Baked Mac and Cheese

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The is the best Baked Mac and Cheese we’ve ever tasted! It’s ridiculously creamy, cheesy, and rich with the perfect blend of cheeses and the ultimate crispy topping! Plus, it’s not a recipe you need to slave over all day — we’ve made it as simple as possible!

Love mac and cheese? Us too! Try our Jalapeño Popper Mac & Cheese or BBQ Pork Mac & Cheese that is made in one pot!

Overhead image of Baked Mac and Cheese

What To Expect From This Recipe

Here I’ve been sharing recipes for nearly 8 years and yet, I’ve included a standard baked mac and cheese recipe. What in the what?! Let me tell you, I have tried working through dozens of iterations over the years, and to be honest, none have been worth sharing — until now of course.

I think I’ve tried every cheese combination under the sun and so many cheese-to-noodle ratios that I’ve lost count. And then there’s the topping, which had to be crunchy, crispy, and tie everything together. Beyond the flavors needing to be robust, I didn’t want a recipe that took a decade to make– because let’s be honest, it’s mac and cheese and who’s got time for lengthy mac and cheese prep?!

So, with persistence, I finally present our favorite Baked Mac and Cheese recipe.

What should you expect? This recipe is ridiculously rich, creamy, and fully loaded with an ungodly amount of cheese. It’s very indulgent tasting with a generous amount of a cheesy, creamy sauce. The pasta is well encased in plenty of said sauce because nothing is more grievous than a dry plateful of mac and cheese! 

Yes, I do try to share more nutritious recipes on this site, but this is not intended to be one of those recipes. It’s supposed to be a once-in-a-while indulgence or something special to grace your holiday table this year. This begs the question, is mac and cheese a must-have holiday side dish at your home? It will certainly be on our holiday tables this year!

Process shots-- images of the pasta and butter being added to a pot

Baked Mac And Cheese: Troubleshooting The Sauce

  • Why is the sauce runny? Most likely, the flour-butter mixture was not cooked long enough. Wait until the flour gets nice and toasty before adding in the milk so it can thicken up properly. Another possibility is the flour mixture and milk weren’t given enough time to bind together over the heat. Take the runny sauce and put it back on the stovetop over medium-high heat and continue to cook, while whisking, until it does thicken up. Don’t take it off the heat until you’ve got a thickened and creamy sauce.
  • Why are there brown flecks throughout the sauce? If you see small brown flecks or taste a touch of nuttiness, the butter-flour mixture was over-cooked and the flour was toasted instead of cooked. When the flour gets toasted, it becomes harder to fully incorporate into the milk. As long as the nutty taste doesn’t bother you, it’s fine to proceed and next time add the milk a little bit sooner. If the taste does bother you, you may want to start the sauce again with new butter and flour.
  • Why is the sauce so thick? If the sauce is too thick, the milk and flour mixture were simply cooked a little too long and the sauce thickened too much. Easy fix: add a touch more milk to thin out the sauce until you reach the desired consistency.
  • Why is the sauce clumpy or not smooth? Most likely you didn’t use a whisk, or the mixture was not whisked enough when adding in the milk. Because the milk is gradually added to the butter-flour mixture, it’s really important to whisk constantly. While there isn’t much that can be done with a clumpy sauce (beyond starting again), rest assured that once the cheese and pasta are mixed in, the clumps won’t be as noticeable in this creamy Baked Mac and Cheese.

Process shots of Baked Mac and Cheese-- the butter, seasonings, flour, and milk being added and all being mixed together

Let’s Chat Milk

We’ve tested Baked Mac and Cheese with whole milk, low-fat milk, dairy milk alternatives, heavy cream, evaporated milk, and all kinds of combinations therein. 

Our two top recommendations: either evaporated milk (tester favorite!) or whole milk.

If you use low-fat, nonfat, or dairy-free milk, the sauce will end up tasting gross and a little watery–trust me on this one. It just won’t thicken the same. 

QUICK TIP

What’s evaporated milk? In some countries it is called “unsweetened condensed milk” and essentially it is a canned cow’s milk product that is shelf-stable. 60% of the water has been removed from the fresh milk making it a more flavorful and creamy product to use this recipe. (By the way, sweetened condensed milk contains added sugar and wouldn’t work in this recipe — it would make it too sweet!)

