This recipe for the Best Mac & Cheese Ever is super creamy – not dry like some homemade mac and cheese can get. It’s cheesy. Oh yes. Verrrry cheesy. It’s rich, ooey and gooey, with a brown and bubbling top and gloriously creamy interior.
And, yeah – in my humble opinion, it’s the best mac and cheese recipe EVER. Seriously.
There are loads of mac and cheese recipes out there, with fancy embellishments and uber creative spins. But his isn’t one of those – it’s a classic baked mac and cheese that’s simple enough to appeal to everyone. Readers report entire families devouring this stuff on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter!
Table of Contents
- The Story Behind the Recipe
- Macaroni and Cheese Ingredients
- Recipe Variations & Substitutions
- How to Make Baked Mac & Cheese
- Tips for the Best Mac and Cheese
- What to Serve with Mac and Cheese
- Make-Ahead Notes
- Can You Freeze Mac and Cheese?
- Frequently Asked Questions
- More Mac & Cheese Recipes
The Story Behind the Recipe
I say it’s the best macaroni and cheese recipe ever not because I have tried every single mac and cheese recipe in the world (though I have tried many) (and wouldn’t it be an incredibly noble cause to try every single one?!)
Rather, it’s because whenever I take a glorious melty bite, I simply cannot imagine a better classic mac and cheese.
I can also say it’s the best macaroni and cheese recipe ever because this one is tweaked from someone else’s recipe – I adapted this macaroni and cheese recipe from someone named Bev, who shared her recipe on Food.com. Thank you eternally, Bev!
Macaroni and Cheese Ingredients
- Pasta: First, you pick your pasta. Elbow macaroni is a the classic choice, of course, but shells, penne, or rotini are delicious too.
- Cheese: I use classic medium cheddar for a cheddar mac and cheese that is divine!
- Milk: I use 2% dairy milk. Whole milk works fine. I’ve even used unsweetened oat milk in a pinch!
- Butter & flour: To make the roux (read on for more about that).
- Dry mustard, smoked paprika, salt, and pepper: Mac and cheese is all about the cheese, after all, so I chose this combination of seasonings to really enhance and highlight the cheddar. Dry mustard powder has a sharp flavor that pairs so well with the cheese, and smoked paprika lends an irresistibly smoky note.
Recipe Variations & Substitutions
This classic macaroni and cheese recipe is a great jumping-off point if you want to make it your own by mixing up the cheeses or trying a different pasta.
- Get adventurous with the cheese. The best cheese for mac and cheese is really an individual thing! Readers report using smoked cheese for tons of sultry goodness (one reader reported using smoked cheddar, smoked gouda, AND smoked gruyere. Yum.) Other readers have added mozzarella or jack for some stretchy goodness, creamy havarti, Swiss, Parmesan (loads of flavor!), or prefer to go with extra-sharp cheddar.
- Try a different medium tubular pasta. I’ve made this with penne, shells, and, of course, elbows. All amazing.
- Get crumby by topping with crispy Panko breadcrumbs or, as one reader reports, crushed Ritz crackers.
How to Make Baked Mac & Cheese
You make your cheese sauce by first making a roux – cooking flour, seasonings, and butter together. Then, drizzle in the milk. The flour thickens the milk into a glorious béchamel sauce – a classic French sauce made from butter, flour, and milk. And theeennnnn … remove from heat and add the cheese.
Again, some people like to top their baked mac and cheese with breadcrumbs, but for this recipe, I love how it forms a brown and bubbling top in the oven without bread crumbs. Feel free to add if you prefer! Make it your own!
First, you start with a roux. A roux is simply a mixture of fat (butter here) and flour, usually in equal measures, which is cooked together in order to remove the raw, floury flavor. For macaroni and cheese, you make a fairly light roux by cooking it for about three minutes. Then, milk is added to the roux to make the béchamel (or white) sauce.
First, start by melting the butter.
Then add the flour and seasonings and …
Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon in a figure-8 motion, for three minutes. This one looks a bit darker than a classic roux might because of the smoked paprika.
Then, to make your white sauce (or béchamel), add the milk slowly, whisking the entire time, and cook until bubbly and thick.
Aaaand then add your cheese for your glorious macaroni and cheese situation.
There’s your base for the best baked mac and cheese recipe ever!
