Baked Macaroni & Cheese

*cracks knuckles* This may be the most requested recipe ever. I kinda get why…not too many people hate macaroni and cheese. If you do, you might be a weirdo.

Macaroni and cheese is one of those dishes that seems super easy to make, but many people can’t get it right. I’ve had so many terrible versions made by others…super soggy overcooked pasta, clumpy bland cheese, dry and flavorless…the list goes on. I didn’t nail my own macaroni and cheese until maybe the 5th time I made it. It does take patience and practice, so don’t get frustrated if you don’t get it right the first time. It’s totally worth the effort to make again and again. There are 3 distinct ways I prepare my macaroni and cheese. This is one of them. It’s the classic “béchamel (cheese sauce) + pasta + more cheese + breadcrumb” method. You can find this method just about everywhere, and I got my inspiration from watching Emeril Live back in the day. I saw him do it this way and it’s been my go-to method ever since, especially when I’m feeding more than 5 people. It’s super easy to do, but a little intimidating if you’re not used to cooking.

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

This isn’t some waxy boxed mac-n-cheese, people. This is real cheese. From real cows and sheep. This isn’t processed foolery. If you aren’t used to real cheese, you probably won’t appreciate the rusticity of this authentic bounty of cheesy goodness…ok? Are we clear? Because this is some real sh*t, but before I get into it, here are a few notes…

Preferred Pasta

I absolutely love using pasta with the ridges. Elbow macaroni rigate, penne rigate, and cavatappi pasta are my top go-to choices. They hold onto the cheese sauce better, and have openings big enough for that creamy cheese sauce to seep thru. You can use regular elbow macaroni, but try stepping outside the box once in a while ;)

Preferred Cheeses

My usual starting-5 cheeses are Cheddar (any variety), Gruyere, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, and Fontina. Those are my favorite cheeses because they all compliment each other extremely well, and melt together into this harmonious concoction of pure dairy lust. I love adding the Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino-Romano to the béchamel sauce as a flavorful and slightly salty base, then tossing in the other cheeses with the coated pasta to be baked off. Sometimes I only use cheddar and smoked gouda, another delicious pair — especially during BBQ season. Smoked gouda isn’t very creamy on it’s own, so it absolutely needs to be paired with something and cheddar is always a great choice. Sometimes I only use fontina and gruyere — it really depends on what I’m craving. Colby-jack is another great cheese, but if you want dramatic stringy cheese action, try whole milk mozzarella, monterey-jack, provolone, etc. I encourage you to try different cheeses until you find a blend that best suits your ultimate mac-n-cheese experience.

Bland mac-n-cheese is a no-no!

Seasoning, where art thou? No matter what cheese you use, it needs a bit of help with some seasoning. Some cheese are very salty on their own, but that’s about it. You really wanna think about the flavors that compliment cheese overall, and try to apply that to your mac-n-cheese dish. For example, when you order a pizza…the cheese tastes amazing with all of those contrasting flavors — onions, herbs, etc. I love adding shallots, garlic and bacon to a mac-n-cheese dish for a whole ‘nother level of cheesy epicness. You can really get creative and add crushed up onion rings to the top for a sweet oniony crunch on top…man, I’m telling you…mac-n-cheese can take on just about any flavor. Some folks throw in roasted tomatoes, or mushrooms and onions, Italian sausage, or spinach. Open your mind and your palate will thank you. My seasonings of choice are usually black or white pepper, kosher or sea salt, cayenne pepper, onion powder, granulated garlic, a tiny bit of nutmeg and sometimes dry mustard. I like to season the béchamel itself before adding the cheese — just go easy on the salt because cheese is already pretty salty. Once I toss everything together, I taste it again and adjust the seasoning as I need to. Taste as you go, and season every layer!

A note about REAL cheese

Cheese give off oils when heated, so if you try to re-heat you may get some serious separation. That’s honestly because when reheating, you’re just further drying it out — especially if reheated in the microwave. However, reheating in the oven doesn’t necessarily give you better results either. This is why a béchamel sauce helps. The flour proteins help bind things together. It doesn’t prevent separation 100%, but it does help a lot by absorbing some of those oils all while staying creamy and reheating better. Whenever I’m making mac-n-cheese that I know will be consumed in a day, I’ll use half & half, or when I’m feeling super naughty — heavy cream (which is pure fat-assery, but you’d use less than half the regular amount and no roux). Half & half is basically half milk, half heavy cream, so you get the best of both worlds. If using only milk, you’ll still have an amazing dish! I suggest starting with milk first, if you’re new to this ;)

Breadcrumb topping?

