This baked mac and cheese recipe is easy to make and has the creamiest texture! It uses three different cheeses (cheddar, gruyere & parmesan) in the sauce for a delicious flavour and a breadcrumb topping for that crispy crust.
The Best Mac and Cheese Recipe
For the Sauce & Pasta:
- 45 g (3 tbsp) butter
- 3 tbsp plain white flour
- 620 ml (2 1/2 cups) milk (I use semi-skimmed or whole milk)
- 200 g Mature cheddar cheese grated
- 200 g Gruyere cheese grated
- 60 g Parmesan cheese (or vegetarian hard cheese) grated
- 2 tsp lemon juice or apple cider vinegar
- 1 tsp marmite/vegemite, white miso or dark soy sauce optional
- 1 tsp American yellow mustard or Dijon mustard optional
- 1/2 tsp smoked paprika optional
- 1/2 tsp MSG optional
- salt to taste
- 500 g dry pasta I like macaroni or cavatappi (fusilli corti bucati)
For the topping:
- a large handful panko breadcrumbs
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- black pepper freshly ground
For the sauce
- Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F (225 degrees C).
- Add the butter to a medium pot and melt over a medium heat. Add the flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring often, to toast the flour slightly.
- Gradually whisk in the milk until you have a smooth sauce. Cook until the sauce is gently steaming and has thickened slightly (it will still be quite thin). Remove from the heat.
- Mix together all of the grated cheese and set aside a couple of large handfuls of the cheese mixture for sprinkling on later. Take the remaining grated cheese and add to the pot of sauce. Stir until the cheese has melted.
- Add the lemon juice/vinegar, marmite (or miso/soy sauce), mustard, smoked paprika and MSG (if using) into the sauce. Taste and season with salt, as needed (remember that once the cooked pasta is mixed in it will taste less salty).
- Cook the dry pasta in a large pot of boiling water until al dente (usually 2 minutes less than instructed on the packet). Drain, and tip into a deep baking dish (I use a 9 x 13 inch metal roasting dish).
- Pour the hot sauce over the cooked pasta and stir together to coat. Sprinkle the reserved grated cheese on top followed by the breadcrumbs. Drizzle with the olive oil and season with black pepper.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes until the topping has browned and the mixture is bubbling.
Ingredients for mac & cheese
- Dry pasta – see below for more info but TLDR is to choose a short pasta shape (preferably hollow) and cook until al dente
- Butter – this is used for making your roux (a butter-flour paste) which helps thicken the cheese sauce. If you prefer, you can replace the butter with an equal amount of olive oil.
- Flour – this is also part of the roux. The starch in the flour absorbs liquid from the milk and gelatinises which just means that it helps to thicken the sauce.
- Milk – it’s essential for the sauce to have a liquid component so it has the right texture! Now, it’s best to use a semi-skimmed/whole cow’s milk here but you could actually get away with skimmed milk or even water tbh (more on that below). Otherwise, I’ve had success using unsweetened, plain soy milk, almond milk or oat milk.
- Cheese – there’s more info on choosing types of cheese below but the main gist is that if not doing a blend of cheeses, go with a mature cheddar. It has a good salty, tangy flavour and has some gooey stretch to it
- Breadcrumbs – scattering these over the mac and cheese before baking leads to a crsipy crunchy crust as the breadcrumbs become golden in the oven.
- Optional flavour boosters – more on this below but I like to add marmite, MSG, vinegar/lemon juice, mustard & smoked paprika to my mac & cheese sauce for more flavour.
How to make mac & cheese
It’s overall quite a simple process once you get the hang of making a good cheese sauce. The method here can be used with basically any cheese sauce & pasta combo so you can make it your own.
- Make a roux: melt butter in a pot, add flour and cook for a couple of minutes to toast the flour.
- Add milk: gradually whisk milk into the roux until fully combined and smooth. Cook until the starch in the flour gelatinises and thickens the sauce. This is now a ‘white sauce’ or ‘bechamel sauce’.
