How to make the BEST classic mac and cheese – super indulgent, rich, creamy, satisfying, and the ultimate comfort dish for weeknights and holidays!
There’s a reason why mac and cheese is a household favorite for thousands, if not millions, of households. Using a combination of cheeses folded into a super creamy sauce, then mixed with perfectly cooked macaroni and optionally topped with more cheese and baked – it’s the ultimate creamy, gooey, delicious, comforting dinner for children and adults alike.
Unfortunately, when made incorrectly, macaroni and cheese can taste lackluster and miss the super cheesy deliciousness we’re all searching for. But that’s why it’s so important to find yourself the perfect classic mac and cheese recipe, like this one. Once you have that sorted, the variations and possibilities for this dish are practically endless.
Best of all, it’s made with simple kitchen/pantry staples and is easy to prepare. It’s the perfect comfort food to enjoy as a side or main with garlic bread, roasted broccoli and cauliflower, brisket, and more!
Mac and Cheese Ingredients
This easy mac and cheese recipe relies on simple, inexpensive kitchen and pantry staples.
- Macaroni: While it’s possible to enjoy other short pasta (rotelle, shells, penne), for a classic homemade mac and cheese recipe, use elbow macaroni.
- Cheese: I love to use a combination of sharp cheddar cheese (important for a strong cheese flavor) and something super melty but slightly milder, like mozzarella (or Gruyere, Monterey Jack, etc.)
- Heavy cream: (Double cream) While making a lighter version with just milk is possible, using a portion of heavy cream helps make this the creamiest mac and cheese.
- Milk: It’s best to use whole milk, though lower-fat versions will work and make the sauce less creamy.
- Flour: Regular all-purpose flour will help create the roux base for this thick cheese sauce. A gluten-free flour blend should also work fine.
- Butter: The other key ingredient for the roux. It’s possible to use olive oil instead, but you lose the extra buttery richness.
- Seasonings: Along with regular salt and black pepper, I love to add just a little mustard powder, which adds depth and enhances the cheesy flavor without adding much heat.
What Is the Best Cheese for Mac and Cheese?
To make the best cheese sauce for mac and cheese, I recommend using at least 50% of a super sharp, strong flavored cheese (like sharp cheddar optionally combined with parmesan) and something perhaps a little more mellow but super melty and gooey.
For this easy mac cheese recipe, I used mozzarella. However, any melting cheese can be experimented with. I.e., Emmental, American, Jack, Colby, Gruyere, Fontina, and young Gouda, Swiss, or Provolone. Some will be creamy, others add nutty/complex flavor, etc.
How to Make Mac and Cheese
There are just a few simple steps to follow.
Boil the Pasta
First, cook the pasta in a large pot with plenty of salted water following the time on its package instructions but minus 1-2 minutes for an al dente texture.
How to Make Mac and Cheese Sauce
Meanwhile, while boiling the water to cook the pasta, shred the cheese and mix it. Reserve 1-2 cups to the side as a topping (if you plan to bake it).
Then, melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once hot, sieve in the flour and whisk well for about a minute.
Next, slowly/gradually pour in the cream and milk while constantly whisking to ensure a smooth sauce. Continue to cook, whisking very often, until it thickens.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cheese in 2-3 batches, stirring carefully between each one (this method helps avoid graininess/separation). Then season to taste with salt, pepper, and optional mustard powder. The sauce should be smooth and delicious.
Finally, drain the pasta and toss it into the sauce and stir well to combine. You can optionally serve it immediately or go on to the next step for a mac and cheese bake.
Do You Have to Bake Mac and Cheese?
All the elements are already pre-cooked, so it isn’t mandatory to bake it. But if you don’t, you’ll miss out on the slightly crisp, gooey melted cheese topping of baked mac and cheese. To save time, you could broil mac and cheese for just a few minutes.
I like transferring the pasta to an oven-proof baking dish, sprinkling the top with the remaining grated cheese I set aside, and baking it at 325ºF/160ºC until it melts and is cheesy, bubbly, and golden brown (about 15 minutes).
For crunchy texture, sprinkle over some dried bread crumbs (regular or panko) before baking.
Top Tips for the Best Mac and Cheese Recipe
- Cook the pasta al dente: It’s important to cook the pasta slightly less than normal as it will continue to cook in the sauce, and you don’t want it mushy.
- Avoid pre-shredded cheese: It contains a starchy substance to stop clumping that keeps it from melting smoothly, making the sauce grainy/chalky.
- Use enough cheese: I’m convinced any skeptics have only tried lackluster, barely cheesy versions. So don’t skimp on the cheese!
- To save time: Shred your cheese using a shredding disk in your food processor or mixer attachment. If grating by hand, first freeze the cheese blocks for 10 minutes.
- Be patient when making the sauce: It’s important to first make a smooth roux, then slowly and gradually whisk in the cream/milk, whisking constantly, so it becomes smooth and super creamy.
