This Baked Macaroni and Cheese recipe is velvety creamy, rich and cheesy with a buttery crispy panko topping and 3 cheeses!
This Baked Macaroni and Cheese recipe is creamy comfort food your whole family will love and will be the hit at every potluck, Sunday supper and holiday! It’s extra velvety, luxuriously creamy and bursting with flavor, thanks to the homemade cheese sauce made with three different cheeses and my secret seasonings. This recipe for baked macaroni and cheese is also easy to customize by adding veggies or protein like chicken, bacon or sausage. Best of all, this post includes tips for the SILKIEST Macaroni and Cheese Casserole ever – no grainy, gritty or dry pasta here! Serve it up with Caesar Salad and Garlic Butter Breadsticks for the ultimate cozy homerun!
Just about everyone loves macaroni and cheese – forkful after forkful of noodles bathed in rich creamy, cheesy, sauce. It’s a household favorite at our house that includes: Million Dollar Macaroni and Cheese Casserole, Stovetop Mac and Cheese, Buffalo Macaroni and Cheese, One Pot Chili Mac and Cheese and even Taco Macaroni and Cheese.
How to Make Baked Macaroni and Cheese Video
baked macaroni and cheese RECIPE
Macaroni and Cheese is one of the most beloved comfort foods of all time from children to grandparents alike. It goes with practically everything, is a barbecue and potluck must, but equally in demand at Thanksgiving and Christmas and is as versatile as they come.
Sadly, too many homemade Mac and Cheese recipes are disappointingly bland, dry, grainy or gritty – not this Macaroni and Cheese recipe! For this recipe, I’ve combined the mega creaminess and panko topping of my Million Dollar Macaroni and Cheese with the three cheese deliciousness of my Stovetop Mac and Cheese to create an outrageously rich and creamy recipe made without any processed cheeses. No one will want to put their fork down!
WHy this recipe works
Creamy Sauce: This recipe for Baked Macaroni and Cheese boasts plenty of sauce to ensure mega creaminess – no dry casserole here!
Smooth sauce. Multiple cheeses create superior melting ability for the silkiest sauce. The cheese sauce also uses evaporated milk to stabilize all the cheesiness that doesn’t separate, curdle or become grainy.
Multiple cheeses: The recipe is seasoned to perfection with hand-picked seasonings and using three cheeses – sharp cheddar, smoked Gouda and Gruyere for maximum cheesy seduction. Swapping some of the cheddar for a mix of cheeses instantly elevates your recipe, creating an aromatic complexity and lusciously smooth cheesiness (as cheddar is prone to be grainy) that any restaurant would be proud to serve.
Crispy Panko Topping: The buttery panko crunch is one of my favorite parts! Taking just a couple minutes to toast the panko in butter and olive oil before popping the casserole in the oven creates the crispiest topping with a butter mouthfeel that is sublime.
Pantry friendly: After you stock your cheeses, you just need flour, evaporated milk and seasonings – that’s it!
Versatile: This Baked Macaroni and Cheeses Casserole is a springboard for all sorts of variations – add broccoli, spinach or peas, sausage, chicken or sausage –choose your own adventure every time!
Macaroni and Cheese Ingredients
This recipe for Baked Macaroni and Cheese requires mostly pantry friendly ingredients. You will need (see printable recipe card at the bottom of the post for the full recipe):
FOR THE PASTA:
FOR THE CHEESEs:
I’ve used my favorite combination of cheeses but you are welcome to mix and match (details in next section):
FOR THE cheese sauce:
Like all classic macaroni and cheese recipes, this baked version begins with a béchamel sauce. Béchamel is made from butter, flour and milk. The starch in the flour stabilizes the melting cheeses which prevents it from breaking or turning stringy or gritty. You will need:
For the panko topping:
What cheeses are good in Mac and Cheese?