Process shots-- adding the cheese to the cream mixture and then pouring it over pasta

Baked Mac And Cheese: The Cheeses

Obviously, cheese is important — it’s the make-or-break factor in a good homemade Baked Mac And Cheese. Here’s what we found when testing:

  1. You don’t need to spend extra money on fancy and super-expensive cheeses. Just because the cheese is more expensive doesn’t mean the mac and cheese will taste better. Some of the most delicious cheeses you’ve had on a cheese board simply just don’t translate to an amazing mac and cheese.
  2. The more aged the cheese is, the cheesier the flavor. For a really tasty and Cheddar-y mac and cheese, look for a more aged Cheddar. Most of the Cheddars you’ll find in the grocery store are aged around 3 months. But you can find some brands that age 9-15 months which will give you the most robust flavor. (Tillamook® sharp or Tillamook extra sharp are 2 of our favorites — Tillamook’s sharp is typically aged 9 months and extra sharp is aged 15-24 months). How do you know how long Cheddar is aged? It will usually tell you on the package or you can peruse online grocery stores where it will typically tell you how long each cheese is aged in parentheses. As a general rule, seeing the word “sharp” alerts you to aging. That said, not all cheeses need aging to taste good. Some cheeses are used to highlight other flavors or to emphasize creaminess in the mac and cheese. For cheeses like Cheddar, pecorino, Parmesan, or blue cheese — the older the better. As far as other cheeses go, aging is not super relevant for this recipe. 
  3. Always grate your own cheese. Yes, this is supposed to be an easy Baked Mac and Cheese recipe, but grating is essential! The already grated store-bought cheese will give the sauce a powdery texture and won’t melt as nicely. (The cheeses have a powder coating to keep them from clumping in the bag.)
  4. What combo of cheese should I use? We’ve tried so many different combinations of cheeses and hands-down the favorite: sharp (or extra sharp) Cheddarsmoked GoudaGruyere. I personally won’t make it any other way nowadays! That said, here are two other combos we enjoyed: 2 cups sharp Cheddar and 1 cup smoked Gouda, 2 cups Gruyere and 1 cup mozzarella. 

QUICK TIP

If shopping for cheeses is a bit overwhelming, use a grocery pick-up service (if available). It’s as easy as typing in the variety of cheese and someone else will find it for you — best service ever!

Process shots--mixing everything together and transferring it to the pan, where it is sprinkled with Parmesan cheese

How To Make Baked Mac And Cheese 

These are our top tips for making the best Baked Mac and Cheese:

  • Use panko! Panko is simply the best. It’s the crispiest and crunchiest breadcrumb with a nice crunchy pop! Regular breadcrumbs are chewier.
  • If you have a heavy-bottomed pot to cook the sauce in, that will keep the milk from burning and allow everything to cook evenly.
  • Salt is cheese’s best friend: If your Baked Mac and Cheese doesn’t taste “cheesy” enough, chances are it’s a salting issue. Try adding a touch more salt and see if that doesn’t make a world of difference. And along these lines, not all salts season the same. If using table salt, use about half of what you would if using kosher salt. Salt slowly and to personal taste preference.
  • Salt the pasta water. Make sure the pasta is well-salted as it cooks since salting is the only chance you have to season the actual pasta. As a general rule of thumb, I add 1 teaspoon of salt to every 4 cups of water.
  • The pasta you use matters. If the pasta is too small or fragile, it may fall apart when cooked (especially since it’s cooked twice — boiled then baked!) Pasta with more shape, ridges, or edges helps to capture the cheese sauce best. 
  • Cook till al dente. Even though the pasta is cooked twice, we don’t want it to be mushy! Cook the pasta for 1 minute less than package directs since it will get perfectly al dente as it bakes in the cheese sauce. 
  • Use a large pot. If the pasta is cooked in a pot too small or there isn’t enough water, the water will get too starchy and the pasta will develop a sticky texture. Allow plenty of room and plenty of water! (Seasoned cooks will tell you that pasta needs to swim in boiling water, not merely soak.) Immediately after draining, toss the pasta in some butter to keep it from sticking together.

How Long To Bake Mac And Cheese

To avoid baking away the sauce, don’t bake for longer than 10-15 minutes!

Process shots of Baked Mac and Cheese-- images of the Panko topping being toasted and added to the dish

VARIATIONS

Baked Mac and Cheese Variations

Once you’ve got a good basic mac and cheese recipe (what we’re hoping to provide you with today!) the possibilities are near endless. You can mix just about anything you want into your mac and cheese. Okay, probably don’t add in edible cookie dough, but then again,I’m not telling you how to live your best life. 🙂

  • Easy Baked Mac and Cheese: Keep things simple by only using two types of cheese. Use the cheese-grater attachment on a food processor to grate cheese quickly.
  • Southern Baked Mac and Cheese: This is more of a custard style mac and cheese with eggs and sometimes sour cream. Try this recipe!
  • Mozzarella Baked Mac and Cheese: Replace the Gouda with mozzarella in the recipe for that stretchy gooey goodness mozzarella is known for.
  • Mix-ins: Jazz up the mac and cheese by stirring in some cooked and diced bacon, chorizo, sausage, grilled chicken, cooked ground beef or pork, frozen peas, sautéed mushrooms, chopped spinach, caramelized onions, diced roasted broccoli, roasted butternut squash, etc. (You can test if you like these mix-ins by pulling out a little bit of the mac and cheese before baking it and adding it to a bowl. Stir in a small handful of one of the mix-ins, mix it through and give it a taste test. If you like the mix-in, gently stir it into the mac and cheese pot and then transfer to the baking dish.)

