Baked Mac and Cheese
What’s better than homemade Rich and Creamy Mac and cheese? - Homemade Baked Mac and cheese!! Ok maybe they are equally delicious but I always love a baked version with a buttery crispy topping to take it over the top!! Classic delicious comfort food at its best!! This is the perfect side dish for any meal and protein but can also be the main show if you wish - side salad optional. Make it with grown up cheddar and cheese blends or make it with classic yellow cheddar and mild stretchy mozzarella for a more kid friendly Mac and cheese. When you are craving Mac and cheese make sure to try this recipe before you reach for that box - I promise you it will be worth it!!
Baked Mac and Cheese Ingredients
Basic ingredients that you can easily get at the grocery store make up this extra creamy Baked Mac and cheese recipe- here is the breakdown:
- Pasta – We usually use elbow or cavatappie shaped . Feel free to use any type of pasta that you have on hand or like but I do recommend a short pasta shape (bowties, rotini, etc.) instead of spaghetti noodles, but they do work if it’s all you have! You can also use gluten-free pasta, whole wheat pasta, chickpea pasta, etc. etc. Just cook it according to the package.
- Butter and Flour – This combines together to create a roux that is used to thicken the cheese sauce. I use unsalted butter and all purpose flour. There are a few substitutions that work well for the flour including corn starch, tapioca starch/flour, and all-purpose gluten-free flour. I do not recommend whole wheat flour, as it give this mac and cheese recipe a wheat taste.
- Milk – Any variety of milk will work, just remember that the higher the fat content the creamier your mac and cheese will be. I always use whole milk. Some have made this recipe using broth or stock in its place and it works too if you wanted a bit of a lighter version. It just won’t come close to as creamy or rich as the one pictured. You could also do a mix of whole milk and half and half for a super rich Mac and cheese
- Cheese – I used a combination of white cheddar and yellow and mozzarella cheese for extra cheesy pulls but you could use any combination or keep it to one cheese. NOTE: The quality of the cheese that you use in this homemade mac and cheese recipe really matters. If you wouldn’t eat it by itself, then don’t use it to make mac and cheese. I recommend a high-quality medium to sharp cheddar cheese for the best flavor! Feel free to use a combination of cheeses to - gruyere is a fabulous one to shred and add in as is Colby cheddar
- Salt & Pepper - Add these ingredients to taste!
- Garlic powder, onion powder, ground mustard - These are optional but I think they add just a touch of flavor that takes this mac and cheese recipe up a notch without making it unpalatable to kids. Adjust the amount to your family’s tastes!
- For the Topping: I used Panko bread crumbs grated parmesan cheese and melted butter for a crispy topping - the topping is optional but recommended as it adds another layer of goodness to the baked Mac and cheese
Mac and cheese add ins:
As always, feel free to stir in any of your desired mix-ins as well if you’d like, such as:
- Proteins: add any protein like cooked chicken, bacon, shrimp, pancetta, cooked sausage, cooked diced ham etc.
- Veggies: I love adding roasted veggies to my mac and cheese and greens like baby spinach, or other flavourful veggies like sun-dried tomatoes, or artichokes.
- Nuts: Pine nuts, toasted almonds, etc.
- Seasonings: Switch things up with Cajun seasoning, Italian seasoning,…you name it.
Classic mac and cheese is made with a good sharp cheddar cheese, but you can also switch things up and use another kind of cheese, or a combination of cheeses. You want to be sure that whatever cheese you use is a good melting cheese. Gouda, brie, provolone, Monterey Jack, goat cheese, mozzarella, Gruyère (my personal fav), fontina, and asiago cheese are all commonly found cheeses that are good for melting. Try to grate your own cheese and avoid pre-shredded cheese as pre shredded usually has additives that can change the texture of your cheese sauce and don’t melt the same way.
How to Make This Creamy Baked Mac and cheese:
This easy Baked mac and cheese recipe is super fast-paced once you start cooking, so it’s important to have all the ingredients measured and ready to go! Here is the break down instructions:
- Cook the macaroni according to the package instructions to al dente. Be sure to add a generous amount of salt to the boiling water. It may seem like an insignificant step, but it makes a huge difference in the overall taste of this mac and cheese (or any pasta dish for that matter). Drain then toss with a little butter and set aside
- Make the topping by combining the topping ingredients then set aside
- Make the cheese sauce while the pasta cooks, melt the butter in another pot, then stir in the flour and cook it for a few minutes until golden. Slowly whisk in the milk, followed by the seasonings. The sauce will start to thicken up after a few minutes. Slowly whisk in half the cheese
- Add pasta the pot with the cheesy sauce, and gently toss
- Pour half the Mac and cheese into prepared pan followed by a layer of half the remaining cheese then repeat with the remaining Mac and cheese and remaining cheese.
- Top with the buttery parmesan panko
- Bake until bubbling and golden!
Tips & Tricks for this Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese:
- Measure out all of your ingredients and have them ready when you start the sauce. This is especially true of the cheese as it shouldn’t be cold when added to the base.
- Cook the pasta al dente - don’t over cook it because it will continue to cook in the cheese sauce and will become gummy
- The creamy sauce should still be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. The sauce will thicken when you add the cheese and also when the pasta is added and as it cools. So don’t worry about cooking the sauce until it’s super thick before adding the cheese. Expect it to be a thinner sauce, than a typical bechamél. The sauce will thicken when it bakes. Stick to the time notations in the directions.
