Macaroni and cheese is one of those weeknight recipes that’s always a better option than fast food. We're not talking about the stuff in the blue box either. Homemade mac and cheese doesn’t require that much time or effort, the ingredients are inexpensive, and we don’t know anyone who turns up their nose at mac and cheese.
In this post, we’ll share some of the top tips we found for elevating your mac and cheese to perfection. We’ll also highlight a few recipes worth trying, including the one we make at least two or three times each month.
Top Tips for Mac and Cheese
1. Start with the right cheese, and lots of it. It’s called macaroni and cheese, so don’t be stingy with the cheese. Shred your own cheese; bagged cheese doesn’t melt as well. Also, choose a couple contrasting varieties of cheese to blend the flavors. Cheese is the whole point of mac and cheese; the pasta is merely the vehicle for the cheese.
2. Start with the right pasta, too. Macaroni is a fine vehicle for your cheese, but you can also use shells (the smaller variety) and other pasta shapes with curls and twirls. Long, thin pastas like spaghetti and small pastas like orzo aren’t well-suited to mac and cheese.
3. Know how to make a roux. A white sauce (also known as béchamel or roux) will help ensure your cheese sauce is creamy, not clumpy. Make your roux even richer by substituting cream for a portion of the milk.
4. Season your sauce. Salt is non-negotiable, but you can get creative with other seasonings. One suggestion we found was mustard powder, which you may already use when making quiche. Start with a dash, and add more to taste.
5. Melt your cheese. Add a bit of cheese at a time and whisk thoroughly until it’s melted. Then add some more and keep whisking. Taking your time will help improve the texture of your sauce.
6. Undercook your pasta and save some water. Recipes always call for pasta to be cooked al dente. With mac and cheese, you want to give your pasta room to cook a little more, on the stovetop or in the oven, without getting too soft. Whether you think you’ll need it or not, save some pasta water to help thicken your sauce.
7. Don’t forget the crunch. Complement the creamy texture of your cheese sauce with a crunchy topping. Bread crumbs will work, though we prefer panko for the extra crunch. Food Network suggests a pretzel crumb topping, which we think is genius. Instead of adding extra melting cheese on top, try mixing parmesan with your crunchy topping.
Mac and Cheese Recipes to Try
This recipe from Southern Living is a classic. We have to admit southerners know how to do mac and cheese right, among many other decadent dishes. The only element missing is a crunchy topping.
We’re intrigued by the grated onion and Worcestershire sauce in this recipe, which will both add some zip. Mustard powder, nutmeg, and cayenne will also boost the flavor. Keep in mind this recipe is intended to serve ten people as a side dish. It’s definitely one to make for a large group, or halve the ingredients as a weeknight dish.
This recipe shared by John Legend on the Martha Stewart Show back in the early 2010’s is different from any we’ve seen before: there’s no roux. Instead, John whisks together evaporated milk, skim milk, and eggs, along with seasonings. Then he layers cooked macaroni and shredded cheese in the baking dish, and then pours the liquid mixture over the top before baking. Interesting, right?
We checked the comments on John Legend’s recipe and found rave reviews, almost exclusively. One reader found that her eggs started to scramble, which makes us wonder if the macaroni was still steaming hot when she assembled all the layers. Even so, we’re looking forward to giving this recipe a try. If Chrissy Teigen will eat it, so will we.
Finally, this recipe from The Food Charlatan is our go-to mac and cheese recipe. We do use one part cream to two parts milk in our cheese sauce, but we don’t always add the full amount of sliced cheese in the middle. Instead, we snip a stick of string cheese into chunks and stir those into the pasta and cheese sauce. This strategy creates occasional bites of stringy mozzarella in each serving. Our kids wholeheartedly approve.