How to Make Foolproof Baked Mac and Cheese
Get the secrets you need to make the creamiest baked mac and cheese you'll ever eat. Loaded with three different cheeses and your choice of crunchy toppings, this foolproof recipe will show you how to make homemade macaroni and cheese that will have kids and adults calling first dibs and going back for seconds!
By Dana Meredith, Associate Editor and Beth Jacobson, Lead Prep Cook
7 No-fail Mac and Cheese Secrets
- Hand-grating the cheese is a must! Pre-grated cheeses are coated in stabilizers that keep them from melting well and can make the sauce grainy.
- Forgo young cheeses in favor of aged ones for more flavor. Use a combination of cheeses for the best results: cheddar for flavor, Monterey Jack for sharpness and meltability, and Velveeta for its magically smooth texture.
- Let the cheese come to room temperature while you make the sauce so it melts easily with less heat.
- Use a higher-fat dairy product like whole milk or half-and-half for a creamier, more stable sauce.
- Another secret to keeping the sauce ultra gooey and creamy: Remove the sauce from the heat source and add the cheese slowly, stirring in a handful of shredded cheese and letting it melt before adding more.
- Adding a small amount of finely chopped onion and a few seasonings like Worcestershire sauce and dry mustard helps boost the flavor.
- Cook your pasta to al dente (not crunchy or soft, just firm to the teeth) to keep it from getting mushy in the sauce. It'll finish cooking when the mac and cheese goes in the oven.
How to make baked mac and cheese
Homemade baked macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. This Best Ever Mac and Cheese recipe, along with cooking secrets from Taste of Home Test Kitchen's Lead Prep Cook, Beth Jacobson, will have folks lining up around the block to savor every gooey bite. Don't settle for bland, grainy mac and cheese when it's so easy to make your own!
Pick the right pasta
To truly savor your mac and cheese, pick pasta shapes that the rich, velvety sauce will cling to. Any curvy, curly or hollow shapes like elbow macaroni, rotini or penne are excellent at catching and holding on to all that creamy goodness.
Heat things up
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Cook the pasta
To prevent the pasta from sticking together and avoid boil-overs, always use a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Cook according to the package directions until al dente—don't overcook or you'll end up with mushy noodles! Drain in a colander but do not rinse. Rinsing washes away the starch that helps thicken the cheese sauce. Return the pasta to the pot.
Grate the cheese
Hand-shred the cheddar and Monterey Jack and cube the Velveeta. Set aside, allowing them to come to room temperature while you make the sauce.
Prepare the topping
A crunchy bread crumb topping is the classic way to finish off baked mac and cheese. Combine dried bread, butter, Parmesan cheese (yes, another cheese!), salt and pepper in a food processor until coarsely ground. Set aside. Tip: One slice of dried bread will yield about ¼ cup fine dry bread crumbs.
Make the sauce
Béchamel is a classic French white sauce. It's not difficult to make, but these tips will help you get better results:
- When making the roux (equal weights butter and flour), don't allow the butter to brown. Cook the mixture to a pale yellow paste, just until the floury taste is cooked out.
- Warm the milk before adding it to the roux. Add just a few tablespoons at first to smooth out the roux, blending well. Gradually add the remaining milk, whisking briskly until it's smooth.
- When it's thick enough, the sauce should coat the back of a spoon. To test, dip a spoon in the sauce, let it cool slightly and draw a line with your fingertip across the back of the spoon. The line should hold with no sauce running across it.
Add the cheese
This is the secret to a truly creamy sauce: Remove the pan from the heat source before adding the cheeses. Add the Velveeta first, stirring to melt. Add the remaining cheese in handfuls, stirring and allowing it to melt between each batch. Watch the pot carefully—overheating the sauce can make it grainy and greasy. Add the pasta and stir gently to coat.
Bake the macaroni and cheese
Pour the mac and cheese into a greased 13x9-in. pan. Add the topping. Giving it a quick, 10–12 minute bake in a hot oven keeps the mac and cheese creamy—and guarantees a delicious finishing touch of bubbly browned edges and a crispy top.
Totally terrific toppings
Take your baked mac and cheese over the top with three easy variations on the traditional bread crumb topping. Add coarsely crushed Ritz crackers, pork rinds or Ruffles potato chips before baking for a salty, crunchy twist.
Our Taste of Home Facebook page is always loaded with great ideas from our readers. Here are a few of their mac and cheese suggestions:
"I dress up macaroni and cheese with a can of tuna, peas, dried onion and pepper to taste." —Jeanette C. from Dracut, Massachusetts.
"I stir in some pureed yellow squash. My family doesn't notice the addition, but I feel better about including more veggies in their meals." —Angela Z., Maple Grove, Minnesota
"I mix 2 or 3 tablespoons of salsa into my mac and cheese for extra flavor." —Ellna V., Eagle River, Wisconsin