It’s one of the world’s most beloved comfort foods. From the blue box variety with the envelope of “cheese” powder to the saltine crumb-topped church potluck kind, macaroni and cheese isn’t particularly sophisticated—it’s just a dish full of noodles, cheese and milk. I have a few ideas why it endures as a favorite:
Everyone likes it
Okay, maybe not everyone. Folks with celiac disease or dairy allergies don’t. Nor would a vegan. But bring it to a dinner party and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a home run.
It satisfies all our primal cravings
If science is correct—that humans are hard-wired to crave fats, carbs and salt—well, this food ticks all the boxes.
It’s versatile and adaptable
Like an essential “little black dress,” you can modify a good mac and cheese recipe up or down to suit the occasion. A stove-top version is great for a quick weeknight dinner and an embellished baked casserole version rocks for a family reunion. Many upscale restaurants have taken it even further by addition of fancy-pants ingredients such as lobster and truffles.
It’s easy to make with ingredients you probably already have
This has never been more important, as we are all looking for ways to make satisfying meals without one more run to the grocery store.
It reheats well
In the oven, on the stove top or even in the microwave. That is, if you actually have leftovers.
There are a million “best ever” mac and cheese recipes out there, but taste is subjective so I’m not going to make that claim here. This really is about the cheese sauce, and your technique can make or break your dish. I’ll admit that I hardly ever make this dish the same way twice. I change up the type of pasta depending on what’s in the pantry, and I use whatever leftover bits and pieces of cheese we have in the deli drawer at the time. But the main formula is the same and each step has a purpose. In case you’re wondering:
What is the best cheese for macaroni and cheese?
I like to start with American cheese, which is processed with salts and enzymes for super melting ability. If you are averse to the idea of American cheese (first of all, why? And read this), or if you just don’t have any, you may substitute a lesser amount of real cream cheese, which also has some stabilizers for a creamier sauce, but it’s bland so you’ll need to season it more. The rest of the cheese is your choice, but go with something that melts well: medium to sharp cheddar, Monterey jack, Havarti, Gouda, fontina, gruyere or even a bit of brie (without the rind) are delicious. Avoid super-stretchy cheeses such as mozzarella or Swiss and hard or crumbly cheeses such as feta, parmesan and manchego. Also, freshly shredded cheese is best. Pre-packaged shreds are coated with modified starch substance that keeps the cheese from clumping in the bag. Guess what else it does? It prevents even melting.
What kind of pasta is best for macaroni and cheese?
Consider mainly shape and texture, but if you’re looking to step up your game, also peek at the ingredients. Pasta made with “durum” or “semolina” flour (same thing, two names) provides a richer, deeper flavor than “enriched wheat” flour. If you like whole grain, that’s fine, too. Look for shapes with curves, nooks and crannies to grab onto your creamy cheese sauce. Elbows are classic, but rotini, fusilli, orecchiette, ditalini, and shells are all going to work well. Look for pasta labeled as “bronze cut,” which has a rougher texture, ensuring even greater hold on the cheese sauce.
What is the best way to cook pasta?
No matter how much pasta you’re cooking, use a large pot, at least 6 quarts. There’s a very scientific reason for this, but suffice to say it gives the pasta room to move so it doesn’t stick and clump together. Add kosher salt once the water is boiling. Adding it too early could damage the surface of the pot. Don’t be stingy with the salt; use about a tablespoon, and don’t worry—most of that salt will end up going down the drain. Regardless of what you’ve “always been told,” do not add oil to the water. It doesn’t prevent a boil-over and it does not prevent the pasta from sticking. On the contrary, it hinders your sauce from clinging to the cooked pasta. For the same reason, don’t rinse your cooked pasta.
Ready to get cooking?
Follow along, but by all means flex my basic recipe to suit your taste and your inventory. The best part of cooking is making it your own.
Ingredients & Tools
3 Tbsp. butter (salted or unsalted)
½ cup finely chopped onion (I like sweet, but use Spanish, shallots, white, red or whatever)
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk (see sidebar notes)
About 8 oz. real American cheese (the kind sold by the pound in the deli, not the pre-wrapped slices)
2 packed cups good melting cheese, freshly shredded (see sidebar notes)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ tsp. white pepper
¼ tsp. dry mustard powder
12 oz. box good quality pasta (see sidebar notes)
One more tool you’ll need…
A 2-quart covered casserole dish, if you should decide to go one step further (better) and finish your mac and cheese in the oven. In memory of my maternal grandmother, who taught me all the basics of cooking, I’m using this beautiful vintage casserole. Gram gave this to me many years ago, when I moved into my first apartment. I simply LOVE this dish!
Instructions – the Béchamel (fancy French word for “cream sauce”)
Over medium low heat, melt butter in your heavy-bottomed saucepan and add onions, simmering very slowly until they are soft and translucent. Do not rush this step. You don’t want the onions to brown, only to soften. This step should take about 6 to 8 minutes. Get the rest of your ingredients lined up, because it will go quickly from here.
When onions are soft, season with salt and pepper then sprinkle flour over them and stir to coat well. Increase the heat to medium and cook until bubbly and just turning golden.
Add milk slowly but all at once, whisking constantly to create a smooth mixture. Add dry mustard and white pepper and continue to cook over medium heat until mixture is just simmering and slightly thickened. Add cubes of American cheese and whisk until melted and uniform consistency.
Add shredded cheese, one cup at a time, and whisk after each addition until smooth. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, remove from heat. At this point, you have a lovely creamy cheese sauce.
Want to take it up a notch to pure decadence? Use an immersion blender to whip the sauce into a completely smooth and silky consistency. Either way is fine, but if you have the stick blender, I highly recommend it.
Instructions – the Pasta
Fill your stockpot with cold tap water and place over medium-high heat until water comes to a boil. Add a generous spoonful (about a tablespoon) of kosher salt and stir to dissolve. You have one shot at seasoning your macaroni; don’t miss it. Do not add oil to the cooking water.
Add the pasta to the pot all at once and stir immediately to prevent sticking. Cook according to package instructions for “al dente” or “firm” texture. You don’t want the pasta to be too soft or it will become mushy later when you bake it with the cheese sauce. Drain pasta in a colander, shaking to rid all excess water, but do not rinse it.
Instructions – Assembling for Baking
Combine sauce and pasta together in the cooking pot, folding gently to incorporate everything into a nice even mixture. This may seem overly cheesy, but please use all the cheese sauce. Remember that during the baking time, a lot of the sauce will be wiggling its way to the inside of your pasta shapes. More is better! Spoon into a buttered casserole dish and let cool slightly while you preheat the oven to 350° F. Cover and bake about 40 minutes then remove cover and bake 20 minutes more. Enjoy!