- Be careful not to overbake: The macaroni will overcook, and the sauce will start soaking up, making a drier pasta dish.
Make Ahead Mac and Cheese
The best way to prep/store creamy mac and cheese is to make it as directed without the baking step, then leave it to cool. Transfer the pasta to an airtight container and store it in the refrigerator for 2-3 days before baking, though note leftovers will store for 4-5 days in total.
Can You Freeze Mac and Cheese?
You can freeze the macaroni and cheese at two points: before baking or after, as leftovers. However, it’s best to do so before, as it thaws/reheats better (as it can become a little grainy when reheated twice). Either way, the pasta will be softer upon thawing.
To do so, freeze the pasta in a freezer-safe baking dish or portion it into Ziplock bags (excess air removed) for up to 4 months. Allow it to thaw in the refrigerator before reheating.
How to Reheat Mac and Cheese?
There are several ways to reheat the pasta. If it isn’t baked, I reheat it on the stovetop or in a microwave. Add about a tablespoon of milk per cup of pasta to help loosen up the sauce. Stir often.
If it’s baked, you can place it back in the oven at 350ºF/175ºC until warmed through. This will vary based on the portion you’re heating, but generally takes 15-20 minutes. You can also reheat it from frozen, but it will take much longer (60+ minutes).
What to Serve with Mac and Cheese
The perfect pairings will depend on whether you plan to serve it as a side dish or main. For example, as a side, I love enjoying it with dishes that contrast the rich creaminess:
- Over or alongside burgers and hotdogs,
- With chicken – baked chicken breast, chicken wings, chicken tenders, etc.
It will also work wonderfully as part of your Thanksgiving or Christmas table.
As a main dish, though, I love to enjoy a bowl of mac n’ cheese with:
- Garlic bread, cornbread, or other bread,
- A simple side salad – kale salad, broccoli salad, or cucumber salad,
- Sauteed spinach,
- Other veggies – asparagus, green beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, corn on the cob, roasted tomatoes, etc.
More Easy Pasta Recipes
- Feta and Beet Pasta
- Pasta Aglio e Olio
- Roasted Cherry Tomato Pasta
- Pink Pasta Recipe
- One-Pot Pasta Bake
If you try this classic macaroni and cheese recipe, let me know how it goes in the comments below. I’d appreciate a recipe card rating and would love to see your recipe recreations – tag me on Instagram @Alphafoodie!
The Best Mac and Cheese Recipe
- 16 oz elbow macaroni pasta 3 cups, uncooked
- 16 oz cheddar cheese extra sharp; about 4 cups shredded; OR combine 3 cups cheddar + 1 cup parmesan
- 8 oz mozzarella or American cheese, or other melting cheese (gruyere, Monterey Jack); about 2 cups shredded
- 2 cups heavy cream (double cream) or make a lighter version by reducing or replacing the cream with more milk
- 1.5 cups whole milk
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour or a gluten-free AP blend
- 1/2 cup butter (1 stick/8 Tbsp)
- 1/2 tablespoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon mustard seed powder optional – gives more cheesy flavor
Boil the Pasta
- Cook the pasta in a large pot with plenty of salted water following the time on its package instructions but minus 1-2 minutes for an al dente texture.The pasta will continue to cook in the sauce, so undercooking it by a minute or two is important to avoid mushy pasta.
Make the Cheese Sauce
- While boiling the water to cook the pasta, shred the cheese and mix it. Reserve 1-2 cups to the side as a topping (if you plan to bake it).
- Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once hot, sieve in the flour and whisk well for about a minute.
- Slowly/gradually pour in the cream and milk while constantly whisking to ensure a smooth sauce. Continue to cook, whisking very often, until it thickens.
- Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cheese in 2-3 batches, stirring carefully between each one (this method helps avoid graininess/separation). Then season to taste with salt, pepper, and optional mustard powder. It should be smooth and delicious.If the sauce is too thick, add a little more milk. If it's too thin, continue to simmer it for slightly longer.
- Drain the pasta, toss it into the sauce, and stir well to combine. You can optionally serve it immediately or go on to the next step for a mac and cheese bake.
Bake It (Optional)
- Transfer the pasta to an oven-proof baking dish, sprinkle the top with the remaining grated cheese, and bake it at 325ºF/160ºC until it melts and is cheesy, bubbly, and golden brown (about 15 minutes).For crunchy texture, sprinkle over some dried bread crumbs (regular or panko) before baking.
- Other seasonings: Increase the flavor complexity with paprika, garlic powder, cayenne pepper/ red pepper flakes (for heat), dried herbs, etc. Season to taste.
- Sauces: Stir in some pesto, buffalo sauce, or salsa.
- Add-ins: shredded chicken, sausage, tuna, peas, corn, cooked broccoli, cauliflower, sauteed mushrooms, spinach or kale, chili beans, sliced jalapenos, etc.