- Add cheese: stir the grated cheese into the sauce until it has melted. This is now a cheese sauce!
- Add flavourings: any extra flavour boost ingredients like herbs or spices can be added now.
- Cook the pasta: in a pot of boiling water until al dente (slightly firm/undercooked) – this is so that when it’s in the oven, the pasta becomes perfectly cooked. If you cook the pasta to well-done before baking, it can become mushy in the oven.
- Combine: drain the pasta and combine with the sauce. You can serve the mac & cheese now if you like (this is known as a ‘stovetop mac and cheese’) or you can….
- BAKE: top with breadcrumbs and grated cheese then bake until bubbling and crisp.
Choosing a pasta for mac & cheese
First of all, the best shapes for a mac and cheese are the shorter ones (i.e. not spaghetti/tagliatelle etc…) as they work better for holding onto the sauce, for ease of serving and for texture. Obviously macaroni is a perfect shape as the hollow centre can fill with cheese sauce. Other hollow pasta shapes which work well are penne rigate and rigatoni (ziti).
My favourite is cavatappi which is like a swirly/ twisty version of macaroni – it goes by a few names e.g. I bought the De Cecco version which is called ‘fusilli corti bucati‘. Otherwise you can go for fusilli, farfalle or orecchiete but I don’t think they work as well for holding onto the cheese sauce!
Cooking the pasta until al dente
This is something I think is SO important when you’re making a baked mac & cheese. Cooking the pasta 1-2 mins less than advised on the packet keeps the pasta a bit firm (al dente means ‘to the tooth’ i.e. it should still have some ‘bite’). This means that when the pasta is baking in the oven, it will reach a fully cooked consistency. If you boil the pasta to be soft, by the time it has been baked it will be overcooked and mushy!
How long should mac & cheese be baked for?
I’m a firm believer that mac and cheese should be baked in a very HOT oven and only for a shorter period of time (15-20 minutes). This stops the pasta from overcooking & absorbing too much of the liquid from the sauce (two things which lead to dry, mushy mac & cheese). For this to work though you must have warm/hot cheese sauce and warm/hot pasta, mixed together and baked ASAP. If the ingredients are already hot when they go into the oven, they don’t require a long bake time to get everything piping hot, melty & CRISPY.
What cheeses to use in mac & cheese?
I think a blend of cheeses gives the best result as you get varying flavours, textures and salt/tang from different cheeses. However, if you can’t be bothered or want to keep costs down just replace all the cheese with a nice mature cheddar and you’ll be good to go.
- Generally I always use a mature cheddar cheese as my ‘base’ – even if you don’t tend to like eating mature cheddar it really helps in a sauce as the strong flavour helps to amp up the cheesiness of the whole dish. Remember that the milk in the sauce and the pasta you mix in will dilute the cheesiness so strong flavours are needed!
- Next up I like to add a cheese with a nutty, more complex flavour like a Gruyere or a Gouda – they’re creamy but have a different thing going on to cheddar.
- Lastly I love adding a portion of hard cheese e.g. Parmesan, Pecorino, Grana Padano or vegetarian hard cheese. These ones have super salty, super strong flavours so turn the sauce up to max!
- You can mix in a bit of pre-grated (i.e. low moisture) mozzarella for stretch but I don’t think it’s super necessary as it doesn’t do much for the flavour.
Can you make mac & cheese without milk?
Yes! It won’t turn out as creamy but you can always use water in your sauce in place of milk. The flour in the roux will help to make the sauce have a bit of a creamy texture, not to mention all that melted cheese!! That said, if using just water in your cheese sauce, it’s nice to add a bit of some other dairy to reintroduce some of that missing creaminess – if you have any cream, cream cheese/soft cheese, mascarpone, creme fraiche or sour cream, add a splash of that into the sauce and you’ll never know the milk was missing!
If you have unsweetened, plain non-dairy milks like soy milk, almond milk or oat milk you can use those too.
Can you make mac & cheese without butter?
