Truly the only mac and cheese recipe you'll ever need! A basic recipe that's easy to make, ultra creamy, and SO delicious! This can be a baked or stovetop macaroni and cheese, and you can swap out the cheeses and noodle shape for a different dish each time.
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:
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.
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.
Now! Onto the exciting part:
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. Don't worry if it doesn't all melt quite yet - it'll finish up in the oven!
What kind of cheese to use
This recipe calls for cheddar and mozzarella, but you can use whatever you like! Melty cheeses (cheddar, american, mozzarella, swiss, gruyère) should make up at least the primary cheese, but you can mix and match to your liking. I have yet to try a bad combo!
Whatever cheese you choose, be sure to shred your own! The pre-shredded variety tends not to melt as nicely.
How to make homemade mac and cheese
Cook your noodles a few minutes shy of al dente. You don't want overcooked noodles in your mac and cheese!
While the noodles cook, melt the butter in a large pan with high sides over medium heat. Once the butter begins to foam, stir in the flour and stir quickly to combine. Once a paste forms, pour in the warmed milk 1/2 cup at a time. Stir vigorously after each addition. You may need to switch over to a whisk for this part. Don't add more milk until the sauce is smooth. This is key to avoiding a clumpy sauce!
Once all the milk has been added and the sauce is smooth, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cooked noodles, cheeses, and salt and pepper.
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 mac and cheese
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 in a 425 degree oven for 20 minutes. 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.
Mac and cheese is best enjoyed right after being made as it tends to dry out if left to sit. However, if you want to make this ahead, a good work-around to this problem is to store your cooked noodles and sauce in separate containers. When ready to make, combine the noodles and sauce and bake according to recipe directions.
Leftover mac and cheese is best reheated in the microwave. Stir in a little extra milk to rehydrate it slightly. If you want to re-create the browning of a freshly baked mac and cheese, pop it under the broiler for a couple minutes after it's hot.
The Only Mac + Cheese Recipe You Will Ever Need
- 2 cups elbow noodles (see note)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup all purpose flour
- 4 cups whole or 2% milk, heated
- 1 (8 ounce) block sharp cheddar cheese, cubed or shredded
- 4 ounces mozzarella, cubed or shredded
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.Cook the noodles in a pot of boiling water a couple minutes shy of package directions. Noodles will continue cooking in cheese sauce, so you want them on the firmer side.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. Don't add more milk until sauce is smooth. When all the milk has been used, remove the pan from the heat.Add the cheeses, noodles, salt, and pepper and stir to combine. Adjust seasoning to taste. Bake for 20 minutes, until sauce is bubbly and beginning to brown around the edges. Allow to set for 5 minutes before serving.