Totally optional, however, I love the crunch of Italian bread crumbs on top of my mac-n-cheese. It creates a crusty barrier full of flavor that cannot be described. You can use fresh homemade bread crumbs, which I only do if I have white bread laying around — which isn’t often. Any variation is bound to be delicious. I almost always have Italian breadcrumbs on hand, so I mostly use that. Sometimes I’ll add panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) to the mix for an even bigger crunch, depends on how I’m feeling. You don’t have to add breadcrumbs on top of your mac-n-cheese, but I promise you it’s delicious and it even helps keep the top layer of your dish from browning too quickly or burning. The breadcrumb barrier also keeps the entire dish moist, so you don’t have to worry about it drying out. The oils from the cheese seep up to the top and help toast the breadcrumbs perfectly. It’s amazeballs, y’all.

The more you make this, the more you’ll be able to gauge just how much of everything to use. I never measure when making this dish, I can just visually “eyeball” everything, but I’ve also been making it for years lol.

*The following photos were snapped at different times, but the method is generally the same…

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

starting five cheeses…

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

sharp cheddar

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

gruyere

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

fontina

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

fontina cubes (you’ll see how I use these later)

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

flour + butter = roux


VIDEO snippet of how I make the white sauce

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

add a little milk to get the lumps out

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

then add more milk

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

season it!

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

stir it around, increase the heat, whisking the whole time

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

add the gruyere and parmigiano-reggiano when it thickens

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

meanwhile, boil your pasta for about 4 minutes.. you want it undercooked because it’ll finish cooking in the oven

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

I drain my cavatappi pasta then rinse it with cool water to stop the cooking process. I don’t worry about removing any surface starches because I always reserve some pasta cooking water in case I need it later.

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

then I pour the pasta into the cheese sauce

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

mix it around

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

taste it, season as you need to..

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

then we layer…spray your baking dish w/ PAM or butter it… then ladle the coated pasta and top with a thin layer of each cheese

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

like so..

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

then repeat!

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

those fontina cubes from earlier? I tuck them into various areas of the dish for a big burst of creamy cheesy goodness ;)

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

like so…

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

all cheese’d up, but we’re not done yet…

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

take a spoon and smooth down the dish, feel free to mix it around so that all the cheese is distributed thru

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

then grab your seasoned bread crumbs and shake a very very thin layer on top for an over-the-top tasty layer

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

this makes a lot of mac! you could easily feed between 8-12 people.

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

all done! time to eat!

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

oh! it’s a cheesy block of fontina just chillin :D

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Oh man…all I can do is shake my head…