When making this recipe for Baked Macaroni and Cheese, feel free to swap in your favorite cheeses. I suggest starting with a base of flavorful cheddar, then add a stronger, full-flavored cheese (such as Gruyere or Havarti) and a more mild, silky cheese (such as Gouda, Fontina, Muenster, etc.). Here are some different cheeses to try:
-Colby cheese: is similar to cheddar but is more mild in flavor with sweet, nutty notes. It is also softer and moister than cheddar.
-Havarti: is strong, flavorful and somewhat sharp. It is strong like Swiss but more buttery and can range from somewhat sweet to very sweet, and slightly acidic.
-Muenster: is buttery, mild and is one of the best melters out there. It should be paired with a stronger, more flavorful cheese.
-Fontina: its semi soft, creamy texture makes for a decadent Mac and Cheese. The buttery flavor complements other cheeses well.
cheeses to avoid
You can still use the following cheeses, but I suggest opting for more flavorful melting cheeses to achieve exponentially delicious results:
-Monterrey Jack: melts well but doesn’t contribute much flavor.
-Mozzarella: also melts exceptionally well but doesn’t add much flavor compared to other cheeses and can become overly stringy.
-Anything pre-shredded! Always stay away from bagged, pre-shredded cheeses as they contain anti-clumping chemicals designed to prevent them from clumping in the bag – these same chemicals prevent the cheese strands from melting and will leave you with gritty, lumpy, sad Macaroni and Cheese Casserole.
HOW TO MAKE Baked Macaroni and Cheese
This Baked Macaroni and Cheese Casserole is very straightforward to make. Start by making a roux, add milks and spices, bring to a simmer then add the cheeses. Add the pasta, transfer to a baking dish and bake! Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the steps (see printable recipe card at the bottom of the post for the full recipe):
- Step 1: Cook pasta. Cook pasta just until al dente according to package directions – don’t overcook because it will cook a little more in the oven. Strain and rinse with cold water.
- Step 2: Make the sauce. Cook flour in melted butter for a couple minutes, then whisk in evaporated milk, milk, Dijon, bouillon and all seasonings.
- Step 3: Simmer the sauce. Simmer the sauce until thickened, but not overly thick because it will thicken significantly when you add the cheeses.
- Step 4: Add cheeses and pasta. Whisk in the sharp cheese until melted, followed by 1 cup Gouda until melted, followed by Gruyere until melted. Add pasta and toss until evenly coated (it will seem like a lot of extra sauce which is a good thing). Pour pasta into prepared baking dish and spread into an even layer. Sprinkle with remaining Gouda and Parmesan cheese.
- Step 5: Panko topping: Toast the panko in some butter and olive oil just until golden, then sprinkle over the casserole.
- Step 6: Bake. Bake the casserole for 25-30 minutes or until bubbly.
possible recipe variations
This Baked Macaroni and Cheese recipe is delicious in its classic cheesiness or you can use the recipe as a base to customize it. Here are a few ideas:
We love this Baked Macaroni and Cheese Casserole with a big Caesar Salad and Garlic Parmesan Butter Breadsticks. It is also delicious with any of the following:
Macaroni and Cheese FAQS
First, the recipe must have enough liquid once combined with the cheeses, in this case, evaporated milk. It is important to use evaporated milk which stabilizes the cheeses and prevent them from separating. Also use quality cheeses which melt better and produce silkier sauces. NEVER use pre-bagged cheeses for sauces or your destined for grainy/gritty sauce failure.
It is better to use heavy cream for Mac and Cheese instead of milk, or better yet, use evaporated milk which has the thickness of heavy cream without all of the fat! Furthermore, it is more stable than heavy cream so your Macaroni and Cheese is less likely to curdle or separate.
The starch in the flour stabilizes the melting cheeses which prevents it from breaking or turning stringy or gritty. It also is the base of the béchamel which thickens the sauce so it’s rich and creamy.
Evaporated milk adds creaminess and body to Macaroni and Cheese without the fat and heaviness of heavy cream. Evaporated milk is canned, stabilized homogenized cow’s milk from which 60 percent of the water has been removed. This means it is thicker than just milk and more stable than heavy cream and less likely to curdle or separate.
