This classic baked mac and cheese will change your life. It's super creamy, loaded with three types of cheese, and topped with the crunchiest Panko breadcrumb topping. It's the ultimate cheesy comfort food that satisfies every single time. It's quick and easy to prepare homemade macaroni and cheese in just 45 minutes (30 minutes of which gets spend in the oven). Trust me, this is a recipe you need in your back pocket. Perfect for family weeknight dinners, a side dish at a holiday meal, or for a lunch pot-luck. Plus, it's kid-friendly and freezer-friendly — all the best things.
Why You'll Love Baked Mac and Cheese
- Made from scratch with real ingredients. There is no powdered orange cheese in here, everything is made with freshly grated cheese and a homemade creamy sauce. The best part? It is actually not that hard to do it yourself. Seriously, if you have grown accustomed to those store-bought boxes of mac and cheese, you will never go back once you try the real stuff. Plus, you will feel so good knowing exactly what is going into your food.
- Quick and easy. Homemade mac and cheese is actually quite easy and simple to make. There are basically just 5 main steps to make this weeknight dinner (make the breadcrumb topping, boil the pasta, make the cheesy sauce, toss together and assemble, and bake. And you will literally smell this amazing buttery aroma at each step. Which might not be ideal because it may cause your stomach to growl from the moment you start cooking.
- Ultimate comfort food. When I think about the comfort food, mac and cheese is probably at the top of the list. It's creamy, cheesy, and cozy. And you can literally enjoy it any time you want. Serve it as a main dish for an easy weeknight dinner, you can serve it as a side for a big holiday meal, or you can throw it together for an easy lunch pot-lock at work. The options are endless.
Ingredients and Substitutions
To make this delicious classic baked macaroni and cheese, you will need the following ingredients:
- elbow macaroni pasta - elbow pasta is the classic macaroni shape that is iconic of mac and cheese. You could however easily substitute with any other small shaped pasta that you have on hand. Try it with shells, farfalle, or penne.
- butter + all-purpose flour - to make the base of the roux which is what essentially thickens up the mac and cheese sauce.
- milk - I recommend using whole milk for the best results. You could also use half and half for a heavier and creamier option.
- mustard powder - this adds a classic mac and cheese flavor to the mix but you can feel free to leave it out if you don't have any.
- cheese - it wouldn't be mac and cheese without all the cheese. We use 3 types of cheese: sharp cheddar cheese, Parmesan cheese, and mozzarella cheese. Feel free to play around and substitute with other types of similar cheese. For instant, you can substitute the cheddar for white cheddar, the Parmesan for asiago cheese, and the mozzarella for Monterey Jack or gruyere. Whatever cheese you use, make sure that is is not pre-shredded. You will get the best results with block cheese that you shred yourself.
- breadcrumb topping - I recommend using panko breadcrumbs for the crispiest topping. You could substitute with regular breadcrumbs if that is all you have on hand. You'll also need garlic, paprika, and salt.
How to Make the Best Baked Mac and Cheese
- Prepare the breadcrumb topping. In a large skillet, melt the butter on medium heat. Add panko breadcrumbs and garlic. Stir and cook for about 5 minutes until the breadcrumbs turn golden brown. Transfer into a small bowl and mix in the paprika and salt. Set aside.
- Boil the pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium high heat. Add macaroni pasta and cook just until it hits al dente, about 6-8 minutes (you want it slightly undercooked as it will cook further when baked). Drain well, rinse with cold water, and set aside.
- Make the roux. In a large saucepan melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour to make a roux. Stir constantly for about 1-2 minutes until roux is light and golden. Gradually add in milk, whisking constantly to incorporate. The sauce will thicken and clump in the beginning but once you add in more milk, it will smoothen out again.
- Add cheese. Stir in cheddar cheese, Parmesan cheese and mozzarella cheese and reduce the heat to low. Add in the mustard powder and stir until cheese has melted.
- Toss in macaroni. Add in cooked macaroni and stir together to fully coat with the cheese sauce.
- Bake. Transfer the macaroni into a 2.5 quart casserole dish (or an 8-inch square casserole dish). Sprinkle the panko breadcrumb topping evenly on top. Bake in a 350 F preheated oven for 30 minutes until bubbly and golden brown. Let cool down for 5 minutes before serving.
PRO TIP: How to make the most efficient use of your time. I like to maximize my time in the kitchen, so I tend to overlap these steps. First, I turn on my oven and let it preheat. I then start boiling my pasta. While that is cooking, I make my breadcrumb topping. That takes about 5 minutes, so my pasta will still be cooking at that time. I then move on to making the cheese sauce. Halfway into making the sauce, my pasta will be done. I quickly drain it and set it aside and get back to the sauce. Once it is ready, I add the pasta and transfer everything to my casserole dish. I add the breadcrumb toppings and pop it in the oven.
Recipe Tips and Tricks
- No bake option: If you really cannot wait the extra 30 minutes it takes to bake, you can skip the baking part entirely. Just cook the pasta fully to al dente. Although I highly recommend baking it! The baking process makes the breadcrumb topping extra crunchy, while locking the flavour inside and thickens up the sauce to make it extra creamy and full.
- How to store: Keep leftover baked macaroni and cheese for up to 2-3 days in an airtight container or wrap the casserole pan tightly with plastic cling wrap or aluminum foil. Let the mac and cheese cool to room temperature before covering and storing.
- How to freeze: This mac and cheese is also freezer-friendly before or after baking. Store it an airtight container or wrap the casserole pan tightly with plastic cling wrap and aluminum foil. It will last in the freezer for up to 2 months.
- How to reheat: If refrigerated, reheat in a 350 F preheated oven for 15-20 minutes until warmed through. If frozen, reheat in a 350 F preheated oven for 45 minutes-1 hour until warmed through. Cover with aluminum foil if you notice the top is browning too much when reheating.
More Cheesy Pasta Recipes
- 40 Best Pasta Recipes
- Stovetop Mac and Cheese with White Cheddar
- Pasta Bake with Sausage
- Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese
- Cheesy Tortellini and Sausage Pasta Bake
- Fried Mac and Cheese Balls
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