Baked Macaroni & Cheese
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
My very own version of the classic baked mac and cheese.
Author:
Serves: 10
Ingredients
  • 4 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 4½ cups whole milk, or half & half
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp granulated garlic
  • ½ tsp onion powder
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp dry mustard (optional)
  • pinch of ground nutmeg
  • ½ cup seasoned Italian or Japanese breadcrumbs (optional)
  • 1 lb dried pasta of your choice (see note below)
  • kosher salt (for the pasta water)
Cheeses I use (see note below):
  • 1 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
  • ½ cup pecorino-romano cheese (optional)
  • 1 cup shredded gruyere cheese
  • 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 2 cups shredded fontina cheese, plus a few pieces cut into cubes
Instructions
  1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Butter a 9x13 or 8x11 baking dish and set to the side. You can use cooking spray instead.
  3. Boil your pasta in water seasoned with plenty of salt (about a tablespoon) for about 4 to 5 minutes. You want it undercooked because it will continue cooking in the oven when you bake it. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water and drain the macaroni and quickly rinse with cool water to stop the cooking process. Let it sit and drain while you make the cheese sauce. You may not need the reserved pasta water, but it's good to have just in case your cheese mixture gets a little too thick and gloopy.
  4. In one heavy bottom pot or large sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat. When it starts to foam and bubble, add the flour and immediately whisk so that it forms a paste. Allow this to cook for about 1 minute to get the "raw" flour taste out, whisking frequently.
  5. SLOWLY add 2 cups of the milk (or half & half) while whisking constantly to remove any large lumps. Continue to whisk until smooth and thick, about 20 seconds. Add the remaining 2½ cups of milk (or half & half) and continue to whisk until smooth. Increase the heat to medium-high to allow the mixture to simmer and thicken, about 5 minutes. Season the mixture while it thickens and taste as you go. If the sauce is yummy alone, just imagine how incredible it will be once you add the cheese.
  6. Once your mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, add in the parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino and gruyere cheese and remove from the heat. Taste it again, season if you need to.
  7. Toss the cheese sauce with the pasta, and taste to season if need be. Don't panic if there's more sauce than pasta, you're going to spoon it into the baking dish, so you'll be able to control the cheese sauce/pasta ratio. As you're layering, it'll start to thicken up even more. On the flipside, if your mixture is too thick, add a bit of the reserved pasta water to the sauce coated pasta to thin it out. You want it smooth and creamy, but not incredibly soupy and watery.
  8. Ladle a layer of the coated pasta into your prepared baking dish, then sprinkle a layer of the remaining cheeses and repeat until all of the pasta and cheese is used up -- lasagna style. This is where you can "eyeball" your cheese portions. Use more or less, it's totally up to you. Too much cheese can be a problem because it'll make it too oily and clumpy, so don't go too nuts with the cheese.
  9. Run a spoon thru the entire mixture just to lightly mix in the cheese throughout the entire dish. Smooth the mixture with the back of a spoon just until its relatively even on top, and sprinkle a thin layer of seasoned bread crumbs on top for an amazing and tasty crunch, if you'd like. The breadcrumb crust also acts as a barrier to keep the cheese from drying out by helping to keep it moist. But again, you don't have to use it if you don't want to.
  10. Bake on the center rack of your oven for about 20 to 35 minutes or until the center is bubbly and the entire dish is golden brown.
  11. Let it cool for about 10 minutes before you dive into it.
  12. Enjoy, and make this again and again until you nail it ;)
Notes
*You may or may not use ALL of the cheese measurements. If you have any cheese leftover, seal it tightly in plastic wrap and store in the fridge for later use. Alternately, you could add all of your cheeses to the white sauce and skip the "layering" method, it's totally up to you.
**If you have ANY questions, please don't hesitate to ask. I realize this is an extensive recipe, but once you make it, you'll see how truly simple and easy it is. I want you guys to get it right, so ask away if anything is unclear
***As far as choosing the right pasta goes, try sticking with the more traditional tubular shapes such as elbow, ziti, penne, cavatappi, capanelle, or something similar. Avoid pasta shapes that won't hold onto the sauce well, like spaghetti or linguini, or even small shells in some cases.

Disclaimer: Please note that some of the links on each post, recipe, and/or page may be affiliate links and I will earn commission if you make a purchase through those links, which helps support the site. You are under no obligation to purchase any products through any affiliate links posted here.

Comments

  1. says

    first of all, of all the mac and cheese I’ve had, mine has been pretty much the best, but I have to say THIS right here looks like a true contender and now I need to make that. I’ve tried a cheese sauce before -fail- so i just do it the old fashioned way. but I think this might be the move for Christmas.

  2. says

    Listen. I’ve been making it with the old ‘recipe’ from the tumblr and it slays. I ain’t even consider these other chese variations! And bacon? You’re trying to keep me plump and jolly! Good thing I’m ok with that. :)

    • admin says

      really? i usually spend about $5 or less for a half pound at Wegmans…

      try Walmart, i heard they sell domestic brands of those cheeses.

  3. Geela says

    First off love this site! Quick question, I’m new to this cooking thing and I love mac n cheese. If I wanted to, could I let the macaroni marinate in the cheese sauce for a couple of hours before baking? Or is that no bueno?

    • admin says

      I wouldn’t recommend that at all. You’ll have seriously overdone noodles that could possibly turn to pure mush. Pasta is made up of flours and meals, so it can’t marinate the same way you’d marinate a piece of meat that has fibers and an actual molecular structure.

      • ace says

        heyy …just found out about this blog from another blog and i am in love!!!! like seriously…i’m starting to cook more but i’m very picking about seasoning…ques..how many boxes of pasta did you use

        • admin says

          i use 1 lb., which is one box. the only time i use more than one box is for thanksgiving or any super large gathering.

          • ace says

            oh ok great…and the size of your baking dish? b/c an aluminum pan could work just as great too right?

          • admin says

            i typically use either a 9×11 or 9×13 if i’m using one whole box of pasta. an aluminum pan can work too, i use those for thanksgiving. just make sure it’s big enough for your mixture but not TOO big because then you’ll have too thin a layer of mac n cheese.

  4. says

    I cook often but I’ve never tried to conquer Mac-n-cheese. I’m tired of my aunts bland recipe at holiday functions so I figure even if I FAIL at this my fam will be better off. Lol. Wish me luck…

  5. says

    OMG I tasted this before I put it in the oven and it was perfect! I seriously didn’t want to wait for it to finish cooking.

