Mac & cheese is a staple dinner in our house. Not only for the obvious reason of it being possibly the most delicious food of all time, but also because we seem to always have some variety of mac & cheese ingredients on hand, making it the perfect we-don’t-want-to-grocery-shop-but-are-out-of-food dinner. (You know what I’m talking about).
We love to try all kinds of variations of cheeses and toppings (yes, toppings! we live for toppings.), BUT, this post is all about your classic, tried-and-true bowl of sharp, creamy, cheesy noodles.
Cheese + carbs = comfort food at its finest.
Throughout my years of making mac & cheese, I have tried all varieties of this American classic. Debates have insued over just how cheesy mac & cheese should be, is it better baked or stovetop?, is it possible for it to be too creamy?
Spoiler alert: not possible.
Thankfully, all of this tinkering and debating led to this recipe and method: Cheesy enough to satisfy your cheese-loving people, but not so cheesy it overwhelms your cheese-liking people; it can be stovetop or baked (for the record, I am firmly in camp baked); and it turns out perfectly creamy every time.
A couple of things that get you to the perfect bowl of mac & cheese:
The roux. First, you’re going to start out the sauce by making a flour-heavy roux to up the creaminess factor. To begin, place butter in a large pan with high sides (dutch oven is perfect!) and melt over medium heat until it begins to bubble and foam slightly. Next, add the flour and whisk until you don’t see any dry flour and the mixture is warm. This is where things can get a little tricky, and your mixture will need constant monitoring and whisking, so don’t leave your stove! Add in heated milk 1/2 cup at a time, whisking after each addition until smooth. Adjust your heat as needed – if the butter/flour mixture won’t combine, increase slightly; if mixture is bubbling aggressively, decrease. Continue whisking and adding milk until the milk is gone and the mixture is smooth. That’s the base of your sauce.
The noodles. You only need 2 cups of elbow noodles (this is about 9 ounces, if you’re interested in using another shape). Cook in boiling water a couple of minutes shy of package directions. THIS PART IS VERY IMPORTANT. Noodles will continue cooking in the sauce and in the oven, so you want them to be firmer than you would be comfortable eating in a strain-and-use situation.
Speaking of straining, don’t strain your noodles! Use a slotted spoon to scoop them from the boiling water to your milk/butter/flour mixture. And don’t worry about the pasta water that’s being transferred with the noodles: starchy water = creamy sauce. I will admit I started doing this to prevent my very-pregnany self from carting a pot of boiling water to the sink, but I’ve stuck with it because it really does result in creamier sauce, and it prevents a strainer from needing to be washed. I am all about minimizing dirty dishes.
Now! Onto the exciting part:
The cheese. To get perfectly melted cheese, turn off the heat to whatever pot your sauce base + noodles are in. Add in whatever chopped/shredded cheese you are using and stir it all up.
Between the hot milk mixture and hot noodles, the cheese will melt in no time and you will have a perfectly smooth, creamy, cheesy combo!
Once all the cheese has melted, you might be thinking your sauce : noodle ratio is totally off. Ignore this thought! I am always amazed by how much sauce the noodles will soak up.
Stovetop vs Baked: At this point, you have to make an important decision. You can return pan to low heat and continue cooking and stirring stovetop until noodles are your desired level of doneness, or you can bake it. I prefer baked. Usually I will pop whatever pan the whole mixture is in into the oven, but every now and then I’ll transfer it to a fancier dish.
Top it with more cheese, of course, and bake until browned and bubbly.
THE ONLY MAC & CHEESE RECIPE YOU WILL EVER NEED
Classic, creamy, cheesy mac & cheese
- 2 cups elbow noodles (this is about 9 ounces if you want to use a different noodle)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk, heated
- 1 (8 ounce) block sharp cheddar cheese, cubed
- 5 ounces shredded parmesean cheese, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- Fill a medium pot with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Once water is boiling, add noodles and cook a couple minutes shy of package directions. (Noodles will continue cooking in cheese sauce, so you definitely want them on the firm side).
- Meanwhile, while waiting for water to boil, melt butter in a large, oven-safe pan with high sides over medium heat. Once butter is melted and slightly bubbly, add the flour. Whisk until mixture is hot and there is no dry flour. Add heated milk – 1/2 cup at a time – and whisk vigorously after each addition, adjusting heat as necessary. If mixture is lumpy, increase heat slightly. If mixture is bubbling aggressively, decrease heat. Mixture should be smooth before adding additional milk. When all milk has been used, remove pan from heat.
- Using a slotted spoon, transfer noodles from boiling water to pan with the milk mixture. You want some of the starchy pasta water to be transferred as well, so don’t worry about straining or waiting for excess water to drip from the slotted spoon. Add the cheddar cheese and half of the parmesean to the pot. Stir continuously until cheese has melted. Top with remaining parmesean and bake for 20 minutes, until sauce is bubbly and cheese is slightly browned on top. Serve immediately.
- The roux – This should be completely smooth and lump-free for the ultimate creaminess. This will largely depend on heat and diligence whisking.
- The noodles – No one likes overcooked noodles. It’s important for this recipe both to slightly undercook the noodles in the boiling water, and to transfer some of the pasta water to the cheese sauce. The easiest way of doing this is to use a slotted spoon to transfer noodles instead of straining.
- The cheese – Everyone’s favorite part! (You came here to talk about cheese, didn’t you?). In order to get the most smoothly melted cheese, you need to take your pot off the heat. Between the hot milk mixture and fresh-out-of-boiling-water noodles, the cheese will melt at the perfect pace – avoiding a greasy mess of a sauce or an offputting gritty texture.
There are three important elements to getting the perfect mac & cheese in this recipe:
Beyond these three things, this recipe is totally customizable! Feel free to switch out the cheeses (cheddar & parmesean will give you a classic mac & cheese, but I have yet to try a cheese combo I haven’t liked!), or ditch the oven altogether and make this a stovetop mac & cheese.