Seasoning your Macaroni and Cheese recipe with onion powder, garlic powder, dried parsley, salt, pepper and red pepper which flakes infuse the velvety sauce with complex flavor. You could also try other spice blends for a unique twist like Cajun, jerk or taco seasoning. You can also add bacon, sausage, chicken, ground beef, artichokes, broccoli, etc. for additional texture and flavor.
The one cheese you will almost always find in Macaroni and Cheese recipes is sharp cheddar. It is flavorful, inexpensive, easy to find, and melts easily. Sharp cheddar should be the building block of your Mac and Cheese recipe, to which you can add one or two different cheeses to enhance the flavor, such as a full-flavored cheese (such as Gruyere) and a more mild, silky cheese (such as Gouda, Fontina, Muenster, etc.).
There are a few keys to avoiding grainy Macaroni and Cheese and instead creating the the creamy, silky smooth recipe of your dreams:
1. Use full fat cheese that you shred yourself from the block. Pre-shredded cheeses are coated with chemicals that will prevent the cheese from melting beautifully.
2. Use enough butter when making the roux, at least an equal amount of butter (or slightly more) as flour to create a roux. If you don’t use enough butter, the roux won’t become smooth and will remain gritty.
3. The roux should be cooked until it becomes really smooth, about three minutes.
4. Remove the béchamel from the heat before adding the cheeses. If the béchamel is too hot when you add the cheese, then the emulsifiers and coagulants will break down and the proteins in the cheeses will clump resulting in grainy sauce. So, make sure your béchamel is cool enough by removing the pan from the heat completely before adding the cheeses.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese is best not assembled ahead of time because the pasta soaks up the moisture in the sauce, leaving you with dry mac and cheese. However, you can still make the pasta and sauce three days in advance and keep separate until ready to bake:
Sauce: Make as directed, cool, and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Reheat gently in a large skillet before using, adding additional milk, as needed, to thin to desired consistency.
Pasta: Cook al dente, drain, then toss with a drizzle of oil to prevent the pasta from sticking together. Cool completely before transferring the to an airtight container to store in the refrigerator. When ready to serve, add the cold pasta to the warmed sauce, no need to reheat.
How do I reheat Macaroni and Cheese?
-Microwave: Microwave small portions for one minute, stir, then continue to heat at 30 second intervals until warmed through.
-Stove: Reheat pasta gently on the stove. You may need to add a splash of milk to thin the sauce as it will have thickened in the refrigerator.
-Oven: Cover tightly with foil and bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes, or until hot and bubbly. Note leftovers will not be as creamy.
HOW long is Baked MAcaroni and Cheese Good for?
Store Macaroni and Cheese in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
how well does Mac and Cheese freeze?
Baked Macaroni and Cheese freezes fairly well because the base is a roux and the recipe uses evaporated milk instead of all milk or heavy cream. That being said, the cheese can become a little grainy, but still delicious, and the mac and cheese won’t be as creamy because the pasta will soak up some of the sauce. So, expect delicious – just not fresh of-the-stove perfection.
Freezing Tips: If you are making this recipe specifically to freeze, I suggest using all evaporated milk and reducing the pasta so the recipe remains creamy.
1. Let Mac and Cheese cool to room temperature.
2. Cover with a few layers of plastic wrap followed by foil.
3. Label and freeze for up to 3 months.
4. Allow to thaw completely in the refrigerator, up to 48 hours.
5. Reheat per instructions.
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- 1 pound cavatappi/cellentani pasta (may sub rigatoni or penne)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 cups milk
- 1 12 oz. can evaporated milk
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon chicken bouillon (see notes)
- 1 tsp EACH onion powder, garlic powder, dried parsley, salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1/4-1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
- 1 ½ cups freshly shredded sharp cheddar cheese, room temperature
- 1 ½ cups freshly shredded Gruyere cheese, room temperature
- 1 ½ cups freshly shredded smoked Gouda cheese, room temperature, divided (substitute young Gouda or cheddar if you don't like smoked; do NOT use aged Gouda)
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
PANKO TOPPING (OPTIONAL)
- 3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- Cook Pasta: Cook pasta just until al dente according to package directions – don’t overcook! Strain and rinse with cold water.