    I used pecorino romano, extra sharp cheddar cheese, fontina, asiago, and parmesean, then cubed “2 year aged cheddar cheese” in place of the fontina (college student budget woes)

    Also, I used 2% lactose-free, because I don’t buy regular milk.

    Anyway, the beschamel sauce smelled amazing!

    I never thought of layering, but i can definitely tell the difference!

    Everyone loved it, so I love you for this gift that you’re sharing!

    Thank You Resha!

  6. Shann says

    How do you feel about roomkaas and gruyere combined? I know nothing about cheese so I have no idea what cheeses compliment each other.

  7. Victoria says

    This is the second thing I’ve conquered on this site which has now been bookmarked and saved to my favorite. : ) I read everything and even compared pictures as I went along since it was my first time making a roux, and I didn’t get it right til the second try, and it ended up being a little spicy because I put a whole tsp if cayenne pepper by accident, I’m a novice cook at best. But man oh man when I finished, it was hands down the best macaroni and cheese EVER!!! As told to me by my guests and the empty dish.

    Thank you!! Best Christmas ever!

  8. says

    Tried this over the weekend, using half and half. Hella tasty. Seasoning the béchamel was key and next time I might go easy on the cheese (well I was using cheese blends).

    Do know one thing, if I made this for a date, I’m getting proposed like Chrissy did to Jim Jones haha.

    Thanks!

  9. Kabria says

    This was a new way of making Macaroni & Cheese for me. I was a little nervous about it but there was only a corner left so I guess it turned out good. Can’t wait to try it again!

  10. Jamille says

    Amazing. I used one your previous mac-n-cheese recipes and had good results. This recipe was simply amazing. Buttering the pan, using milk instead of half and half because of reheating, gruyere and fontina, the dry mustard and garlic, layering. All of these differences came together and I feel like I can whip out some mac-n-cheese like a pro now. I’ve always been intimidated because so many come out dry or too oily. It was perfect and the flavor is divine.

    Thank you, Resha.

  11. Michelle says

    I’m honestly surprised I had enough left to bake, as the sauce and pasta alone were so good I consumed my goddamn body weight.

    I added a half a teaspoon of cajun creole seasoning, because I’m obsessed with it, and it made such a subtle yet life-changing difference.

    You should change this to “instant orgasm mac and cheese.”

    This my go-to now.

  12. Tamika says

    I’m currently making this and everything was going great…until I put it in the oven. The only bread crumbs I have is Progresso (plain) so I added it on top. But it’s been 40 minutes and it hasn’t even baked (begin to get golden). It’s still like the dry crumbs that I put on top. (p.s. I started out on 350 because my oven is crazy. Just turned it up to 400 as you suggested). Did I use the wrong crumbs? Wrong temp? Aye Dios Mio. :(

    • says

      oh no :( well, i’m betting on your oven temperature being wonky…because even at 350 it should be bubbling by 30 minutes.. and it’s possible you could have used too many bread crumbs. it should be a super thin layer so that the oils from the cheese below seep into the crumbs and toast them without having to add more fat. but if you used too thick a layer, it won’t soak up as much residual oil and therefore remain dry. and what size dish did you bake this in? all of these are possible factors.

      • Tamika says

        THAT’S IT, Reesha – I put too many damn bread crumbs. I put a pretty thick layer on top. Whoops! I know for next time. I baked it in an 8×8 dish because I cut the recipe in half. It’s just me so I didn’t want to have too much. I ended up adding a little more cheese on the top to make it less bread-crumby. Everything else was perfect. I’ve tried a roux before and it always had clumps which in turn made my Mac n Cheese taste like FLOUR. Your step-by-step instructions really helped. Thanks!!!

  13. @msbkbutterfly says

    I used your technique today and the mac and cheese was divine. My 7 year old picky eater had three servings! I used regular cheese (mild /sharp/parm/Romano) because I didn’t have to go to the marker (newborn :-). I will use the exact ingredients as soon as I can get to the market. Thank you very much. I have been trying to master mac and cheese for a while and I can tell I’m almost there.

  14. Greer says

    Hi! Generally, I’ll use sharp and mild cheddar, colby jack, mozzarella and muenster cheeses for my mac and cheese. In an effort to try something different, I decided to buy asiago, gouda, monterey jack and cheddar cheeses. How do you think all of these cheeses will fare together?

