Crazy Good Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese Recipe
How to make extra creamy macaroni and cheese with butter, flour, milk, and cheeses. Easy and delicious! 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 any way I could get it — out of a box or made from scratch by Mom. 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.
With only about 15 minutes of hands-on time this Easy Baked Ziti with Spinach and Artichokes is perfect for a weekday.
How to Make the Best 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.
For our easy recipe, you will need butter, flour, milk, and cheese. That’s all you 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 prefer to use elbow macaroni and try to find a brand that adds little grooves to the sides of the pasta — the sauce sticks better. Other pasta like penne, cavatelli or spiral shapes works well.
It’s 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 the suggested time on the package directions.
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 lose 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 for preventing lumps in the final sauce.
We’ve made the sauce both ways and 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 continuously whisk. (We use warm milk primarilly to speeds up the sauce making process. Since it’s already warm, the sauce takes less time to come to a simmer.)
Here’s another easy macaroni and cheese recipe made on the stovetop!
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 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 popular 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 more effort, but we think it’s worth it in the end.
Making Macaroni and Cheese Ahead of Time
Like most baked pasta dished, mac and cheese is perfect for making ahead of time. Here are a few tips:
- The sauce can be made ahead and stored, covered in the refrigerator, for two days. Warm the sauce before mixing with cooked pasta.
- Mac and cheese can be made ahead, spooned into a baking dish and stored, covered in the refrigerator, for two days. Cold macaroni and cheese may take a little longer than 30 minutes in the oven to be fully heated and cooked through.
- You can also freeze stovetop or baked mac and cheese for up to two months. To reheat, defrost overnight and bake or warm on the stove until heated through. Or bake from frozen. It will take about 1 hour.
If you try this recipe, let us know! Leave a comment, review it, and don’t forget to tag a photo #inspiredtaste on Instagram. Happy cooking!
Recipe updated, originally posted May 2013. Since posting this in 2013, we have tweaked the recipe to be more clear. – Adam and Joanne
Crazy Good Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese Recipe
We love most mac and cheese recipes, 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 dried pasta like elbow macaroni, shells or penne
Salt, to taste
5 cups (1180 ml) milk, whole or 2% are best
5 tablespoons (70 grams) unsalted butter
5 tablespoons (45 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1 pound sharp white cheddar cheese, shredded (4 heaping cups), plus more if baking (about 1/2 cup)
5 ounces (140 grams) Pecorino-Romano cheese, shredded (1 1/2 cups)
- Cook Pasta
- Make Cheese Sauce
- To Finish
For baked macaroni and cheese, heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and butter a 3-quart casserole dish or spray with non-stick cooking spray. For 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 recommended cook time. 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, constantly whisking until the butter smells fragrant and nutty — the color of the butter-flour mixture will be light brown; 2 to 3 minutes.
While whisking, slowly pour the warm milk into butter and flour mixture. Continue to cook, constantly whisking until the sauce bubbles and thickens.
Remove pan from the heat. Stir in mustard, black pepper, 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 (we usually start with 1/2 teaspoon of fine salt and go from there).
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 the baked version.
Pour into the prepared baking dish. Top with about 1/2 cup of extra cheddar cheese. Bake, uncovered, until bubbling, about 30 minutes. Turn oven to broil then broil 3 to 5 minutes until the top has blistered and lightly browned. Let stand about 10 minutes before serving.
Adam and Joanne's Tips
- Make Ahead: Mac and Cheese can be made two days 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.
- Nutrition facts: The nutrition facts provided below are estimates. We have used the USDA Supertracker recipe calculator to calculate approximate values. We calculated using 2% milk and 10 servings.