Yes! Many a time I’ve not had any butter so have used olive oil instead (you can use vegetable oil but I think olive oil adds a nice flavour). I generally will replace the butter with an equal quantity of olive oil so, for this recipe, use 3 tbsp of olive oil.
Add-ins to boost the flavour
When I first started making mac & cheese I thought the extra bits & bobs were unnecessary. However I’ve come to realise the importance of adding a few things which make mac and cheese taste super cheesy without having to make a sauce out of pure melted cheese:
- SALT – okay it may seem obvious but this is something that is completely underrated. I’ve had so many crappy mac & cheeses from restaurants because they’re underseasoned. Yes, cheese is salty but you know what? Once the cheese sauce is mixed with pasta, it loses a lot of that saltiness. You NEED to season your cheese sauce! I like to add a bit more than I think I want as, once mixed with the pasta, it will be brought back to the right level.
- ACIDITY – cheese is actually quite a tangy/acidic thing which can be masked by its saltiness. I hadn’t realised until a couple of years ago that adding a bit of lemon juice or vinegar to a cheese sauce boosts that tangy taste which tricks you into thinking it’s extra cheesey.
- MSG – think of this like salt, it helps to amplify flavours. Specifically, MSG really highlights savoury (umami) flavours which we love in a cheesy sauce. This is optional as I know lots of people won’t have it to hand!
- MARMITE/MISO/SOY SAUCE – these are all savoury products which have concentrated umami flavours. Adding just a smidge to your cheese sauce will make it taste more complex. Even if you don’t like marmite usually, you might enjoy it in a cheese sauce – there’s such a small amount in there it doesn’t taste ‘marmitey’, just more savoury and delicious.
- MUSTARD – I like to add American yellow mustard to my mac & cheese sauce as it makes it taste more complex AND has a bit of acidity to it which, if you see above, helps boost the cheesy flavour. You can also use dijon which isn’t as tangy but has more of a mustardy flavour.
- SMOKED PAPRIKA – a small amount adds a hint of smoky, savouryness which I think is delicious with cheese. It’s no prob to leave this out if you need to though.
I’m sure there are other things you can add in e.g. garlic or Worcestershire sauce a la Jamie Oliver’s recipe but the above are the ingredients I turn to again and again.
Other dairy product inclusions
Sometimes I have a pot of creme fraiche, cream cheese or sour cream in the fridge. When this is the case, and I’m making mac & cheese, I’ll often add a few generous tablespoons of any of those tangy dairy products into the cheese sauce. They’re fatty so will enrich the sauce but all have a degree of acidity to them so make the sauce taste SO moreish.
Alternative: stove-top mac & cheese
Follow the recipe as written but, once the pasta and sauce are mixed, serve it up! No need for topping with breadcrumbs. You can sprinkle on the extra grated cheese (meant for topping the bake) before serving if you like or, only grate 175g cheddar, 175g gruyere & 50g parmesan for using in the sauce.
Alternative: tortellini mac & cheese
Reduce the amount of dry pasta to 300g. Once the cooked pasta has been mixed with the cheese sauce, stir in one (250-300g) pack of uncooked tortellini pasta (the kind from the chilled aisle which only takes 2-4 minutes to cook). Top with cheese & breadcrumbs and bake as usual.
Alternative: broccoli mac & cheese
The best way to do this is to cook the broccoli with the pasta. As broccoli florets only takes 6 minutes to boil, add them to the pot of boiling pasta 6 minutes before your pasta is ‘al dente’. Drain them together.
For one tray bake, use 1 to 2 heads of broccoli (depending on size), cut into small florets.
Alternative: cauliflower mac & cheese
I much prefer roasted cauliflower over boiled so this is what I usually do:
- Cut up a head of cauliflower into small florets.
- Toss the cauliflower florets with 1 tbsp olive oil and a pinch of salt. Place them into the dish you intend to use for baking your mac and cheese in later.
- Roast at 180C (350F) for 30 minutes until golden and soft. You can now mix the pasta and sauce directly into the dish of roasted cauliflower and bake the mac & cheese.