  15. Vanisia Blas says

    This is most assuredly the most fantastic recipe I have ever tasted. This Macaroni and cheese deserves to be number one on the greatest comfort foods ever created. Your recipe and style take more time than I have ever used before, but the outcome is truly a super delicious effort. I am indeed grateful to you for making me an expert mac and cheese creator. My entire family will use this as our signature reunion entree for many years to come. Thanks again, have a blessed fall and winter season. Looking forward to trying some more of your inspiring, and great tasting recipes real soon………Vanisia

    • says

      wow..this comment just brought tears to my eyes. so sweet. i’m so glad you enjoyed the recipe and i’m happy it’s something you’re going to share for many years to come. stay blessed <3

  16. Angie says

    I am a lover of mac n cheese. I’ve been searching for the proper soul food mac n cheese recipe. Can’t wait to try this. Too many bland recipes out there. Question though….Why do you do the layering as opposed to mixing it all? Do you notice the difference? Just curious. Love the idea for the cubed fontina.

    • says

      i love layering because i love the way it all melts together but you do not have to do that at all. it’s just my personal preference, you can mix it all around however you’d like. you can cube any stringy cheese and stick it in the dish. my other fav is low-moisture mozzarella. gives you dramatic cheese action. mmm!

  17. BKgirl says

    Hey Resha, I have two questions (I’m new to “big” cooking so bear with me):

    (1) Did you buy the cheeses pre-shredded or did you do it yourself?

    (2) I’m going to do this for Thanksgiving and it’ll probably be like 20 people when its all said and done; do I literally double every measurement?

    Thanks and…CANNOT. WAIT. TO. EAT.

    • says

      hey there,

      1. i always shred the cheese myself. it’s extra work, but its worth it. the store-bought pre-shredded cheese doesn’t hold a candle. if you don’t have a cheese grater at home, get the people in the deli department of your store to do it for you. they’ll be happy to.

      2. i’ve made this recipe for thanksgiving plenty of times, serving about 20 people, and the only thing i did was increase the milk to 5 cups instead (sometimes 5 1/2) of 4 1/2, and use 1 1/2 box of macaroni instead of just one box, and i added an extra cup of cheese (any will do). you don’t have to double everything, but keep some of the starchy pasta water on hand just in case things get gloopy or dry when you’re mixing everything together (which can happen). you want a smooth sauce, not a chunky one.

      good luck!

  18. Natasha says

    Thank you so much for this recipe! My husband loves it and its made me more confident to try new things. It’s an absolute keeper…

  19. Stephanie says

    Your recipe looks fabulous! I am trying to replicate a Mac n Cheese that I had at a restaurant last week that used Smoked Gouda and Fontina cheeses. Using your recipe, what measurements do you think I should use for each cheese? Would you recommend adding any other cheeses? Thanks!

    • says

      It really depends on where you shop. Cheese isn’t cheap though, so you’d probably spend between $20-$30 just on that. However, it feeds a lot of people, so it evens out.

    • says

      you can definitely prep it the night before, just bring it to room temp before you bake it so thx
      at it doesn’t cook the outside and not the inside.

  20. Lourdes says

    Is this dish freezer friendly? If so I freeze it before baking in the oven or after? And if it is freezer friendly what are the reheating instructions? Would I bake from frozen or bring it to room temperature first? Also, I quite fancy muenster cheese in my mac & cheese do, so do you think it would be a good idea to add it with your group of cheeses? Would it mix well? Lastly, what would be your measurements for heavy cream only versus milk or half-and-half?

  21. says

    I have been disappointed time and time again by homemade mac and cheese recipes. This one, though, looks like it might just work. Most recipes I’ve tried have the cheddar melted into the sauce, which always turns out grainy and disgusting. I like a good creamy, smooth and flavorful mac and cheese. Can’t wait to try this!

  22. Christine says

    This recipe was my second attempt EVER at mac & cheese and I must say, at first glance this recipe was a little intimidating, but the night before making it I prepped all the cheeses in small containers I have. That was a tremendous help! The day I made it, it was a breeze. I felt so organized lol I really only had to measure out the milk and seasonings (I threw them all together in a cup, bam!). The only thing I wish I did differently was either not salt the water — which I never do with any pasta I make to begin with — or not add the extra kosher salt. It was so warm, gooey, and delish that it didn’t matter much though. Especially in the dead of winter when all my body wants is carbs and cheese, amiright? I feel like this would also be awesome at a BBQ because of the kick it has. I used plain panko bread crumbs on top. Right at the end I put it on my top rack for about 2-3 minutes on broil. Toasts the crumbs perfectly but keep an eye on it! I can’t wait to make it again! :)

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