Tips for the Best Mac and Cheese
Don’t add more pasta. Resist the urge to add more pasta to stretch the recipe. You need a lot of sauce with that pasta because the pasta soaks so much and it otherwise cooks down. Over-dry mac and cheese is such a disappointment – don’t do it!
Resist the urge to add more cheese to the sauce. This can do weird things. Sprinkle more in between and on top if you must have more cheese.
Shred your own cheese. Pre-shredded cheeses have anti-caking agents and might not melt as well.
Remove the sauce from the heat before adding cheese. For the smoothest, most luxurious mac and cheese sauce, you don’t want the sauce to be cooking, still, when you stir in the cheese.
What to Serve with Mac and Cheese
Add bacon. Being a mixed carnivore-and-veggie household, sometimes I like to serve this baked mac and cheese with some crumbled bacon that the carnivores can drop over the top.
I often assemble it up to the point of baking and refrigerate for up to 48 hours before it’s time to bake it. However! Your mac and cheese might not be quite as creamy as if it had gone straight into the oven. It will still be delicious, but that’s a downside.
Can You Freeze Mac and Cheese?
Yes, I have frozen it with success! I make it up to the point of baking, cover well, and freeze right in the pan. Then I bring it out and let it thaw at room temp for an hour or so, and then into the oven. Just like making it ahead and refrigerating it, the result isn’t quite as saucy. But still delish.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you use bags of shredded cheese or freshly grated?
I definitely prefer freshly grated, as pre-shredded cheese can result in a grainier sauce. That said, the convenience of pre-shredded cheese can’t be denied! And a mac and cheese with pre-shredded cheese is better than no mac and cheese at all. So do what works best for you!
What can I add to mac and cheese for flavor?
I love adding seasonings to the roux to amp up my mac and cheese. This one has smoked paprika for – yep – a smoky note. And I love how dry mustard powder helps emphasize the cheesy flavor. Some readers like to add a hefty pinch of onion powder, others love a bit of nutmeg. If you like heat, adding jalapeños is delicious (get my Jalapeño Mac & Cheese recipe here).
Do I have to use 2% milk?
No! Whole milk will do just fine; the result may be a bit thicker though.
Can I double this recipe?
Yes. I (and many others) have doubled this recipe with success – no changes needed other than a bigger pan!
More Mac & Cheese Recipes
- If you’re vegan, this Ridiculously Creamy Vegan Shells & Cheese or Super Creamy Vegan Stovetop Mac & “Cheese” will totally hit the spot.
- Veggie Lover’s Stovetop Mac & Cheese makes it a full-meal deal with broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots.
- Stovetop Butternut Mac & Cheese with pureed butternut squash and heavy whipping cream makes the most decadently creamy mac and cheese you may ever have.
- Jalapeno Mac & Cheese and Southwest Mac & Cheese lend a spicy spin!
If you try and love this recipe for mac and cheese, please leave a review! Even if you don’t absolutely love it, I welcome any and all feedback and I share all legit reviews. I test my recipes multiple times in my home kitchen, but I really appreciate knowing how they’re working for others; your reviews help me make tweaks until my recipes are just right! And they’re so valuable for other readers, too. Thank you! ❤️
The Best Baked Mac & Cheese Recipe Ever
- 8 ounces macaroni ( or other medium tubular pasta (like penne or conchiglie)* (1/2 pound or about 1 and 3/4 cups)
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika (plus more for sprinkling on top)
- 2 1/2 cups 2% milk
- 3 cups shredded medium cheddar cheese (approx. 12 ounces **)
- Boil the pasta JUST until al dente, according to package directions. Drain and return to the pan you boiled it in. Set aside. (Mix in a little butter to keep the noodles from sticking if it’s going to be awhile before you make the sauce)
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- To a medium saucepan over medium heat, add the butter. When the butter has melted, add the flour, salt, dry mustard, pepper, and 1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika. With a wooden spoon or whisk, stir constantly for three minutes.
- Add the milk in a thin stream, stirring constantly with a whisk. Continue to stir constantly until the sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, 5-8 minutes.
- Remove from heat and add 2 cups of the cheese, stirring until melted. You'll reserve the last cup of cheese for topping. Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and toss gently until all of the pasta is coated.
- Add half the pasta to a 2-quart casserole dish (I like a tall 8-inch by 8-inch baking dish). Sprinkle on half the cheese. Add the rest of the pasta. Sprinkle on the rest of the cheese, then dust lightly with the smoked paprika.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the mac and cheese is bubbling and browning on top.