Everyone needs a solid mac and cheese recipe in their back pocket — one that can be pulled out the instant that craving hits for cheesy pasta, or when a birthday needs celebrating, or when a friend needs comforting. Macaroni and cheese is an all-purpose comfort food, ready and able to assist you with any life event.
This particular recipe puts the capital "C" in classic. It's cheese sauce and pasta, baked in a casserole dish until golden-topped and bubbly. Remarkably, it doesn't take all that much more time and effort than opening a box of the pre-made stuff. Here's a step-by-step recipe that help you make it yours tonight.
Step 1: The Roux
This is a very fancy French term for something that's actually very simple and basic, so don't be intimidated. A roux (pronounced "roo") is a mix of equal parts melted butter and flour, cooked for a minute or two over medium heat. Its purpose is to thicken a sauce — whisk any liquid, from milk to chicken stock, into this roux and you'll wind up with a thick, creamy, rich sauce.
A roux also helps make a very stable sauce that stays creamy and won't break into gritty curds or separate into greasy pools later on down the road. That's important with this macaroni and cheese since we're baking it in the oven, something that can cause other, less well-mannered sauces to separate.
Step 2: The Cheese Sauce
Transforming the roux into a cheesy sauce is a simple matter of adding milk and cheese. Technically, the mix of roux and milk is called a béchamel (pronounced "BEH-sha-mel") and adding cheese makes it mornay sauce — use these terms if you'd really like to impress your dinner guests, but otherwise calling it a "cheese sauce" works just fine!
The only tricky part of making a cheese sauce like this is incorporating the milk into the roux. Start with warm milk — a minute or two in the microwave will do the trick. Next, add the milk slowly while whisking the roux. At first, the roux will thin out, then it will clump up. You might think all is lost at this point, but persevere. Continue whisking the milk and it will loosen into a creamy sauce.
Once all the milk is added, let it bubble, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened. You're looking for a thickness that's somewhere between heavy cream and buttermilk. Stir in the grated cheese, let it melt, and you're almost ready for mac and cheese bliss.
Step 3: Bake Until Bubbly
And at last, we've arrived at our mac and cheese endgame. Mix the cheesy sauce into the cooked pasta, pour that mess into a dish, top it with some bread crumbs (I like panko), and bake it until crispy on top and bubbly below. Get ready for some of the best stuff on earth.
Don't want to wait for the macaroni and cheese to bake? I don't blame you. And you don't have to! Once you mix the cheese sauce with the cooked pasta, by all means, serve yourself a bowl.
You can also add other mix-ins to your macaroni and cheese. Diced ham, peas, cooked broccoli, leftover hamburger, caramelized onions — whatever bits you have in your fridge or feel like cooking that night are fair game for your bowl of pasta.
Don't want to mess with a roux or cheese sauce? Try our no-roux stovetop macaroni and cheese instead:
Heat the oven to 400°F and prep the ingredients: Heat the oven and rub the 9x13-inch baking dish with a little butter. Grate the cheese and measure out the rest of the ingredients.
How To Make Classic Baked Macaroni & Cheese
Serves 6 to 8
What You Need
1 pound elbow macaroni, shells, or other small pasta
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups whole milk
2 cups grated cheese, cheddar, or other melting cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon mustard powder, optional
1/2 cup panko crumbs or other bread crumbs
Large pot, for cooking the pasta
9x13-inch (3-quart) baking dish
Heat the oven to 400°F: Rub the 9x13-inch baking dish with a little butter.
Cook the pasta: Bring a large amount of water to boil in a large pot. Add the pasta and a generous amount of salt. Cook until the pasta is al dente, then drain and set aside.
Make the roux: Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle the flour evenly over top and whisk to form a thick, smooth paste without clumps. Cook for a minute or two, until fragrant.
Warm the milk: Warm the milk for a few minutes in the microwave or in a separate pot over low heat. Warm just enough so that it's warm to the touch — warm milk mixes more easily into the roux.
Whisk the milk into the roux: Slowly begin pouring the warm milk into the roux while whisking. The roux will at first thin out, then seize up into dry-looking clumps, then smooth out to the consistency of mashed potatoes, and then finally settle into a sauce — keep adding the milk slowly while whisking as you move through these stages.
Cook the sauce until thickened: Continue cooking the sauce over medium heat until it has noticeably thickened and clings to the back of a spoon, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir slowly while the sauce thickens, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pan. (If your sauce gets a little too thick, you can pour in a little extra milk to thin it out; no need to warm this extra milk.)
Add the cheese: Remove the pot from heat, and stir the cheese into the sauce one handful at a time. Stir in the salt and mustard powder (if using).
Pour the sauce over the pasta: Transfer the cooked pasta to a big mixing bowl and pour the sauce over the pasta. Stir gently until the pasta is entirely coated. (If the saucepan you used to cook the sauce is big enough, you can mix the pasta and sauce in the pan instead.)
Transfer to the baking dish and top with panko crumbs: Scrape the pasta into the baking dish and smooth the top. Sprinkle the panko crumbs evenly over top.
Bake until bubbly and golden: Place the casserole in the oven and bake until the pasta is bubbly and the top is golden, 10 to 15 minutes. If the pasta becomes bubbly before the top is golden, you can run the dish under the broiler for a minute or two to crisp the topping.
Extra-Rich Topping: For extra-rich, extra-crispy topping, toss the bread crumbs with a few tablespoons of melted butter before sprinkling them over the pasta.
Thick vs. Thin Cheese Sauce: You can play with this cheese sauce to match your personal tastes — some people like it a bit thinner, some like it thick enough to stand a spoon up straight. By cooking the sauce a little longer in Step 6, you can make a thicker sauce. You can also keep it thinner by cooking for less time or adding an extra splash or two of milk.
No-Bake Mac & Cheese: Baking is fun, but not crucial! You can serve this macaroni and cheese straight from the bowl once you've mixed the pasta into the cheese sauce.
(Image credits: Kimberley Hasselbrink; Emma Christensen)