Up-close overhead image of Baked Mac and Cheese with a fork taking a bite out

STORAGE

Baked Mac and Cheese Storage

As with most pasta dishes, this recipe is best enjoyed the minute it comes out of the oven! Pasta will continue to soak up whatever sauce is surrounding it, so it becomes less and less creamy the longer it sits. That said, leftovers are still great!

Warming up leftovers: We typically warm through leftovers in the microwave and then spritz with cooking spray and finish crisping it off under the broiler for a minute or two. Watch carefully — it can go from perfect to burnt in seconds!

Freezing: Freezing is not recommended because of the dairy and pasta in this recipe. The milk solids will separate as the dish thaws, resulting in a grainy texture with separation. Additionally, the elbow pasta doesn’t freeze and thaw very well.

Making Baked Mac and Cheese for two: Try halving this recipe and baking in a 9×5-inch loaf pan instead!

Preparing ahead of time: This recipe is best made fresh, but here’s how you can make it ahead of time if needed: Follow directions to cook and cool the pasta. Once fully cool, transfer to an airtight container in the fridge. Prepare the panko topping, let cool, and store in an airtight container in the fridge. Finally, prepare the cream sauce, and again, store it in the fridge in an airtight container. Store everything separately and then assemble right before baking. You may need to slightly thin the cream sauce on the stovetop by adding a splash of milk. Only reheat cream sauce over low heat to avoid separation. Assemble and bake — you may need an additional 5 minutes on bake time, depending on how cold everything is.

Overhead image of the dish in a bowl ready to be eaten

Baked Mac And Cheese FAQs

1Should You Cover Your Mac And Cheese When Baking?

We recommend baking uncovered to get that delicious Panko topping to crisp up. Baking uncovered helps form a delicious crispy top and corners which is a nice contrast to the creamy pasta.

2Why Does My Mac And Cheese Dry Out In The Oven?

If the mac and cheese is baked too long, the sauce will baked out of it leaving you with a dry and lackluster mac and cheese.

Bake for less time or at a lower temperature and make sure your oven is calibrated correctly so it’s not baking at a hotter temperature than you think!

3What Does Egg Do In Mac And Cheese?

Eggs, evaporated milk, and Velveeta help keep it super creamy. We opt to use evaporated milk in this recipe! Using only shredded cheeses can result in a more grainy instead of creamy mac.

4How Do You Keep Mac And Cheese Creamy?

  1. Make it super sauce — be sure to scrape every ounce of sauce from pot to pan when transferring!
  2. Don’t over-bake — the sauce will bake up and dry out the entire dish

5How Do You Know When Mac And Cheese Is Done?

The pasta should have some bite and be ultra creamy! The top will be a nice light golden brown.

6Is Evaporated Milk Good For Mac And Cheese?

We think it’s one of the secrets to the best mac and cheese! It’s concentrated with a richer taste than fresh milk. It also keeps the cheese sauce from breaking and becoming greasy because there is less moisture.

More Indulgent Pasta Dishes

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Baked Mac and Cheese

5 from 3 votes
The best Baked Mac and Cheese we've ever tasted! It's ridiculously creamy, cheesy, and rich with the perfect blend of cheeses and the ultimate crispy topping! Plus, it's not a recipe you need to slave over all day -- we've made it as simple as possible!
Print Recipe

Baked Mac and Cheese

5 from 3 votes
The best Baked Mac and Cheese we've ever tasted! It's ridiculously creamy, cheesy, and rich with the perfect blend of cheeses and the ultimate crispy topping! Plus, it's not a recipe you need to slave over all day -- we've made it as simple as possible!
Course Dinner, Vegetarian
Cuisine American, Vegetarian
Keyword baked mac and cheese, mac and cheese
Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Total Time 50 minutes
Servings 4 -6 servings (it's rich, a little goes a long way!)
Calories 672kcal
Cost $10.54

