Few dishes appeal to a broader spectrum of people than macaroni and cheese. The under-5 crowd likes it because it's not broccoli. Moms and dads like it because it's a child-friendly food that they actually enjoy. College students like it because it's cheap and filling. And gourmet-food lovers appreciate it because the dish can be dressed up with anything from lobster and Brie to truffle oil -- and still retain its beloved comfort-food appeal.
What Is Macaroni and Cheese?
Classic macaroni and cheese is a casserole of elbow macaroni baked in a cheese sauce commonly made from American and/or cheddar cheese. Saucepan versions made on the stovetop are also popular. The main difference is that baked versions set up more firmly and densely than stovetop versions, which are looser and creamier in texture. Baked versions often develop an appealing toasted-cheese crust on the top, while stovetop versions do not.
Variations on macaroni and cheese are endless. Whatever goes well with pasta and cheese (and few things don't!) can be added to the dish. Also, a variety of cheeses may be substituted for the American or cheddar. Check out our variations, below.
Baked pasta dishes have roots in European cooking. However, over the years, mac and cheese has become as American as, well, Thomas Jefferson. According to culinary historians, our nation's third president popularized the dish by serving it in the White House. Although Jefferson did not invent the dish, he was a fan of pasta -- a staple that was not widely used in America in his time. He imported a macaroni mould from Europe, and several recipes for making pasta exist in his handwriting.
Main Dish or Side?
Macaroni and cheese can be served as a main dish or a side dish.
- When serving as a main dish, great go-withs include a cooked green vegetable, such as peas, green beans, or broccoli, or a crisp green salad.
- Mac and cheese is a popular side dish for barbecued meats such as ribs, brisket, pulled pork, and chicken. It's also a satisfying side to sandwiches.
How to Make Macaroni and Cheese -- Oven-Baked Version
It would be nice if you could just mix cooked macaroni with shredded cheese and bake it. However, to attain the dish's much-loved luscious and creamy appeal, the cheese needs to be melted in a white sauce. Fortunately, it's one of the easiest sauces to make. This recipe makes four main-dish servings.
1. Cook the Pasta
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cook 2 cups packaged dried elbow macaroni (8 ounces) according to package directions.
Tip: You can substitute another shaped pasta, if desired. Use 8 ounces rotini, small shell macaroni, ziti, cavatappi, or bow ties.
- Drain the pasta and set it aside.
2. Shred the Cheeses
Shred 6 ounces cheddar cheese and 6 ounces American cheese. You should end up with about 1-1/2 cups of each cheese. Set aside.
Tip: See below for other varieties of cheese that you can use.
3. Make the Cheese Sauce
- Heat 2 tablespoons butter or margarine in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add 1/2 cup chopped onion (1 medium onion). Cook and stir until the onion is tender but not brown.
- Stir in 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour and 1/8 teaspoon black pepper. Add 2-1/2 cups milk all at once. Cook this mixture over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon or wire whisk, until the mixture is slightly thickened and bubbly.
- Add the shredded cheeses. Cook and stir until the cheeses melt. Stir in the cooked pasta.
4. Bake the Macaroni and Cheese
- Transfer the pasta mixture to an ungreased 2-quart casserole.
- Bake, uncovered, for 25 to 30 minutes or until bubbly. Let the casserole stand for 10 minutes before serving.
Tip: Letting the casserole stand helps it set up for a firmer consistency.
How to Make Macaroni and Cheese -- Saucepan Version
Saucepan macaroni made on the stovetop will not set up quite like a baked version, but it will bring rich and creamy results to the table in about half the time. To make, prepare the above recipe as directed, except:
- When making the cheese sauce (Step 3), reduce the milk to 2 cups.
- After draining the macaroni, immediately return it to the saucepan in which it was cooked.
- Pour the cheese sauce over the top of the macaroni. Stir to coat the macaroni with the sauce.
- Cook over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until heated through, stirring frequently.
- Let stand for 10 minutes before serving. Top with additional shredded cheese, if desired.
Switching the Cheeses
Just about any cheese that melts smoothly into sauces and casseroles will work in macaroni and cheese. You can substitute Brie, Comte, Edam, Emmental, Fontina, Gouda, Gruyere, or Havarti for the cheddar and/or American cheese. You can also substitute mozzarella and provolone for the American cheese; however, do not substitute mozzarella or provolone for the cheddar cheese. The melting properties of these two cheeses differ from cheddar, so you'll need some cheddar (or another cheese that melts smoothly) to attain a good, creamy consistency.
Variations on the Mac-and-Cheese Theme
Make it meaty, spicy, crunchy, or colorful by adding a few extras to the basic ingredients. Follow the recipe for the baked version of macaroni and cheese, and amend as follows:
- Pesto: Add 2 tablespoons basil pesto to the pasta mixture. Before baking, top the mixture with 3/4 cup soft bread crumbs combined with 2 tablespoons melted butter.
- Veggie: Add 2-2/1 cups fresh broccoli florets and/or thinly sliced carrots to the pasta water the last 5 minutes of cooking, and continue as directed.
- Greek-Style: Add 1/2 cup pitted, halved Kalamata olives to the pasta mixture. After baking, top with crumbled feta cheese and snipped fresh oregano.
- Meat Lover's: Add 1-1/2 cups crumbled cooked sausage to the pasta mixture. After baking, top with chopped red sweet pepper and snipped fresh basil.
- Blue Cheese-Garlic: Cook 4 cloves garlic, minced, with the onion. Substitute 1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese for 1/2 cup of the cheddar.
- Smoky Apple: Use smoked cheddar cheese for the cheddar cheese. Add 4 slices crisp-cooked bacon, crumbled, to the pasta mixture. After baking, top with thinly sliced apple and some additional shredded smoked cheddar cheese.
- Tuna: Stir two 3-ounce pouches tuna into the pasta mixture. Before baking, top with fish-shape crackers.
- Crumb-Topped: Before baking, top with a mixture of 1-1/2 cups cornflakes, 3 tablespoons melted butter, and 1 tablespoon snipped fresh parsley.
- Chicken and Stuffing: Add 1-1/2 cups shredded roasted chicken and 1 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed, to the pasta mixture. Before baking, top with crushed herb-seasoned stuffing mix.
- Chili-Style: Stir one 15-ounce can chili beans in chili gravy into the pasta mixture. Before baking, top with crushed corn chips.