- This recipe is best eaten fresh and right away while it’s hot.
- Be sure to let the roux (flour + butter) cook for a few minutes - this cooks the raw flour taste out and gives the finished dish more flavor.
- Try to cook the pasta and sauce at the same time if possible- that way it’s quicker to make and the hot drained pasta mixes better into the sauce.
- Use a variety of cheeses - great time to get rid off you odds and ends of cheese in the fridge and be sure to freshly grate your cheese
- Melt the Cheese Slowly, in Batches. Once the sauce is thick, it’s time to add the cheese. To avoid graininess, reduce the heat to low and add the hand grated cheese in small batches, whisking or stirring to fully combine after adding each addition of cheese.
Can This baked Mac and Cheese be Made Ahead?
This Baked Mac and cheese can be made up to 3 days ahead of time. The entire dish can be assembled pre-bake with cheese on top (except for the buttered panko, tightly wrapped in foil and refrigerated until ready to use. When ready to serve, uncover casserole, top with buttered panko and bake for about 30 minutes or until casserole is bubbling and golden brown on top. I Recommend cooling the pasta and the sauce so its just warm before stirring them together and assembling this baked Mac and cheese - this will help prevent the macaroni from over cooking or getting gummy especially as it will be sitting in the sauce for a longer period.
Can Baked Mac and Cheese be Frozen?
This Baked Mac and Cheese can be frozen for up to 2 months. The entire dish can be assembled pre-baked (including the buttered panko), tightly wrapped in foil and stored in the freezer until ready to use. Again - I Recommend cooling the pasta and the sauce so its just warm before stirring them together and assembling this baked Mac and cheese - this will help prevent the macaroni from over cooking or getting gummy especially as it will be sitting in the sauce for a longer period. When ready to serve, bake covered casserole in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes or until casserole is bubbling and golden brown on top.
More Pasta Dishes You Will Love:
For The Panko Parmesan Topping
- ½ cup panko bread crumbs
- ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
- 2 Tablespoons melted butter
For The Pasta
- 1 lb of macaroni
- 1 tablespoon butter
For The Cheese Sauce
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- ½ cup all purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk or mixed with half and half
- 4 cups shredded medium sharp cheddar cheese divided measured after shredding)or mix of Gruyère
- 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese divided (measured after shredding) or fontina
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon mustard powder
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 375°F and grease a 3qt or 9x13 baking dish or casserole dish with cooking spray, butter or a little olive oil.
- Shred and combine all the cheese in one bowl to combine (ignore if using only one type of cheese)
- Prepare Topping: In a medium bowl combine the melted butter with the grated parmesan cheese and the Panko bread crumbs. Set aside
- Cook pasta: Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add the macaroni and cook per packet directions to al dente or just shy of al dente. Drain then toss past with 1 tablespoon of butter or toss with a little olive oil. Set aside while you make the cheese sauce
- Make Cheese Sauce: Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle in flour and whisk to combine. Cook for approximately 1 minute, whisking often. Add about 1 cup of the milk and mix to dissolve the paste into the milk. Then slowly drizzle in the remaining milk while whisking while you pour it in. Continue to heat, whisking often, until thickened and coats back of spoon, approx 5-8 min.
- Add Seasonings: Reduce heat to low then stir in salt and Seasonings if using. Then stir in half the cheese (approx 3 cups of it) a little at a time - stir until melted or mostly melted
- Stir in the pasta gently to fully combine. Pour half of the pasta mixture into the prepared baking dish. Top with half of the remaining cheese then top with remaining pasta then the remaining cheese on top.
- Top with Panko parmesan crumb mixture
- Transfer to oven and bake bake for 15-20 minutes, until cheesy is bubbly and lightly golden brown. Feel free to broil for two minutes after for crispy edges. Remove from oven when down and let rest a couple of minutes then serve hot straight from the casserole dish
- Storage: Refrigerate for 3-4 days in an airtight container in the fridge or freeze in a heavy duty freezer bag or air tight container for up to 2 months. Reheat in the microwave.
- Can I use pre-shredded cheese? Pre-shredded cheeses are mixed with either potato starch, powdered anti clumping agents and additives. These agents have an impact on how the cheese melts. For best result use freshly shredded cheese as it melts better, but pre-shredded cheese can also be used in a pinch. The results may not be as velvety smooth, but it’ll still taste delicious.
- Do you put eggs in baked Mac and cheese? This recipe does not use any eggs in it and typically Mac and cheese doesn’t include eggs in it
- Should I put foil over my Mac and cheese? Covering with foil is not necessary in this recipe unless you notice your baked Mac and cheese getting too brown on top too quickly - then loosely tent with foil - the pasta is already cooked so no need to trap and steam with tightly wrapped foil - we are just baking it to get golden and for all the cheese to melt
- How Do you keep Mac and Cheese Creamy? For a creamy make and cheese versus a gummy one - make sure not to over cook the pasta, don’t over thicken the cheese sauce (this will help prevent your Mac and cheese from drying out) and enjoy the same day you make it - unfortunately like other baked pastas heating up leftovers is never the same texture.
- Although cheese is high in saturated fat and sodium, it is also rich in calcium and protein, and some fermented types contain probiotics. That being said I still would not look at the nutrition or count calories unless you are measuring calcium - this is a dish to be enjoyed as a bit of a splurge and made to be shared with others