the past, we’ve used 1% and even skim milk, but they were never as creamy. It still tastes great, but you do loose some richness. The milk is added to our “roux” or butter-flour paste.
There’s a lot of talk about whether to use hot or cold milk when making macaroni and cheese. Julia Child says hot milk — we’re not usually in the camp of disagreeing with Julia. With that said, there are quite a few arguments out there that pushes for cold milk. The theory on both sides are to prevent lumps in the final sauce.
We’ve made the sauce both ways and really haven’t been able to find a winner. So, here’s what we’ve concluded: use warm milk and, more importantly, while adding the milk to the butter-flour mixture, add slowly and constantly whisk.
There’s no room for mild cheeses, here. Our standby is sharp white cheddar cheese. It’s flavorful and melts beautifully. Depending on the cheese you buy, you risk graininess as they melt. Martha Stewart says yellow and extra sharp cheddars can become grainy — another win for sharp white cheddar cheese.
You could just stick with one cheese, but we love adding a little extra punch. Pecorino-Romano or Romano cheese works wonders for this. (Romano is the American and Canadian term for Pecorino-Romano cheese). Another common cheese used is Gruyere — we love it, but it’s expensive so we usually skip it.
One more note about cheese: If you can, grate the cheese yourself. Store-bought grated cheeses are drier (and a little more expensive). They don’t seem to melt as well as cheese you’ve hand grated. It is a little more effort, but we really think it’s worth it in the end.
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- Try this mac and cheese with a twist — Our Pumpkin Macaroni and Cheese Recipe.
- You might also like the look of our Vegetable Lasagna Recipe or our Meaty Lasagna Recipe.
Recipe updated, originally posted May 2013. Since posting this in 2013, we have tweaked the recipe to be more clear. – Adam and Joanne
Easy, Creamy Macaroni and Cheese Recipe
We love most mac and cheeses, but this one is at the top of our list. It’s easy to make, can be served as stovetop mac and cheese or baked and it’s unbelievably cheesy and creamy. When choosing pasta for this, choose something that holds onto sauce nicely — elbow macaroni, shells, or spiral pasta works well. If you can, grate the cheese yourself, store-bought grated cheese does not melt as nicely. We really like using white cheddar cheese for this. It is usually much sharper than yellow cheddar and melts perfectly into the sauce. Many recipes like this call for Gruyere cheese instead of Romano. Gruyere is lovely in this recipe, so feel free to substitute it for the Romano.
You Will Need
1 pound pasta, such as elbow macaroni, shells, or spiral pasta
Salt, as needed
5 cups (1180 ml) milk, whole or 2% are best
1/2 cup (115 grams or 1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (65 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
18 ounces (510 grams) sharp white cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (4 1/2 heaping cups)
5 ounces (140 grams) Pecorino-Romano cheese, coarsely grated (1 1/2 cups)
- Cook Pasta
- Make Cheese Sauce
- To Finish
If baking the macaroni and cheese, heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish or spray with non-stick cooking spray. If making stove-top mac and cheese, move on to the next step.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, add the pasta then follow package directions, but cook 1 minute less than the package calls for. Drain then rinse pasta with cold water.
Add milk to a large microwave-safe measuring jug and microwave 1 to 3 minutes until warm. Alternatively, you can add milk to a large saucepan over medium heat then heat milk until warm.
Melt the butter in a large, high-sided pan over medium heat. When the butter begins to bubble, add the flour. Cook, whisking constantly 2 to 3 minutes until butter smells fragrant and nutty — the color of the butter-flour mixture will be light brown.
While whisking, slowly pour the warm milk into butter and flour mixture. Continue to cook, whisking constantly until the sauce bubbles and thickens.
Remove pan from the heat. Stir in mustard, cayenne, nutmeg, 4 cups of cheddar and all of the Romano cheese. Stir until the heat from the sauce melts the cheese. Taste for seasoning, and then adjust with additional spices or salt.
If the drained and rinsed pasta will fit into the pan, add it to the cheese sauce. If the pasta will not fit, add both the pasta and sauce to a separate large bowl and stir well. Serve as stovetop macaroni and cheese or continue to the next step for baked.
Pour into the prepared baking dish. Top with remaining 1/2 cup of cheddar cheese. Bake, uncovered, until bubbling, about 30 minutes. Turn oven to broil then broil 3 to 5 minutes until top has blistered and become lightly browned. Let stand about 10 minutes before serving.
Adam and Joanne's Tips
- Make Ahead: Mac and Cheese can be made 1 day ahead and chilled.
- Baked macaroni and cheese also freezes well. Let it cool completely on a rack before freezing, and then wrap it very well with foil (we use two layers). Defrost the frozen macaroni overnight in the refrigerator and then bake at 350 degrees F for about 1 hour.