This slow-cooker mac and cheese is so easy that it feels like it can't possibly be right. Dry pasta, milk, and cheese go in, and a few hours later, you're scooping warm macaroni and cheese onto your plate.
Ready for a little magic in your dinner? Let's take a look at how this macaroni and cheese can be yours.
Go for Elbow Macaroni
Given the various rates at which different pastas cook, making macaroni and cheese in the slow cooker can be a slightly tricky affair. Therefore, I think it's best to stick to regular elbow macaroni for this recipe. I've found that this shape cooks consistently and still gives your dish the classic mac-and-cheese feel.
You can definitely substitute other shapes, but just be aware that you'll need to do a bit of recipe jiggering. The cooking times might be a little different and you may need slightly more or less liquid.
Skip the Bechamel
Instead of the bechamel we make for a classic mac and cheese, this slow-cooker version relies on cans of evaporated milk instead. Evaporated milk is creamy and dense, and it helps keep the cheese sauce from separating and becoming oily without the benefit of the bechamel. (Even so, the sauce will start to curdle if cooked too long, so keep an eye on the dish as you near the end of the cooking time.)
Another bonus to this method? The pasta cooks in the milk, which is a trick we often use to make mac and cheese extra-creamy and luxurious.
The Magic Happens at the End
This macaroni and cheese will look milky, watery, and very un-cheesy right up until the last 30 minutes, but then the remaining liquid gets rapidly absorbed into the pasta and the casserole almost magically firms up. The pasta will seem soft and chewy before this happens, so waiting the extra half-hour involves some trust.
Every slow cooker is a little different, so the total cooking time will vary. The first time you make this recipe, plan on being home toward the end of cooking so you can keep an eye on things. Starting at the two-hour mark, check the casserole every 2o to 30 minutes. The mac and cheese is done once all the liquid has been absorbed and you see no more milk on the bottom of the pot. Be careful of overcooking, since the dish can go from creamy to over-cooked fairly quickly.
The Texture of Slow-Cooker Mac and Cheese
This recipe makes a casserole-style macaroni and cheese with a sturdy (but still creamy!) texture that can be sliced into squares. If you're looking for a macaroni and cheese with a looser texture that's more spoonable, then I'd recommend sticking to either our stovetop macaroni and cheese or our classic baked macaroni and cheese.
Make It Work with Your Schedule
Pasta, as wonderful as it is, just isn't an ingredient that can stand up to all-day cooking, so I'm sorry to say that this is not the best recipe to make while you're away at work. However, it is a fantastic recipe to make if you need to get dinner going, but need to run a few errands outside the house, pick up your kids, or head to class for a few hours. Dinner will be waiting when you get back home.
Combine ingredients in the slow cooker: Set 1/2 cup of grated cheese aside, then combine the rest of the ingredients in the slow cooker.
How To Make Mac and Cheese in the Slow Cooker
Serves 6 to 8
What You Need
3 1/2 cups shredded cheese, like cheddar, Monterey Jack, or Colby
1 pound elbow macaroni
2 cups 2% or whole milk
2 (12-ounce) cans evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard, or 1 teaspoon dijon or yellow mustard
6-quart or larger slow cooker
Combine ingredients in the slow cooker: Set 1/2 cup of grated cheese aside, then combine the rest of the ingredients in the slow cooker. Stir to make sure that everything is evenly distributed and the pasta is evenly coated. Smooth the top so the pasta is submerged.
Cover and cook on LOW for 2 to 4 hours: The pasta is done when it has absorbed all of the liquid and the pasta is soft. It will look soupy up until the last half-hour of cooking, and then it will quickly finish cooking and absorb all the liquid. If this is your first time making this recipe, start checking the pasta after about 2 hours, then continue checking it every 20 to 30 minutes until all the liquid is absorbed. Every slow cooker will be slightly different; once you've made this recipe once, make a note of the cooking time for future reference.
Sprinkle the reserved cheese over the pasta in the last 10 to 30 minutes of cooking. Cook until the cheese has melted or the rest of the liquid is absorbed into the pasta.
Serve: Serve this macaroni and cheese straight from the slow cooker. Leftovers will keep refrigerated for up to 5 days.
Smaller slow cookers: Halve the recipe to make this macaroni and cheese in a 3-quart or smaller slow cooker.
Crunchy-topped macaroni and cheese: For a crunchy top, melt a tablespoon of butter in a saucepan and mix in 1/2 cup of panko crumbs, crushed corn flakes, or breadcrumbs. Cook until the crumbs are golden, then set aside. Sprinkle these over the macaroni and cheese in the last half-hour of cooking, and leave the slow cooker partially covered.
(Image credits: Christine Han)