Ingredients

  • 2 packed cups (280g) uncooked macaroni pasta (elbows) uncooked
  • 7 tablespoons unsalted butter, separated
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon each: onion powder, mustard powder
  • Seasoned salt and pepper
  • 1/3 cup white flour
  • 2 cans (12 oz.; 354mL each) evaporated milk (or 3 cups whole milk -- Note 1)
  • 3 cups (270g) freshly grated cheese Note 2 (we love 1 cup gouda, 1 cup sharp Cheddar, 1 cup gruyere)
  • 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, optional (Note 3)
  • 2/3 cup (46g) panko breadcrumbs Note 4

Instructions

  • PREP: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9x9-inch (or 2-1/2 quart) baking pan with cooking spray and set aside.
  • ELBOWS: Bring a large pot of water to a boil and then generously salt the water; I add 1 tablespoon. Once boiling, add pasta and cook for 1 minute less than the package directs. As soon as the pasta is done, drain and return to the empty pot. Add in 1 tablespoon butter and gently stir until butter is melted. Set aside to slightly cool.
  • SAUCE: In a medium-sized pot, melt 4 tablespoons butter on medium heat . Once melted, add in garlic powder, onion powder, mustard powder, and salt/pepper to taste (I add 1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper). Whisk into butter and then add in the flour; whisk until smooth. Cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Very gradually, while whisking constantly, add in the evaporated milk. Briskly whisk as you add the milk until the sauce is smooth. Once smooth, cook, whisking frequently until mixture is thickened nicely, about 5-7 minutes (Note 5). Once thickened, remove from heat. Add in the grated cheeses and stir -- it's ok if cheese isn't fully melted, since we're baking it all!
  • PANKO TOPPING: Meanwhile, add the last 2 tablespoons butter to a skillet. Heat to medium and once melted, add in the panko and another sprinkle of salt (I add 1/4 teaspoon). Gently stir until butter is absorbed and panko is toasted to a light-medium brown color. Remove from heat.
  • BAKE: Use a spatula to scrape every bit of sauce onto the cooked elbows. Gently stir -- it's saucy and this is intentional! We don't want dry pasta after baking :). Sprinkle Parmesan cheese on top (if using). Sprinkle evenly with the panko topping. Bake for 10-15 minutes or until the top is a light golden brown-- don't bake too long or it will dry out the pasta!

Recipe Notes

Note 1: Milk: The evaporated milk lends a really nice flavor and creaminess, it's the "secret" to this mac and cheese! It also thickens faster since it's not straight from the fridge and cold. If you'd prefer to not use evaporated milk, whole milk or 2% works (whole is best). We wouldn't recommend a lower fat percentage or non-dairy milk (use whole Lactaid® milk for lactose-free).
Note 2: Cheese: The cheese (obviously) makes all the difference. I think we've tested just about every combo out there and nothing compares to an equal blend of these three -- sharp Cheddar, smoked gouda, and gruyere -- WOW! If you'd prefer to just use two types of cheese, we'd recommend 2 cups gruyere and 1 cup sharp Cheddar. Other combos that work: 2 cups sharp Cheddar and 1 cup smoked gouda, 2 cups gruyere and 1 cup mozzarella. Even though this recipe is supposed to be easy, grate your own cheese! The already grated store-bought cheese will give the sauce a powdery texture and won't melt as nicely (they have a powder coating to keep them from clumping in the bag).
Note 3: Parmesan: This adds a final layer of seasoning and yet another cheesy flavor, but mac and cheese is still good without it. If opting to use it, grate a block of Parmesan on the small holes of the grater. Loosely measure and sprinkle evenly on top.
Note 4: Panko: Panko is a type of breadcrumb that creates an amazing crunch -- so much better than plain breadcrumbs, but either will work. Panko is typically found near other breadcrumbs in the baking aisle or in the Asian section of the grocery store.
Note 5: Thickness check: The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Lift up the spoon and immediately trace a line across the back of the spoon with your fingertip. If the line retains a clear track, the sauce is thick enough. If not, the sauce needs to be cooked a bit longer

Nutrition Facts

Serving: 1serving | Calories: 672kcal | Carbohydrates: 57.8g | Protein: 28.5g | Fat: 36.3g | Cholesterol: 92.5mg | Sodium: 630.3mg | Fiber: 1.7g | Sugar: 10.1g

We do our best to provide accurate nutritional analysis for our recipes. Our nutritional data is calculated using a third-party algorithm and may vary, based on individual cooking styles, measurements, and ingredient sizes. Please use this information for comparison purposes and consult a health professional for nutrition guidance as needed.

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2 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    Good recipe. Easy to make and it turns out creamy, cheesy with a wonderful crunchy topping.
    I added a variety of cheeses and a bit of heat for my family but the recipe as written is perfect.

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