- Prep: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9×13 baking dish; set aside.
- Roux: Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a very large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat (a pot large enought to later combine pasta). Whisk in the flour and cook/whisk for a full three minutes until very smooth.
- Sauce: Reduce heat to low, then gradually whisk in the milk. Whisk cornstarch into evaporated milk, then gradually add to the pan followed by chicken bouillon, Dijon mustard and all remaining spices/seasonings.
- Thicken Sauce: Bring to a boil, whisking constantly, then reduce heat to medium and simmer, whisking often, until thickened (but not overly thick becasue it will thicken significantly with the cheeses).
- Add cheeses: Remove from heat and whisk in sharp cheese until melted, followed by 1 cup Gouda until melted, followed by Gruyere until melted. Add pasta and toss until evenly coated (it will seem like a lot of extra sauce which is a good thing).
- Assemble: Pour pasta into prepared baking dish and spread into an even layer. Sprinkle with remaining ½ cup Gouda and Parmesan cheese.
- Panko topping: Melt butter in olive oil over medium heat in a medium skillet. Add panko and stir to coat. Continue cooking until crumbs turn golden brown. Evenly sprinkle over macaroni and cheese.
- Bake: Bake uncovered at 350 degrees F for 25-30 minutes or until bubbly. Watch towards the end, and cover with foil if the top is browining too much. Cool 10 minutes to set before serving.
- Gouda: I recommend smoked Gouda verses young because it’s rich and smoky whereas young Gouda is mild and sweet. Do not, however, use aged Gouda because it is hard and crumbly and does not melt as well. If you want a mellower smoked flavor, then swap some of the Gouda for cheddar.
- Shred all cheeses yourself: Avoid bagged, pre-shredded cheeses as they contain anti-clumping chemicals designed to prevent them from clumping in the bag – these same chemicals prevent the cheese strands from melting and will leave you with gritty, lumpy, sad Macaroni and Cheese.
- Evaporated milk: This secret ingredient adds creaminess without the fat of heavy cream. Evaporated milk is canned, stabilized homogenized cow’s milk from which 60 percent of the water has been removed. This means it is thicker than just milk and more stable than heavy cream and less likely to curdle or separate.
- Chicken bouillon: Please do not skip! It is a secret ingredient that adds tons of flavor. You can use chicken bouillon, bouillon powder or better than bouillon – all in equal amounts. If you are using bouillon cubes, just mash them up a bit before you add them to the sauce – don’t dissolve in water first. You will need 3 cubes.
- Variations: See post for lots of vitiations including bacon, sausage, broccoli and more!
Make AheadBaked Macaroni and Cheese is best not assembled ahead of time because the pasta soaks up the moisture in the sauce, leaving you with dry mac and cheese. However, you can still make the pasta and sauce three days in advance and keep separate until ready to bake:
- Sauce: Make as directed, cool, and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Reheat gently in a large skillet before using, adding additional milk, as needed, to thin to desired consistency.
- Pasta: Cook al dente, drain, then toss with a drizzle of oil to prevent the pasta from sticking together. Cool completely before transferring the to an airtight container to store in the refrigerator. When ready to serve, add the cold pasta to the warmed sauce, no need to reheat.
- To store: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- Freezing tips: If making this recipe specifically to freeze, I suggest using all evaporated milk and reducing the pasta so the recipe remains creamy. The cheese can become a little grainy, but still delicious – just not fresh of-the-stove perfection.
- To freeze: Let the casserole cool to room temperature, cover with a few layers of plastic wrap followed by foil; freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw completely before baking.
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